September 6, 2023

The comedy in the tragedy of Ali Bongo’s ouster, By Rotimi Fasan

Ali Bongo

IT has never stopped raining for some of Africa’s fragile governments and reconditioned democracies. It’s been pouring. There’s a big scramble by some of the continent’s sit-tight leaders to protect their autocratic stools. Panic as well as unease is also spreading to other parts of the continent where election outcomes are either in dispute or the winners are yet to consolidate their position. From Uganda to Rwanda, Zambia to Nigeria, the story is the same. Yet the realities may not exactly be the same – at least that is the case with Nigeria where the presidential election tribunal for the February 2023 presidential election is getting set to deliver judgement.  

Only days after television images showed him with smug imperturbability casting his vote in the flawed election that returned him to power after 14 years in the saddle, President Ali Bongo emerged, in a room in his presidential palace-turned-prison, asking for help and a way out of the dungeon in which he had suddenly found himself trapped by the very people he hired to protect him. The executors of the Gabon coup must have trailed the path beaten by the guards of Nigerien President Muhamed Bazoum who turned against him and promptly transformed his palace into a detention centre. But to return to Ali Bongo, his latest appearance in one of the rooms in his palace was less happily-circumstanced. This time he looked abject, sad and humbled. 

He had been ousted and succeeded to power in a palace coup that was apparently orchestrated by one of his trusted generals, the head of the presidential guard, Brice Oligui Nguema, who just happen to be his cousin. It all looked like a game of musical chairs. But that didn’t make the situation less tragic both for Ali Bongo in his personal capacity but also far more for the Gabonese people. Their outward display of joy at the dethronement of a man whose family has come to symbolise all that is wrong about their country, might be more short-lived and turn ash in their mouth than they can yet realise. 

The dethroned Bongo in his embroidered tunic spoke from a place of fear, confusion and crippling anxiety. It’s not a sight befitting a leader, especially one like Ali Bongo that had held his country and the people of Gabon literally by the throat for nearly one and a half decades. Like an old lion wandering in the wilds and waiting for the unfortunate moment when it would be cornered and devoured by younger beasts in their prime, Bongo looked forlorn and lost. And he admitted that much, as he twisted his fingers and looked down the abyss opened before him by those who had held him hostage. He called on his audience to “make noise” (to who really?) for help and let the world know what was happening to him. Is it not laughable that a man of Ali Bongo’s god-like status could turn round to call on the same people he had despised for nearly two decades to help him?

A week since that recording was made nothing more than the routine condemnation of this type of unlawful overthrow of government has been heard from the usual quarters of Western powers and leaders of global and regional international organisations like President Joe Biden of America, Rishi Sunak of Britain, the African Union and the Economic Community of West African States, ECOWAS. ECOWAS is yet to get a handle on the situation in Niger where the junta that ousted Bazoum has called its bluff and dared it to launch an attack on Niger to install democratic order. Bazoum might have come into power through an election but it is doubtful if the brand of government managed by his likes could pass the democratic test. 

Even less deserving of such description is the government of Ali Bongo who came to power after his father, Omar Bongo, died in office in 2009. Omar spent 41 years in power. The father and son duo have a combined total of 55 years of lording it over Gabon. The man now masquerading in military fatigue as the saviour of the Gabonese people was an insider of the Bongo’s years of peonage to French imperialism. The French vice-like control of Gabonese resources and resources of its former colonies in Africa is both criminal and inhuman. It’s clearly a form of modern slavery in which Paris literally props up criminal outcasts (many must have seen that shocking footage of a sickly Ali Bongo being received by Emmanuel Macron with military honours) as leaders who open the doors of their country’s patrimony in form of billions of dollars’worth of natural resources, control of the countries’ fiscal and monetary policies, including cash to which Paris has unhindered access. Is it any surprise that all but one of the seven countries that have recently come under military rule are French-speaking? The French have always had paternalistic hold and control of their former territories in Africa and were most disinclined to grant them independence even symbolically. 

The chickens of unbridled French greed and criminal predation in Africa are now coming home to roost by way of violent ousters of their puppet regimes, causing worries of a dangerous reversion to the era of military rule in Africa. These puppet regimes are often autocracies in civil disguises. But the military have always compounded the problems their so-called corrective regimes promised to resolve. Africa has been doing without them in the last two decades but brigand politicians who engage in “democratic” heist of the people’s will are making this an impossible task to sustain. The likes of Yoweri Museveni, Paul Biya and even Paul Kagame who have been scrambling to strengthen their hold on power by mass purge of the hierarchies of their military are exemplars of what await those rejoicing about the atavism of military rule.

Such subtle acclamation has increased and become more brazen in the wake of the Gabon coup with disgruntled opposition commentators, some of whom were probably among those who went on their knees at the headquarters of the military in Abuja, begging them to intervene in the wake of the declaration of Bola Tinubu as winner of the presidential election. They obviously don’t know what they are asking for. But they would know when the “come come to become”. They are cutting their nose to spite their face. They are also catching at any straw as the presidential election tribunal gets set to deliver judgement. Witness the renewed calls for Tinubu’s academic record at Chicago State University as if something new has just been discovered. For these critics, not even America can be above suspicion in the matter of Bola Tinubu.