The leader of a coup that ousted Gabon’s President Ali Bongo was sworn in as interim president and cheered by jubilant supporters on Monday in a televised ceremony designed to cast the military as liberators of an oppressed society.
Army officers led by Gen. Brice Oligui Nguema seized power on Aug. 30, minutes after an announcement that Bongo had won an election they annulled and said was not credible. It was West and Central Africa’s eighth coup in three years.
Nguema was given a standing ovation by military officers and officials as he arrived for the ceremony on Monday, and again just after he was sworn in by a panel of constitutional court judges.
State TV showed images of a cheering crowd and armoured personnel carriers firing into the sea to mark the moment.
Promise to welcome back political exiles
In a speech, Nguema proposed reforms, including a new constitution to be adopted by referendum, new electoral and penal codes, and measures to prioritize local banks and companies for economic development. He also said political exiles would be welcomed back and political prisoners freed.
Repeatedly interrupted by cheers, he described the coup — which ended the Bongo family’s 56-year hold on power in the oil-producing country — as a moment of national liberation and a manifestation of God’s will.
“When the people are crushed by their leaders … it’s the army that gives them back their dignity,” he said. “People of Gabon, today the times of happiness that our ancestors dreamt of are finally coming.”
Several figures from Bongo’s government, including the vice-president and prime minister, attended the ceremony.
Bongo himself remains under house arrest. He was elected in 2009, taking over from his late father who came to power in 1967. Opponents say the family did too little to share Gabon’s oil and mining wealth with the country’s 2.3 million people.
Talk of ‘fair’ elections, but no timetable
Nguema reiterated that his administration would organize free and fair elections, though he gave no timetable.
“After this transition … we intend to return power to civilians by organizing new elections that will be free, transparent, credible and peaceful,” he said.
Previously, Nguema had said the junta would proceed “quickly but surely,” but cautioned that too much haste could lead to elections that lack credibility.
The coup had drawn cheering crowds onto the streets of the capital Libreville but condemnation from abroad.
Leaders of the Central African regional bloc ECCAS are due to meet in person on Monday to discuss their response. Last week, they urged partners led by the United Nations and the African Union to support a rapid return to constitutional order.
Gabon’s main opposition group, Alternance 2023, which says it is the rightful winner of the Aug. 26 election, has called on the international community to encourage the junta to hand power back to civilians.
Members of Alternance 2023 met Nguema on Sunday for talks, a source in the alliance told Reuters, without sharing further details.