All in the Family: The Gabon Coup and the Christian-Islam, Reggae-Funk Drama of Gabon’s Ruling Dynasty

Gabon President Ali Bongo, pictured here in his previous life as a 70s funk singer (no, really!) just survived a coup attempt in Libreville.  A handful of US troops are already in Gabon, waiting in case there was unrest in a different country, neighboring Democratic Republic of the Congo.  I’m sure our soldiers have that feeling you get when you spend all night studying for your Math quiz only to show up and realize that today is the Geography test – crap!

Some context: Gabon is a small nation in western Africa with a ton of oil.  As Saudi Arabia, Russia and Venezuela have shown us, oil wealth tends to lead to democratic, corruption free governments and stable, egalitarian economies, and occasionally unicorns.  (I REALLY hope you picked up on the sarcasm dripping throughout that last sentence). In actuality, as is usually the case, all that oil money has allowed a small clique of elites to rule the country for most of its history.

Bongo family gossip! (I mean, background info for the unfamiliar):

The Bongo family has ruled Gabon since 1967; dad Omar Bongo was the longest-ruling President in the world when he died in 2009 after 41 years in power; his son Ali then took over. The Bongos are ethnic minorities, belonging to the small Bateke group (most of the country belongs to the Fang group). Even though the country is overwhelmingly Catholic, the two Bongo presidents have never been. The first President Bongo practiced a local traditional religion until he converted to Islam while visiting Muammar Gaddafi in Libya in 1973, seemingly as more of a political move to foster better relations with Muslim nations. Current President Bongo converted alongside his dad, (switching his name from Alain to Ali).  A former French colony, Gabon and the Bongo family have remained close to France, and its oil and strategic location help it keep ties to the US as well (hence our troops using the country as a convenient waiting area).

Despite the religious difference, the Catholic hierarchy has generally been pretty close to the Bongo family. Unlike in nearby DRC, where the Catholic Church is broad and dispersed (six archdioceses, over 40 dioceses – that’s a lot of bishops) and has therefore been able to act as an independent and critical force vis-a-vis the government, the Church in Gabon is a lot more centralized, so keeping the Archbishop of Libreville happy keeps the Church in line (a very smart and handsome political scientist wrote a dissertation on this process). And having both an armed forces willing to violently crack down on dissent and lots of oil money to buy gifts are good ways for the government to maintain “friends”, as it has for the most part – to be fair, Archbishop Basile Engone did call for international mediation when Ali Bongo “won” a close election against Catholic opponent Jean Ping [interestingly, a half-Chinese Gabonese diplomat who is also Ali’s sister’s babies’ daddy despite being married to someone else].

The Coup and Us:

All this brings us to now, as soldiers took advantage of Bongo being out of the country for medical treatment after a stroke to try to take over the country. Now, if you’ve never staged a coup, let me tell you, there’s a pretty standard script (don’t try at home): set up roadblocks into and out of the capital city, put some tanks or armored vehicles on the streets, secure the main government buildings and broadcast stations, and then go on TV (or in the old days, radio: I’m sure it will be Youtube and Twitter in a few years).  This is exactly what happened in Libreville, with Lt. Kelly Ondo Obiang appearing on TV to announce the coup (see below), which seems to have been crushed by forces loyal to Bongo.

[Conspiracy theory time! Why did the US just happen to send troops to Gabon right before a coup in order to guard against unrest in a different country? Isn’t it suspicious that there’s a coup in a country where the son of a Chinese immigrant almost became president just as China is expanding its presence in Africa? Is there an enduring musical rivalry between Ali Bongo, who used James Brown’s producer to make his album, and his sister/Ping’s ex Pascaline, who also dated Bob Marley? Coincidences? Well, yes, but interesting stuff anyway.]

Of course, these developments in far-away tiny Gabon have nothing to teach the US: we’ve never had a political leader convert to Republicanism Islam for political reasons, take power in a close and disputed election and then accused his opponent of massive voter fraud, tie himself to a racial ethnic group desperate to maintain power and wealth for itself but worried about being outnumbered, and corruptly establishing power for himself and his kids. Maybe it’s not so different after all, but at least our president never made a now embarrassing music video.. – oh wait.

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