General Brice Oligui Nguema, who led a coup last week that toppled Gabon’s 55-year-old ruling dynasty, took the oath of office as interim president on Monday, promising “free, transparent and credible elections” to restore civilian rule but without giving a timeframe.
He also vowed to amnesty political prisoners, in a speech in which he insisted the coup had saved Gabon from bloodshed after elections that were “obviously loaded.”
Oligui, head of the elite Republican Guard, last Wednesday led officers to detain President Ali Bongo Ondimba, scion of a family that had ruled the oil-rich central African nation since 1967.
The ousting came just moments after Bongo, 64, was proclaimed victor in presidential elections – a result branded a fraud by the opposition.
In a speech after taking the oath of office, Oligui said the promised elections would be the stepping stone to “handing power back to the civilians,” although he did not specify any date.
He said he was seeking the participation of all of Gabon’s “core groups” to draft a new constitution, which “will be adopted by referendum.”
Oligui, 48, wearing the red ceremonial costume of the Republican Guard, also said he would instruct “the future government… to consider ways of amnestying prisoners of conscience” and “facilitating the return of all exiles” from abroad.
After detaining Bongo, the coup leaders on Wednesday said they had dissolved the nation’s institutions, cancelled the election results and temporarily closed the borders.
Other countries have not acknowledged Oligui as Gabon’s legitimate leader and he faces pressure to spell out his plans for restoring civilian rule.
Oligui in his speech strongly defended the coup, saying the military had acted to save lives following “an electoral process that was obviously loaded.”
“Without violence, clashes or loss of blood, the Committee for Transition and Restoration of Institutions changed the regime which for years had usurped the powers of the institutions of the public, flouting democratic rules,” he said, referring to the name given to the junta.
Quoting South African anti-apartheid hero Desmond Tutu, he said: “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.”
He hit out at “international organisations,” which he did not name, for criticising the military takeover.
Gabon joins Mali, Guinea, Sudan, Burkina Faso and Niger in the ranks of African countries that have undergone coups in the last three years – a trend that has sounded alarm bells in Africa and beyond.
“We are greatly surprised to hear certain international organisations condemn the act taken by soldiers who were simply upholding their oath to the flag – to save their country at the risk of their lives,” said Oligui.