Gabon: General elections amid civic space violations, followed by military takeover
General elections followed by military coup
General elections – presidential, legislative and local - took place on 26th August 2023. In the evening of election day, authorities imposed an internet blackout and a curfew as the opposition decried electoral fraud and irregularities. Additionally, three French broadcasters were temporarily banned.
In July 2023, only six weeks before the elections, Gabon’s National Assembly and Senate adopted a law modifying the Electoral Code, heavily criticised by civil society organisations such as the Civil Society Consortium for Electoral Transparency and Democracy (Consortium de la société civile pour la transparence électorale et de la démocratie – COTED) and the opposition, who have challenged – without success – the new law at the Constitutional Court. Months earlier, in April 2023, six articles of the Constitution were modified, including the principle of non limitation for political mandates, the reduction of the election rounds for the mandate of president from two to one round and the reduction of the maximum duration of political terms to five years.
On 30th August 2023, moments after the public announcement of the results of disputed general elections, accused of having been fraudulent, declaring a third term for President Ali Bongo Ondimba, a military coup under the leadership of Brice Clothaire Oligui Nguema, the commander-in-chief of the Republican Guard, took place. A group of military officers, introducing themselves as the Committee for the Transition and Restoration of Institutions (Comité pour la transition et la restauration des institutions – CTRI), announced on public television they had seized power, cancelled the disputed election results and were putting an end to the Bongo dynasty, which has ruled Gabon for 55 years. They further dissolved all state institutions, closed borders, placed President Ali Bongo Odimba under house arrest and arrested Bongo’s son, Nourreddin Bongo Valentin, for ‘high treason’ and ‘active corruption’. Following the coup, hundreds of people assembled spontaneously in Libreville to celebrate the military intervention.
On 4th September 2023, Nguema, the president of the CTRI, promised to release political prisoners, prompting the release of trade union leader Jean-Rémy Yama, who had been in prison since February 2022.
🇬🇦#Gabon2023 : Au moins 864 arrestations, 12 manifestations interdites ou réprimées, 13 journaux suspendus et 34 jours de coupure internet depuis l’élection présidentielle de 2016.— Tournons La Page (@TournonsLaPage) August 28, 2023
🔗Le rapport👉🏾https://t.co/udrHYFYdWY pic.twitter.com/UAEX7m88iA
Report on civic space in Gabon since previous elections
Ahead of the elections, on 21st August 2023, pro-democracy group Tournons la Page (TLP) published a report on civic space in Gabon. According to the report, based on information received by TLP’s national coalition in Gabon, civic space has deteriorated since the last presidential elections in 2016. The report notes that since August 2016, there have been at least 864 arrests, 12 banned or repressed protests, 13 suspended newspapers and 34 days of internet access disruptions.
Ahead of the general elections, authorities denied foreign reporters accreditation to cover the elections and have expelled foreign reporters. Additionally, the internet was shut down after the polls closed on election day, while the national media regulator temporarily banned French broadcasters Radio France Internationale (RFI), France24 and TV5 Monde.
No press accreditation for foreign journalists
Press freedom organisations have said that several foreign journalists were unable to get accreditation to cover the elections of 26th August 2023. RFI and Le Monde journalists requested accreditation well advance, but never received a response from authorities. A journalist from media outlet Jeune Afrique had the same experience, and was denied entry after landing at the airport in Libreville on 21st August 2023. Cameroonian journalist Sinclair Mezin, who works for the state-owned newspaper Cameroon Tribune, was likewise expelled after arriving in Libreville on 19th August 2023. He was questioned by immigration officers about the purpose of his visit before they put him back on a plane to Cameroon. Mezin was told by the Gabonese embassy in Cameroon that he could obtain press accreditation once in the country.
⚠️ Confirmed: Live network data show a nation-scale internet blackout is now in effect across #Gabon on election day; authorities claim the measure is intended to "prevent the spread of calls for violence" as a curfew is imposed 📉— NetBlocks (@netblocks) August 26, 2023
📰 Read more: https://t.co/lnH1UacyFv pic.twitter.com/alTsPOAgUM
Internet shutdown on election day
On the evening of 26th August 2023, after the polling stations closed, authorities shut down the internet in addition to imposing a curfew as the opposition decried alleged electoral fraud and irregularities at the ballot box. Rodrigue Mboumba, the then Minister of Communication, said on public television that this was to “prevent the spread of calls for violence” and to avoid the distribution of “false information”. The internet was gradually restored after the military takeover on 30th August 2023.
Temporary ban on three French broadcasters
On 26th August 2023, Gabon’s media regulator, the High Authority of Communication, temporarily suspended French broadcasters Radio France Internationale (RFI), France24 and TV5 Monde, after accusing them of “a lack of objectivity and balance in the treatment of information in connection with the current general elections”. The broadcast signals of the three broadcasters were restored after the military takeover on 30th August 2023.
Release trade unionist leader
On 5th September 2023, trade union leader Jean-Rémy Yama was released from prison following an order by the new military transitional president Brice Clothaire Oligui Nguema to release all political prisoners.
As reported previously on the Monitor, Yama, leader of trade union coalition Dynamique Unitaire was arrested on 27th February 2022 and charged with breach of confidence, fraud and embezzlement, with his lawyers calling the detention political with no legal justification.