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Gabon coup: This should not be mistaken for people power

Another day, another coup on the continent.

Chad, Sudan, Guinea, Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger and now Gabon.

Gunfire was heard in Libreville moments after President Ali Bongo, the ruler for 14 years, had his re-election success announced on Wednesday morning.

Hours later, military officers took to state television to condemn the disputed election, declare their takeover and dissolve the government.

Shortly afterward, their former ruler appeared in a video message from house arrest appealing for global intervention. It is hard not to notice the opulent interiors behind him, glimmering under the soft but bright yellow lighting.

The Bongo family has held power in Gabon since 1967. The ousted president is the third the country has seen since its independence from France in 1960.

His father Omar Bongo was Gabon's second president and held power for 42 years until his death in 2009.

The 2009 election that transferred power from father to son was marred in controversy and allegations of fraud. Bongo's re-election in 2016 was also heavily disputed.

Now, his latest contested victory to secure a third term in office has backfired and broken his winning streak.

As the internet shutdown that marked the elections was lifted in the wake of the coup, videos surfaced of young men celebrating on the streets of Libreville. Residents describe a sense of relief and jubilation - liberation from the Bongo cycle of dominance.

"People feel free from years of living with the Bongos, during COVID and through economic collapse. You can really see how the rich have been getting richer and the poor getting poorer," says one Libreville resident who has chosen to stay anonymous for her safety.

"Even if you go around Libreville, there are so many people without electricity and water. People are really fed up with the situation and would try to protest, just to say they need water, and the military would stop them right away," she added.

Read more:
What is happening in Gabon and who is Ali Bongo?
Niger coup shows how pendulum is swinging to Russian-backed autocracy

That same military is now posturing as an equalising force for freedom. A junta headed up by none other than Bongo's cousin and head of the Gabonese presidency's Republican Guard, Brice Nguema. A man who is facing the same allegations of corruption and money laundering as his cousin.

Many of the coups we are seeing across Africa are driven by internal politics and opportunism - fuelled by power struggles between civilian elite and military elite, and then posturing off public dissatisfaction and poverty.

Whether it is the dynastic coups of the Debys in Chad, the long-time presidential guards in Niger or Omar al-Bashir's henchmen in Sudan - these military coups cannot be mistaken for people power. They are nothing more than a change of clothing.