YAOUNDÈ, Cameroon – Although the dust has yet to settle on the bloodless coup in Gabon that led to the overthrow of President Ali Bongo Ondimba, but one Catholic priest in the country is already optimistic that the military takeover could give rise to “to a new, fairer and more fraternal Gabon.”
On August 30, a group of military officers announced on national television that they had seized power. The move came just hours after Ali Bongo was declared victor of an August 26 presidential election, amid widespread allegations of fraud.
Since Gabon gained its independence from France in 1960, the country largely has been ruled by the Bongo family, with President Omar Bongo serving as president for almost 42 years from 1967 to 2009. His son, Ali Bongo, has ruled since.
The mutinous soldiers, who identified themselves as the “Committee of Transition and the Restoration of Institutions,” said borders had been sealed and a night curfew imposed. Ali Bongo was placed under house arrest and later appeared in a video in his residence, calling on his friends and supporters to “make noise” and complaining he didn’t know the whereabouts of his wife and son.
“Today the country is undergoing a severe institutional, political, economic, and social crisis,” the officers said in a statement, asserting that the August 26 presidential, parliamentary and municipal elections lacked transparency and credibility.
“In the name of the Gabonese people … we have decided to defend the peace by putting an end to the current regime,” they said.
The mutinous soldiers made Gen. Brice Oligui Nguema, former head of the country’s Republican Guard, as president of the transition. Oligui was sworn into the role on Sept. 4.
For the most part, Gabonese people took to the streets to celebrate the overthrow of a family dynasty whose 56 years in power has been dogged by accusations of nepotism and egregious accumulation of wealth at the expense of impoverished people struggling to scrape by.
The Catholic Church in Gabon has not issued any formal statement about the military takeover, but there appears to be an uptick in optimism even among the clergy that the coup could presage better days for the Central African country.
In an interview with French Catholic news organization La Croix, Father Serge-Patrick Mabickassa, coordinator of the Episcopal Commission for Social Communication and Culture at the Episcopal Conference of Gabon, said the Catholic Church was observing the evolution of the situation “with caution and great attention, continuing to pray for truth, justice and peace in the country.”
He suggested that the bloodless coup also points to a military committed to the course of peace.
“The intervention of the military did not cause any bloodshed, any act of violence, or acts of theft and vandalism,” Mabickassa said. “It is a sign of hope which demonstrates a real desire to build peace, an army which sees itself reconciled with the people.”
“The people came out with their branches and national flag in hand, to greet the men in uniform,” he said, suggesting the reaction was an indication that the coup plotters could be gaining in legitimacy.
As observers of the country’s socio-political scene, the Catholic bishops in a January 2023 message had exposed some signs of tension in the country, referring to “clouds on the horizon, the same causes producing the same effects”.
In light of the coup, Mabickassa said that analysis had proven prophetic.
“In its analysis, the Catholic Church in Gabon had courageously identified problems such as the poor distribution of wealth, the relatively high unemployment rate among young people, the poor state of the road network, the misappropriation of public funds, the weakness of the economic fabric, a housing policy that does little to meet people’s expectations, galloping tax pressure, etc.,” he said.
“The Church exercised her prophetic ministry by warning the highest authorities in the country,” he said, citing a line from Pope Francis during the last ad limina visit of bishops from Gabon to Rome: “When man’s dignity is violated, the Church must raise its voice.”
Mabickassa called on the political actors to look in the direction of dialogue, and noted that the Catholic Church is ready to offer her services and expertise.
“As a mother and educator, she is ready to play a mediation role to accompany this period of transition and after: through prayer, but also through advice, warning and teachings,” he said. “This is the role of the Church and she is willing to do it so that justice, truth and peace triumph in the country.”