Gabon’s senior military officers announced a coup and invalidated the election results on Wednesday, minutes after the country’s electoral commission declared President Ali Bongo Ondimba had won a third term.
The ringleader of the coup, according to local media reports, is Brice Clothaire Oligui Nguema, the head of the Gabonese Republican Guard, the nation’s most potent security force.
Here’s what we know about him so far.
A powerful figure
Nguema is one of the most influential and enigmatic figures in the country today. The son of a military officer, he trained at the Royal Military Academy of Meknes, in Morocco.
Nguema then served as Bongo’s “aides-de-camp” to a commander in former President Omar Bongo’s Republican Guard, until the former Gabonese leader’s death in 2009.
When Omar Bongo’s son Ali Bongo rose to power in October 2009, Nguema was sent to Morocco and Senegal for diplomatic missions. A decade later, he took over as the head of the guard.
The guard, whose military officers are recognisable by their green berets, is responsible for presidential security. As its head, Nguema tried to fortify Gabon’s internal security systems with reforms that were seen as elongating Bongo’s stay in power.
According to local media reports, Nguema also composed a song that included the line: “I would defend my president with honour and loyalty”.
Besides military and diplomatic duties, Nguema was seen as entrepreneurial and also believed to be a millionaire in Gabonese circles.
According to a 2020 investigation by The Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) on the Bongo family’s assets in the United States, Nguema invested in real estate, paying in cash.
“He bought three properties in middle- and working-class neighbourhoods in the Maryland suburbs of Hyattsville and Silver Spring, just outside the capital, in 2015 and 2018. The homes were purchased with a total of over $1 million in cash,” the OCCRP report said.
When reporters questioned Nguema about these properties, he said it was a private affair.
“I think whether in France or in the United States, a private life is a private life that [should be] respected.”
In an interview with French daily Le Monde on Wednesday, Nguema echoed those thoughts.
“Beyond this discontent, there is the illness of the Head of State [Ali Bongo suffered a stroke in October 2018 which left him weakened]. Everyone talks about it, but no one takes responsibility. He did not have the right to serve a third term, the Constitution was violated, the method of election itself was not good. So the army decided to turn the page, to take its responsibilities,” Nguema said.
He added that Ali Bongo can retire and continue to enjoy his rights like every other Gabonese citizen, adding that the generals would meet to decide on a successor to Bongo at 14:00 GMT on Wednesday.
And while Bongo is currently under house arrest after winning the cancelled election with 64.27 percent of the vote, Gabon’s soldiers have apparently begun celebrating Nguema.
Unverified videos and images on social media showed a group of soldiers dancing with Nguema and calling him Gabon’s “next strongman.”