Gabon coup: What’s the connection to Islam?

Gabon coup: What’s the connection to Islam?
Gabon’s late ruler Omar Bongo converted to Islam in 1973 at the urging of Libyan dictator Gaddafi, making the once powerful Bongo family Muslims in a country where only a small minority of the population follow Islam.

2 min read
31 August, 2023
Ali Bongo (centre) takes part in Friday prayers in 2016 [Getty]

On Wednesday, Gabonese military officers overthrew and arrested the country’s Muslim leader, Ali Bongo, cancelling the results of elections which gave him a third term in power.

The Bongo family have ruled oil-rich Gabon for over 56 years. Ali Bongo became president in 2009 when his father Omar died. The family have long enjoyed the support of France, which condemned Wednesday’s coup.

The formerly ruling Bongo family are Muslims in a country where only a small minority of the population follow Islam.

Muslims are believed to form no more than 10 percent of the population, but the country is a member of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) and Eid al-Adha and Eid al-Fitr are celebrated as public holidays.

Muslims also broadcast the Friday sermon every week on national television and Gabon has sided with the Palestinians in their conflict with Israel.

Omar Bongo, who was born Albert-Bernard Bongo, travelled to Libya in 1973, six years after becoming president.

He converted to Islam at the urging of Libya’s erratic former ruler Muammar Gaddafi and said he would be known as Al-Hadj Omar Bongo from then on.

After Bongo’s conversion, which was reportedly spurred on by a desire to join OPEC and form closer relations with Muslim oil-producing countries, the number of Muslims in Gabon increased, even though the country had little tradition of Islam.

While Gabon is sparsely populated and rich in oil, under Bongo family rule this has not translated into prosperity for all its citizens and around 40 percent of the population live in poverty.

The Guardian previously described Omar Bongo’s corruption as “legendary” and this was seen in the huge presidential palace he built for himself in the 1970s and the freezing of nine of his bank accounts in France in the 1980s.