Celebrations across Gabon say little about expectations from military leader, Gen. Brice Oligui Nguema, who simply pushed aside his cousin, Ali Bongo Ondimba, to assume office following a bloodless coup in the Central African country. It is also remarkable that not much in terms of action has come from colonial overlords, France. It was a different reaction in 1964 when Lt. Jacques Mombo sacked the government of Leon M’ba, the first Prime Minister and subsequently first president of Gabon. French paratroopers launched an attack in 24 hours, removed Jean-Hilarie Aubame, who had been installed by the soldiers, and restored M’ba to power.
Nguema has so far spent over a week in office without the possibility of Paris sending troops to storm the presidential palace. This development should task the minds of Gabonese who have come out gleefully to hail the military as liberators. While they pop champagne to herald what appears to be a whiff of fresh air, we are compelled to remind them that the general was part of the Bongo bonanza. Brice Nguema shares a similar surname with two of Africa’s rabid dictators – Francisco Macias Nguema and Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo whose tenure in Equatorial Guinea will continue to be coloured in red due to the ocean of blood that has been wasted in that country.
The Nguemas of Equatorial Guinea were originally Gabonese before their parents moved across the North-West border. Francois’ parents were expelled from Gabon which was then part of French Congo. His father was said to have been into witchcraft and was further alleged to have even sacrificed one family member. First leader of Gabon, M’ba, was of the Fang ethnic nationality, the same background as the Equatorial Guinea Nguemas. Albert Bongo, who became Omar Bongo in 1973 after converting to Islam, was Bateke, whose people share affinity with Congo in the East. Brice Nguema was Aide de Camp to Omar Bongo.
He was Commander of Ali Bongo’s Presidential Guards. As cousins, they held on to power together. It may be difficult to heap corruption charges on the younger Bongo without roping Nguema in. The Bongos may not have been as brutal as the Nguemas across the border but they joined the same looting party. While money poured in from oil, poverty flooded many homes all over Gabon and Equatorial Guinea. There is no record that the new boss in Libreville complained. Brice Nguema has questions to answer bordering on credibility. There is the belief that like his cousin and uncle, the general owns property overseas. It could be argued that he struck to protect not just personal interest but to safeguard family wealth and secrets. Omar Bongo was a spendthrift who cared more about the image of the country outside than inequalities at home.
The African Union Summit, which Gabon hosted in 1977, was more of a jamboree. It reportedly cost the nation a whopping $350 million! Bongo bought two armoured presidential cars, similar to the type used by President Jimmy Carter of the United States, 50 Mercedes Benz limousines, 100 state-of-the-art Peugeot brands, six Cadillacs for the Secret Service and 300 BMW power bikes. It is laughable that the Gabonese are only seeing corruption from the prism of the past. The present, represented by Gen. Nguema, is as tainted as the previous governments. All eyes are on the military to show that what happened yesterday was all about one man. In Equatorial Guinea, Mbasogo Nguema was Commander of the Presidential Guards and watched as his uncle Francisco butchered thousands of fellow countrymen. He did not raise a voice. Both men took part in the bloodletting. Mbasogo did not strike when the Slave Trade was legalised in 1976. Nigerians suffered most. There was an Agreement in 1942 that supplied labour to work in cocoa plantations in Fernando Po (now known as Malabo). Cocoa was introduced to that area by a Yoruba who was freed from slavery in Jamaica in the 19th Century. The Nigerian workers were turned to slaves. When they protested in 1971 over wages, 95 were killed. Gen. Murtala Mohammed sent a Nigerian warship to evacuate them in 1976. As they were boarding, Nguema’s troops opened fire, killing three persons. Mbasogo toppled Francois Nguema only after he executed his own brother. It was not to help their country. Brice Nguema says he struck to save democracy in Gabon. We also may safely say that the intention is to keep power within the family. Time will tell if this Nguema of Bongoville will be different from the Nguemas of Malabo.