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I went to Gabon for football – and found a massacre This week's coup kicked off in 2016

A supporter of Jean Ping prays in front of security forces in August 2016 (MARCO LONGARI/AFP via Getty Images)

A supporter of Jean Ping prays in front of security forces in August 2016 (MARCO LONGARI/AFP via Getty Images)


August 31, 2023   7 mins

The taxi pulled up outside an unremarkable concrete block. It wasn’t quite what I’d been expecting but I paid and got out. An election banner drooped from a second-floor balcony. Maybe this was the right place.

It was January 2017, and I was looking for the residence of Jean Ping, the leader of the Gabonese opposition, who was holding his first press conference in months. I was hoping to get him talking about how the Africa Cup of Nations, the football tournament I was in Gabon to cover, was another example of the Bongo regime wasting the country’s resources. But this didn’t look like somewhere a politician would live.

There was no one around, so I wandered in. It was empty. There were broken windows, torn posters, a ripped armchair. I went up to the first floor. The doors hung open, locks smashed. I went into an empty room. There was a circular hole in the window, cracks radiating outwards. The grubby cream walls were streaked with deep brownish red smears and handprints, the marks of fingers. I think I knew then what I was looking at, but it was only later that I processed it. I’m a football journalist. I was well aware I was out of my depth.

An elderly man in overalls emerged and asked what I was doing. It turned out the taxi had brought me to Ping’s campaign headquarters, rather than his residence. The caretaker pointed me in the right direction and, a few minutes later, I was drinking coffee with Ping in his villa. But by then I knew what I’d seen. A return to the campaign headquarters with two colleagues confirmed what I had suspected. The outer walls were dimpled with bullet holes. The windows of the gatehouse were shattered. Some attempts had been made to clear up, but there was plenty of evidence of blood.

Yesterday, Gabonese military officers appeared on television to announce they had seized power following disputed election results, ending the 56-year rule of the Bongo family. What I had stumbled upon six years ago was the aftermath of the previous election, held in August 2016.

The view from inside the HQ

Omar Bongo became president after the death of Léon M’Ba in 1967, and eagerly continued his predecessor’s work in dismantling the nascent post-independence democracy. He remained in power until his own death, in 2009. When his son, Ali, won the subsequent election, there was protracted political violence for the first time in the country since 1964, when French paratroopers had put down an attempted military coup provoked by M’Ba’s dissolution of the national assembly. In 2009, a three-month curfew was imposed on Port Gentil, a centre of anti-Bongo feeling. What followed the election in 2016 was far worse.

Initial results from the ballot suggested Ping, a former minister for Omar Bongo who had married Ali’s half-sister, Pascaline, had won in seven of Gabon’s nine provinces. As the Gabonese National Electoral Commission (Cenap) delayed announcing a result, the opposition became convinced the election was being fixed. The EU’s chief observer Mariya Gabriel later spoke of “significant weaknesses in the electoral process”.

After four days, on August 31, opposition supporters gathered at Ping’s campaign headquarters to march on Cenap and demand a result. The Assemblée Nationale was set on fire. When tear gas failed to disperse the crowds, the security forces turned to live ammunition.

One of the demonstrators was Sylvie Mbot, the head of the doctors union. “While we were marching, we heard that Bongo had won,” she said. “That’s why we were angry. We said that wasn’t possible. But there were police already on the street. They had real weapons — Kalashnikovs and tear gas. They fired the tear gas and then shot at the crowd. People were really angry. They wanted to overthrow the lorries and started pushing at one. The policemen took guns and shot directly at a man I recognised. They hit him in the thigh.

“At about 4pm we took the injured to hospital with the Red Cross. I went back to the HQ at about 7pm. On the second floor they’d collected all the injured people. There was blood everywhere and very few doctors to look after these people.” The Red Cross helped to transport the most seriously injured to hospital. Mbot went with them.

Sometime between midnight and 1 in the morning, soldiers dressed in black approached the front of the campaign headquarters. In a pile of rubbish by the front gate, we found a helmet, with a leather flap at the back to protect the neck. Some say they were mercenaries, others that they were members of the elite presidential guard. First, they fired tear gas; then, when Ping’s supporters threw stones, they opened fire with plastic bullets.

Christophe* was hit in the calf but managed to crawl up to the fourth floor. As other demonstrators fled over the back wall or into the Equatoguinean embassy next door, the soldiers switched to live ammunition. “They came to kill,” said Christophe.

Cars were parked along the driveway to the left of the building. “Those who couldn’t get over the wall went under the cars,” said Franck*. “They shot under the cars — young people, old fathers, old mothers… I was on the top floor and could see down. I tried to bring people inside but unfortunately they had already fired tear gas into the lobby.” We found blood-stained fragments of glass in the cracks between the paving stones that seemed to corroborate the story.

Some fled to the roof, but two helicopters were circling. In the building, the lights were turned off to conceal those inside. Christophe lay on the floor, keeping below the level of the windows. He could hear the police working along the line of cars, picking off their victims. “I could hear their cries,” he said. All night this was happening. I could hear people crying: ‘Please don’t kill me! I’m Gabonese! I won’t demonstrate any more.’ Then they went quiet. We guessed they were killed. That went on until 5am.”

What happened to the bodies is unclear. A few days later, we met a disaffected former government advisor called Serge whose nephew and uncle had both gone missing that night. After a week, he finally tracked down the bodies to one of the city’s four morgues and paid for an autopsy. His nephew’s death certificate is quite clear: he had been shot twice in the leg but had died as a result of “wounds caused by the penetration of small-calibre bullets at the forehead”. His uncle had also been shot in the head.

At around 5am, police broke into the building. “They told us to kneel down, take our shirts off and put our hands on our heads,” said Christophe. “They told us one by one to get into the cars to drive to the police station. They made sure there was nobody left.” Franck believes there were around 1,500 Ping supporters in the building at the time. He got away because he knew one of the policemen.

The injured, Christophe included, were taken to hospital. He was lucky, and escaped. “I got my brother to come and get me,” he said. “I told the doctor I was just going outside for a moment to give my brother a key. I was walking with a stick so they thought I couldn’t go far, but my brother was in a car so I got in and left.”

Others were interrogated by the secret police. Those who were treated worst were those who, like Ping, were Myene, an ethnic group from the north and west of the country. Several miles from the campaign headquarters, a Myene woman was picked up by government forces who poured kerosene over her and set her on fire. She would almost certainly have died had her husband, a policeman, not managed to pull strings to get her moved to a clinic.

Back in 2017, perhaps hoping they would be able to set the record straight, the Government agreed to let me interview the then prime minister, Emmanuel Issoze-Ngondet. And so, on the day after the final, I found myself facing him across a desk in his office asking about the massacre. He insisted the protestors had fired first and claimed to be awaiting the results of a full enquiry.

The only proper investigation, though, was carried out by Sylvie Mbot. She compiled a list of victims which had reached 30 injured and six dead when she was arrested while visiting a hospital. “My phone was taken from me,” she said, “and they found photos of the injured. They asked: ‘Are these all people killed in Gabon? Or are they from previous years or from the war in Côte d’Ivoire?’ I said they were all from Gabon, that they were nothing to do with Côte d’Ivoire. They also asked why I did not mention the policemen who had been killed. I didn’t have any proof of that. They wanted me to mention that.”

After her interrogation, Mbot was imprisoned in a small cell with no light and no food. “I was alone,” she said. “I didn’t speak to anybody for nine days.” When she was finally released, her phone and notebook with details of her investigation were confiscated.

In the aftermath of the massacre, fear prevented many families from claiming bodies. At the end of 2016, the capital Libreville’s morgues buried 23 bodies in an unmarked grave. In September, the Red Cross reported 15 dead, while the opposition tends to claim at least 27 fatalities in Libreville. Based on Mbot’s work, visits to the morgues and other interviews, I would be confident of putting the figure at a minimum of 29.

I think often about those weeks, pretending to be a proper journalist. Roughly a week before the final, the phone rang in the house I was sharing. A voice told me I was being followed, that they knew what I was doing, and that I should back off. I transferred everything off my laptop onto a memory stick, which I then hid in my dirty laundry. I remember clearly the gnawing sense of dread for the days that remained, and the relief when the plane doors closed and the wheels left the runway.

But while I could leave, those I had spoken to could not. I think about the grief of the sister of one victim, as she raised his young son. I think about Christophe and his eagerness for the fight. I think about Serge and his despairing fury. Most of all, I think about Sylvie Mbot and her implacable courage.

*Names have been changed.


Jonathan Wilson is a columnist for the Guardian, the editor of the Blizzard, the co-host of the podcast It Was What It Was and author of 12 books on football history and one novel.

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David Lindsay
David Lindsay
10 months ago

40 per cent of the young men in Gabon are unemployed, and 34 per cent of the population is in absolute poverty, yet the ruling family is so fabulously rich from the country’s oil that it once imported fake snow for Christmas. In 2015, President Ali Bongo paid Lionel Messi €2.5 million for a one-day appearance. There are only 2.4 million people in Gabon. Every one of them should be rich. Yesterday, they decided that they would no longer tolerate being poor.

France still taxes 14 of its former colonies for “the benefits of colonisation”, and forces them to use a currency that it issues, the CFA franc. That is pegged to the euro and so on, for be assured that, for all the cheap jokes about French military cowardice, their utter ruthlessness in Africa is an integral and important part of “the rules-based international order”, the rules of which are such as these. The French and the Americans alike maintain a huge military presence in those countries. They are not there as rivals.

With that backing, Omar and Ali Bongo ruled Gabon from 1967, 10 years before Emmanuel Macron was born, until yesterday. A single individual, the 90-year-old Paul Biya, has been President of Cameroon since 1982, the year that Macron turned five. And so on. Oil-rich Gabonese starve. France has the world’s fourth largest gold reserves but no goldmine except in French Guiana, while gold-rich Mali has no reserves. France has the world’s highest rate of nuclear energy but no uranium, while only 18 per cent of people in uranium-rich Niger have electricity at all. But not the least of Africa’s overflowing natural resources are a median age of 18.5, a mean age of 19.5, and a birth rate of 4.2 per woman. And the youth is in revolt.

That Russia and the Wagner Group will want their cut is not, for now, seen as a problem in Africa. The Russians never colonised the place, they were the lynchpin of its liberation struggle, and they still are. By contrast, the United States did and does support the colonial powers and oppose the liberators. Whether as the Russian Federation or as the Wagner Group, the Russians will be welcome to a share of the spoils of the liberation as far as Africans were concerned. Russia earned them in the last stage of The Struggle, and it has already begun to earn them in this stage. That is how things are seen there.

France is not the only bad guy in Africa, and this uprising has notably begun under its first ever Anglo-style centrist President. Hence the silence of the likes of Black Lives Matter. Those are wholly owned subsidiaries of the Democratic Party, which is the most successful white supremacist organisation in history based on how and for how long it ran the South, and of its intercontinental network of wannabes. Including Macron’s Renaissance. And including all main parties here.

Last edited 10 months ago by David Lindsay
T Bone
T Bone
10 months ago
Reply to  David Lindsay

I basically consider myself a non-interventionalist but if anything your response only highlights how difficult global diplomacy actually is. I’m just curious if you think Africa would be a better place if the French and Americans just left their sphere of influence?

David Lindsay
David Lindsay
10 months ago
Reply to  T Bone

The relationship does need to change root and branch, yes. And now, it might.

N Satori
N Satori
10 months ago

Would it be intemperate of me to suggest that such a crude and brutal use of power, all too common in sub-Saharan Africa, demonstrate that black patriarchy is far, far worse than the much-maligned white patriarchy.

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
10 months ago
Reply to  N Satori

No it wouldn’t and I think the late Charles Darwin would have been among the first to agree with you.

Caradog Wiliams
Caradog Wiliams
10 months ago
Reply to  N Satori

We really need Mr C Socialist to answer this.

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
10 months ago

Or Carl Valentine, they’re sisters I gather.

Daniel P
Daniel P
10 months ago

It makes me wonder if Africa can ever be saved from, not just the Chinese and the French and others, but from itself.

I have so many friends that have emigrated to the US from Africa, in fact I am having dinner with two of them tomorrow, that I wonder if any intellectuals will be left to help shape the future.

It is sad, just sad. So many people I know from different parts of that continent, all lovely, interesting, hard working people. WHY are they fleeing and why is that continent so unable to settle itself on a productive path?

Bob Downing
Bob Downing
10 months ago
Reply to  Daniel P

Two reasons. Firstly Africa is in many cases just as divided against itself as anywhere in the conflict zones in south eastern Eurasia – Armenia, Nagorno-Karabakh (and the Trans-Caucasus), the former Yugoslavia, Afgnanistan and so on. Whether it be tribalism, ethnicity, religion or whatever, groups just hate one another and are happy to see their “enemies” suffer. When my parents were leaving Kenya in 1956 (unwilling to live with the Mao-Mao), the local tribe begged them not to, because they knew they would be targeted by another tribe; and they were. A few years later, Nigeria was belligerently accusing its former colonial masters of racism whilst busy slaughtering the tribe living in Biafra. And so on.
Secondly, as David Lindsay explains, they’re being really messed up by a lot of shadowy non-African rival interests, as they have been ever since open colonialist occupiers officially left. The USA has been preaching against colonialism throughout, but has always practised its own form of economic colonialism, backed up by force (and bribery etc) as needed to ensure compliance. France has largely managed to keep its role out of the public eye, whereas Russia has not had to bother much.
This toxic mixture of tribal loyalties and exploitation by outside forces (think of the Horn of Africa) isn’t anything we onlookers can realistically do something about, sadly. But its no wonder so many who can seek a better life elsewhere do so. The desperation of the non-intellectual people who risk everything crossing hostile lands and seas (and being exploited every inch of the way) is testimony to the past and present, alas.

Chipoko
Chipoko
10 months ago
Reply to  Bob Downing

Martin Meredith’s book provides all the answers one needs to explain and understand why sub-Saharan Africa is made up of failed states, including South Africa. Africans are adept at externalising blame for their problems (colonialism, modern exploitation, etc.) and appear incapable of accepting responsibility for their own actions and shortcomings, historically and currently.
https://www.amazon.co.uk/State-Africa-History-Continent-Independence-ebook/dp/B005ISPV5I/ref=sr_1_1?crid=2NZ77A9SY2E1R&keywords=martin+africa+history+independent&qid=1693651456&s=digital-text&sprefix=martin+africa+history+indepdent%2Cdigital-text%2C80&sr=1-1

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
10 months ago

Am I the only one who is absolutely astonished that someone could actually be called President Ali Bongo?
Or have I been reading too much Kipling perhaps?

Prashant Kotak
Prashant Kotak
10 months ago

Ali’s family name was originally the double-barrelled Bongo-Bongo, but his grandfather befriended Ramsey MacDonald at Oxford and took his advice this was too aristocratic, and the simple ‘Bongo’ would be considered much more proletarian.

Last edited 10 months ago by Prashant Kotak
Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
10 months ago
Reply to  Prashant Kotak

Brilliant! Thank you so much.

I must admit it did rather remind me of this song I heard some years ago in Madagascar.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cfLIlP-GAmg

Last edited 10 months ago by Charles Stanhope
Benjamin Jones
Benjamin Jones
10 months ago

There was a Saturday morning kids programme back in the 1970’s in which a magician called Ali Bongo appeared. It was on BBC1 but I can’t recall the name of the programme. Otherwise it’s a fascinating article and discussion from which I’ve learnt much so thanks to all contributors.

Chipoko
Chipoko
10 months ago

The first head of state of the newly independent Zimbabwe in 1980 was President Canaan Banana! Banana was found guilty of eleven charges of sodomy, attempted sodomy and indecent assault in 1998.

Lillian Fry
Lillian Fry
5 months ago

I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Ivory Coast in the late 60s. When I read about west Africa today I see that sadly not much has changed in 50 years.
The US and others today are trying to force Africans to leave their fuel resources in the ground and run their electric grids on “renewables.” “Green colonialism.” Some are refusing and I hope that movement spreads. Africans need abundant cheap energy if they are to modernize.