1, September 2023
General Brice Oligui Nguema, who was named Gabon’s new leader in the hours following a military takeover on Wednesday, served the central African country’s long-time former president Omar Bongo before turning on his son, ousted leader Ali Bongo.
General Nguema has been chief of the republican guard, the country’s most powerful army unit, since 2019, with close sources describing him as charismatic and respected. The first statement announcing the coup was read out in the courtyard of the presidential palace, a fortress protected by his military unit.
Said to be discreet and secretive, Nguema was absent from the first three statements read out by senior army officers on national television to announce the coup.
But Gabonese television kept broadcasting the same images: a man, apparently Nguema, in fatigues and a green beret being carried through the streets of the capital Libreville by jubilant soldiers chanting, “Oligui président.”
Nguema also emerged as a spokesperson in the hours following the announcement, answering questions from French newspaper “Le Monde”.
Bongo – who was declared the winner of Saturday’s elections just an hour before the coup began – had been forcibly “retired” but he still “enjoys all his rights”, Nguema said. “He had no right to serve a third term; the Constitution had been flouted and the election method itself was not good. So the army has decided to turn the page, to fulfill its responsibilities.”
He underscored the “discontent” in Gabon and Bongo’s “illness”, referring to a stroke in 2018.
As Bongo was confined to house arrest, Nguema himself was named to lead Gabon’s transitional authority, held aloft by his troops amid jubilant celebrations in the streets of the capital Libreville and the economic hub of Port-Gentil.
A ‘man of consensus’
Born to a Fang father, Gabon’s main ethnic group, Nguema, 48, mostly grew up with his mother in Haut-Ogooue province, a Bongo stronghold.
Nguema served as an aide-de-camp to Ali Bongo’s father, Omar Bongo, who ruled Gabon with an iron fist for almost 42 years until his death in 2009.
“He’s someone who knows the Gabonese military apparatus very well, a good soldier, trained at good military schools,” including Morocco’s Meknes royal military academy, according to a member of Bongo’s Gabonese Democratic Party (PDG) who was speaking on condition of anonymity.
“When I met him, he was a fairly intelligent man, easy to talk to and not afraid of journalists,” Francis Kpatindé, a journalist and lecturer specialising in Gabon at Sciences-Po University Paris, told FRANCE 24.
Nguema was known to be extremely close to the elder Bongo, serving him from 2005 until his death in a Barcelona hospital.
But Nguema was sidelined in 2009 after Ali Bongo was elected to succeed his father, beginning a 10-year stint as a military attaché at Gabon’s embassies in Morocco and Senegal.
He returned to prominence in 2018 as the republican guard’s intelligence chief, replacing Ali Bongo’s half-brother Frederic Bongo, before getting promoted to general six months later.
As the keystone of Gabon’s security forces, the bald and athletically built Nguema pushed Ali Bongo to improve his men’s working and living conditions by upgrading their facilities, funding schools for soldiers’ children and refurbishing accommodations.
The measures earned him respect and sympathy from his colleagues, according to the PDG source.
“He isn’t very talkative, but very appreciated by his men. He’s a Julius Caesar, and Julius Caesar cares for the comfort of his legionaries,” the source said, referring to the Roman general.
The former colleague praised Nguema as “a man of consensus, who never raises his voice, who listens to everyone and systematically seeks compromise”.
Nguema included officers from all army branches in the junta’s Committee for the Transition and Restoration of Institutions, which has been established to lead Gabon into its next political era. Coup leaders have not yet offered a timeline for a return to civilian rule.