General Brice Oligui Nguema has emerged as Gabon’s transitional leader, following the ousting of President Ali Bongo.
The scenes of jubilation and chants of “Oligui, président!” as he was carried through the streets by his triumphant troops underscored the surprising shift in power.
At 48 years old, General Nguema is an unexpected leader for many in Gabon. Just five years ago, he was virtually unknown in the country’s public consciousness, having spent a decade in exile after falling out of favor with the ruling Bongo family, who had maintained their grip on Gabon for nearly 56 years.
Upon his return to Gabon, General Nguema quietly climbed the ranks of the military, dedicating himself to supporting President Ali Bongo’s regime.
Born in Gabon’s province of Haut-Ogooué, a stronghold of the Bongo family, some even speculate that General Nguema is related to Ali Bongo.
From a young age, General Nguema followed in his father’s footsteps, pursuing a military career.
He joined Gabon’s powerful Republican Guard unit after training at Morocco’s prestigious Meknes Royal Military Academy.
His career took a significant turn when he became an assistant to then-President Omar Bongo, Ali Bongo’s father.
General Nguema was known to be extremely close to the late president, serving him faithfully until Omar Bongo’s death in 2009.
“He’s someone who wasn’t expected [to lead Gabon] at this time,” remarked Edwige Sorgho-Depagne, an African politics analyst with Amber Advisers. “In the 2000s, he was far from the country for some time… he was almost forgotten.”
After Ali Bongo assumed the presidency in 2009, General Nguema was dismissed from his position and entered a period that local media referred to as “exile.”
During this time, he served nearly a decade as an attaché to Gabonese embassies in Morocco and Senegal.
General Nguema’s resurgence into Gabonese politics occurred in 2018 when he was appointed as the Republican Guard’s intelligence chief, replacing the president’s step-brother.
Within six months, he was promoted to lead the Republican Guard, where he initiated reforms aimed at strengthening the unit’s role in supporting the regime.
Described by a former close collaborator as “a man of consensus, who never raises his voice, who listens to everyone and systematically seeks compromise,” General Nguema launched the “clean hands” operation to combat alleged state-led embezzlement. However, he himself faced accusations of hoarding public funds.
In 2020, a US anti-corruption organization alleged that General Nguema and the Bongo family had invested in expensive US properties with cash reserves, with the general reportedly spending $1 million on three properties.
His response to these claims was, “I think whether in France or in the United States, a private life is a private life that [should be] respected.”
Despite publicly reaffirming his loyalty to Ali Bongo’s presidency just eight months ago, General Nguema took a different path on Wednesday.
Following the announcement of Ali Bongo’s victory in a disputed presidential election, the military declared the results null and took control of the government.
General Nguema explained in an interview with France’s Le Monde that the Gabonese people had grown weary of Ali Bongo’s extended rule and his pursuit of a third term. “Everyone talks about this but no one takes responsibility,” he said. “So the army decided to turn the page.”
The international community, including the UN, the African Union, and France, has condemned the coup, marking the eighth such event in West and Central Africa since 2020.
Nevertheless, General Nguema has garnered significant public support and managed to unite the army, despite ethnic divisions.
As a figure who has faced corruption allegations and spent much of his career within the Bongo family’s inner circle, the Gabonese people’s hopes for a fresh start under his leadership remain uncertain.
However, General Brice Clothaire Oligui Nguema will undoubtedly be remembered as the man who turned a significant page in Gabon’s history.