The United States deployed troops to the Central African nation of Gabon just days before a group of military officers staged tried to take over power in the oil-rich nation on Monday. Situated on the Atlantic coastline of Central Africa, Gabon is a member of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). However, despite producing of 176,000 barrels of oil per day, making it one of Africa’s most significant oil producers, over a third of its 2 million inhabitants live below the official poverty line. The country has been ruled by the Bongo family for over a century with its current President, Ali Bongo Ondimba, having led the country since his father’s death a decade ago. In October of last year, however, Bongo went to Saudi Arabia for medical treatment after suffering a stroke, and has yet to return. In a televised message aired on New Year’s Day, Bongo told the citizens of Gabon that he was recovering and would soon be returning to his duties.
But in the early hours of Monday gun shots were reported in the vicinity of the studios of Radio Télévision Gabonaise (RTG), the country’s state-owned national broadcaster in the capital city, Libreville. A few hours later, regular broadcasting was suspended. A message was transmitted on the national radio station frequency by troops claiming to be members of a group calling itself the Patriotic Movement of the Defense and Security Forces of Gabon. Its leader, a man identifying himself as Lieutenant Kelly Ondo Obiang, said that the armed forces had “doubts” about President Bongo’s “ability to perform the responsibilities of his office”. He also announced the formation of a “Council of National Restoration” that would “ensure the smooth operation of the state and guarantee a transition to democracy”. A few hours later a government spokesman told international media that the coup had been defeated and that Lieutenant Obiang was under arrest. Two of his co-conspirators had been killed, said the spokesman.
Interestingly, the US deployed 80 American soldiers to Gabon on January 2, less than a week before the coup unfolded. In a letter sent to Congress on January 4, US President Donald Trump said that the troops would be stationed in Libreville and would carry with them “appropriate combat equipment”. Their purpose, said President Trump, would be to provide security protection for US “citizens, personnel and diplomatic facilities” in Kinshasa, capital of the neighboring Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Security analysts fear that the pending announcement of the delayed election results in the DRC may spark widespread riots in the country of 81 million people. On Monday, a spokesman for the United States Africa Command (AFRICOM) told reporters that there was “no change in the status of our forces in Gabon” and that they would not be involved in the domestic political situation. The US troops were “not currently tasked with securing [US] diplomatic assets [in Gabon]”, added the AFRICOM spokesman. AFRICOM said that additional US troops may deploy to Gabon, the DRC or the Republic of the Congo, should the need arise.
It is not known whether the coup plotters were aware of the presence of the 80 US troops in Libreville when they tried to take over power on Monday.
According to reports from Al Jazeera, Internet access has been shut down in Gabon after the attempted coup on Monday.
The situation in Gabon remained unclear on Tuesday, a day after soldiers attempted a coup d'etat as the government shut down the internet and broadcasting services while claiming the renegade troops had been killed or arrested.
The move to blackout sources of information during the insurrection was denounced by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).
"Shutting down the internet and broadcasting services during times of crisis makes it impossible for journalists to carry out their work efficiently and safely," said the group's Africa programme coordinator Angela Quintal.
"Citizens are robbed of access to the reliable information that they need to make decisions. We call on authorities in Gabon to immediately and fully restore access to the internet and lift all restrictions on broadcasting," she said in a statement.
Soldiers took control of the national radio station's offices at dawn on Monday and called on the public to rise up against Bongo, 59, who has been recuperating abroad after suffering a stroke in Saudi Arabia in October.
Lieutenant Kelly Ondo Obiang, backed by two soldiers standing behind him with assault rifles, appeared on national television saying the coup attempt was by a group called the Patriotic Movement of the Defence and Security Forces of Gabon.
Their aim was to "restore democracy" in the oil-rich Central African nation, Ondo Obiang said.
"Once again, one time too many, the wielders of power deceptively continue to instrumentalise the person of Ali Bongo Ondimba, a patient devoid of many of his physical and mental faculties," he said.
Later, security forces stormed the state broadcasting headquarters and captured the rebel leader and several others after killing two members of his team, the president's office said in a statement.
Journalists and technicians who had been held hostage and forced to help the mutineers make their broadcast were freed, it said.
"The situation is under control," the statement added.