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Who was the 'honest' soldier who led Gabon’s failed coup?
Within hours on the morning of 7 January, his face had been broadcast around the world in news coverage of the foiled coup attempt against the government of Gabon’s ailing President Ali Bongo. Lieutenant Kelly Ondo Obiang, leading an operation called “Operation Dignity”, had tried to encourage the Gabonese youth and army to rise up against the authorities who had failed to “defend the superior interests of the nation” in the face of Bongo’s continuing absence for medical treatment in Morocco. The member of the elite republican guard and his cohorts broadcast an audacious message of insurrection. But what drove the deputy commander of the guard of honour to lead such a daring putsch and what can we learn about his background and motivations?
Kelly Ondo Obiang was born in Mitzic, in Gabon’s northern Woleu-Ntem province, on 15 September 1992. He pursued a career in the military from an early age winning a place at the Prytanée military training school in Libreville.
But the school was not intended to be the training ground for those seeking to overthrow the dynastic Bongo family who have ruled Gabon for over 50 years. Instead, the school opened during Ali Bongo's tenure as defence minister and the product of its training could be seen as helping to solidify the Bongo family's position as the country's rulers.
His place at Prytanée as recruit number 046/2003 was the first step for Ondo Obiang in a military career involving years of training that would eventually propel him to the top of the elite republican guard, a unit responsible for the security of the president.
This story is based on analysis of several social media profiles and conversations with those close to the supposed coup leader. Those who talked to RFI spoke on the condition of anonymity to protect their privacy and maintain their security – there have already been a number of arrests linked to the coup attempt. The military analysts cited in this story are also not identified given the sensitive nature of the topic.
The coup attempt came as a shock to the Gabonese people who had been closely following developments with President Bongo’s health. He has been absent from the country since October after reportedly suffering a stroke.
On the day of the coup, Ondo Obiang and his group specifically spoke of Bongo’s New Year’s message, describing the video recorded in Morocco as a “spectacle” bringing shame on a country, which had “lost its dignity”. The soldier said Bongo had been presented as a "sick person deprived of his physical and mental capacities".
The Gabonese military hierarchy had “failed in their mission to defend the superior interests of the nation”, according to Ondo Obiang, calling their group the Patriotic Movement of the Youth of Defence and Security Forces.
The coup attempt was quickly put down and two members of Ondo Obiang’s group were killed, according to the authorities. But what led a highly trained soldier and member of the country’s top military unit to turn on his master, the very person he was trained to protect?
After several years of study, the teenage Ondo Obiang graduated from Prytanée with his baccalauréat and became a member of the renowned republican guard, wearing the illustrious green beret. He was dedicated to the job and worked particularly hard during this time, “a soldier devoted to the task, who truly loved his country,” according to someone close to him.
His hard work paid off and he rose up the ranks, becoming master sergeant after passing exams for non-commissioned officers.
Ondo Obiang’s development as a young soldier was in some way shaped by the leadership of Lieutenant Colonel Georges Dimeck, a French member of Gabon’s republican guard who offered the young man advice and believed in his abilities.
The continuing influence of the French military harks back to colonial history, and an ongoing partnership with Gabon on military cooperation. Critics, though, would point to the alleged shadowy world of Françafrique and the influence that France continues to assert over Gabon.
The Gabonese soldier looked up to Dimeck, describing the older French officer on social media as someone who helped him understand the importance of getting the job done. He wrote in a public thank you note that Dimeck helped him develop “strategies for leading the battle against the injustices of the 'world'.” An ominous remark given events over three years later when he led a group of soldiers to take over the country’s state broadcaster.
Gabon's republican guard is not exclusively made up of Gabonese soldiers. And it is not unusual to have French members of the elite unit, including serving officers, on secondment, according to an expert on the Gabonese military. RFI spoke to Lieutenant Colonel Dimeck, but he did not want to comment for this story.
The promising young man was selected in 2013 to pursue officer training at Côte d’Ivoire’s armed forces school in Zambakro, an area of the capital Yamoussoukro. Gabon frequently sends those seen as officer material abroad for further training owing to the country's lack of an officer training school.
Ondo Obiang spent two years in Côte d’Ivoire and developed a taste for life outside of his native Gabon. He sometimes missed his hometown of Mitzic, mentioning it on social media and joking about seeing his friends again.
The Gabonese soldier followed the news. He regularly shared images and links - sometimes just alluding to news events, but always cautious not to make public his thoughts or feelings.
He posted photos on Facebook from the uprising in Burkina Faso where long-time leader Blaise Compaoré was ousted in a popular uprising. He shared images from the inauguration of President George Weah in Liberia, an ex-footballer who rose from the slums of Monrovia. Both of these were events that saw the established political order swept away, unlike the situation in Gabon where Ali Bongo took the reins after the death of his father Omar Bongo in 2009. Ondo Obiang had only known one family in power in Gabon throughout his life.
His interest in news seemed to be accompanied by a desire to understand the world often framed by his chosen vocation. People who know him describe him as intelligent.
He quoted French military leaders such as Charles de Gaulle and Napoleon Bonaparte, pan-Africanist leader Thomas Sankara, anti-apartheid activist Nelson Mandela and civil rights movement icon Martin Luther King. Quotations from the biblical passages of Mark and Ezekiel are perhaps a nod to his Christian upbringing, while citations from Johann Wolfgang von Goethe seemingly reveal his literary interests.
Intelligent and well-researched
More interesting are his lesser-known references to figures featuring in the military history of Gabon. Jean-Marie Djoué Dabany was a Gabonese colonel who similarly undertook officer training in Côte d’Ivoire like Ondo Obiang. Djoué Dabany was one of the first Gabonese to train as a paratrooper and rose through the military ranks, but died in a helicopter crash that some have tried to link to former President Omar Bongo.
Ondo Obiang talked on social media about Captain Charles N'Tchoréré, a decorated Gabonese soldier, who fought both during World War One and World War Two. N’Tchoréré was shot for having demanded to be treated like a French officer after his troops were captured by Germans near Amiens, France. In reference to the Gabonese war hero, Ondo Obiang wrote that his country also had its own “honest men”, questioning whether they had gone and taken their values with them.
Characterising a soldier as a “lion” and stating his outlook on life, Ondo Obiang wrote on social media, “to remain calm, you must take things simply and avoid dramatizing”. He shared a link for a book on leadership by French priest Gaston Courtois, the founder of the Brave Hearts Catholic youth movement, who wrote about the skills and values needed by a good leader.
Ondo Obiang was promoted to the rank of second lieutenant following his graduation from officer training in Côte d’Ivoire. He celebrated at the President Hotel in Yamoussoukro, wearing a blue-coloured officer’s uniform sporting the commando insignia and Gabonese flag on his nametag. He wrote on social media about the obstacles he had overcome and the support of his family, especially his partner, who had recently given birth to his daughter.
He returned to Libreville and the republican guard just ahead of the country’s contentious 2016 elections. President Bongo was challenged by opposition leader Jean Ping, a former Gabonese foreign minister and ex-chairperson of the African Union Commission. The contested results handed Bongo another term in office and clashes erupted between opposition protesters and security forces.
At least 27 people were killed and more than 1,100 were arrested in several days of violence as Ping accused the electoral commission of rigging the results and called on Bongo to step down. Demonstrators tried to storm the electoral commission, set the country’s national assembly ablaze and Ping said a helicopter operated by the republican guard had bombed his party headquarters. The authorities accused protesters of using grenades and rifles.
Ondo Obiang was tight-lipped about the post-election violence, ensuing internet shutdown and subsequent preliminary investigation into human rights violations by the International Criminal Court. Despite his public silence, we may be able to draw some conclusions from the politicians, groups and activist movements that he followed on social media.
Some of those include videos featuring Jean Ping ahead of the elections, television programmes on the electoral crisis and roundtable discussions featuring critics of Bongo. The young second lieutenant also liked pages for Ali Bongo and first lady Sylvia Bongo. What is maybe more revealing are the smaller, lesser known groups.
'Unprecedented socio-political crisis'
The Radical Movement for Moral Liberation group that the soldier liked wanted a “revolution” bringing about the ousting of Bongo. Blogger Malcom Du Mapane, who Ondo Obiang followed, was highly critical of Bongo with a banner on social media saying, “with Ali, it's a free for all”. The small Citizens Standing Up Movement spoke of the French influence within Gabonese institutions such as the republican guard. A post from the community talked about an “unprecedented socio-political crisis” in the country with people having the choice between being active or passive.
One of those he followed, French-trained lawyer Paulette Oyane Ondo, was named by Ondo Obiang at the end of his speech after storming the Gabonese state broadcaster with his fellow soldiers and announcing the coup. In their statement, he urged young soldiers to seize strategic assets and take up arms.
Oyane Ondo had served in Bongo’s government as part of the trade and agriculture ministries, but she became one of only two ruling party MPs to vote against constitutional changes in 2010, enabling the president to extend his mandate in the case of an emergency. The constitutional amendment was described by the opposition as something that could “open the door to dictatorship”. She is a personality who served under Bongo, but later turned against the president.
The Gabonese soldier never discussed politics publicly on social media, or with people who knew him. He did not get involved in debates on political issues. People who know him say he was “discreet” and “respectful”. Soldiers are nevertheless discouraged from expressing political views and he certainly did not mention the events surrounding Bongo’s re-election or even allude to them.
In late 2016, Ondo Obiang started a new chapter in his military career travelling to Morocco for further training as an officer. According to one West African army expert, it is likely that this took place at a military school either in Meknes or Kenitra, both towns in northern Morocco.
The stage d'application is a six month-long training course where officers specialise in infantry, engineering, communications – different branches of the army – and it is common for soldiers from different African armies to train in Morocco.
Ondo Obiang shared photos with his friends of him in army fatigues in a desert environment and skiing near snow-capped peaks. He posted selfies with his fellow squaddies on the bus and enjoying Moroccan food.
It is around this time in early 2017 when Ondo Obiang's social media presence changed and he began exclusively using a profile called “Faya Man Intègre”. He had for some years been running this profile alongside another profile using his real name. Ondo Obiang had referred to the name Faya for years. He stopped updating the other profile in favour of the new “intègre” or “honest” persona.
Ondo Obiang returned to Libreville following his training in Morocco and re-joined the republican guard. He had now reached the pinnacle of the Gabonese military. “To be in the republican guard you must be the crème de la crème,” a military expert told RFI. “You must be among the best, the elite.”
His social media posts following his return mainly featured photos of himself smartly dressed, carrying a two-way radio, presumably on security operations for the presidency. He was proud to dress with a certain African “swag attitude”, he wrote.
However, his selfies and photos relaxing after work possibly reveal a sense of pensiveness. He still enjoyed exchanging comments with friends, but in his second to last Facebook post he said, “l love life, but my love for it has limits which I don’t ignore.” Less than two months later, he led the coup attempt.
It is impossible to determine Ondo Obiang’s motivations for the attempted coup solely based on his social media posts and conversations with those close to him, especially with someone so discreet. We cannot know for sure whether the groups or politicians he liked on Facebook represented anything more than just a curiosity.
Yet, the coup attempt appeared to be focused on securing just one strategic asset – the radio and television building. It was carried out by a small group who very quickly were confronted with an operation to take back the state broadcaster.
The revolution was foiled almost immediately. People who know Ondo Obiang say that he would have been well aware of the response his group's actions would be met with. “His strategy was to communicate and not take power,” a person close to Ondo Obiang said, not speaking with knowledge of his intentions, but assessing the Gabonese lieutenant's likely aim. The authorities reacted quickly to the seizing of the broadcasting building, cutting the internet connection and electricity in Libreville.
Military experts mostly agree that communication was key to the attempted coup. “They thought by carrying out this coup d’état they’d rally the people to their cause,” said one of the experts. Another analyst with knowledge of the Gabonese military described it as “surreal, incredible and improbable”.
“The goal was to transmit a message to the people to signal that a part of the Gabonese army aren’t happy with the governance and political choices,” said the analyst.
Being a member of the guard of honour is by no means a lower status role. Ondo Obiang was first and foremost a member of the republican guard. His position would have helped enable a group of coup plotters to lay their hands on the resources they needed, a military analyst said. Ondo Obiang had also worked within the republican guard's B3 section, dealing with operations and personnel.
On the other hand, Ondo Obiang is a man who grew through his teenage years within the military machine. People who know him said he was a “true patriot”. He had ascended through the ranks to obtain status and the salary of a member of the republican guard, “the top of the pyramid”, a military expert said.
Perhaps the career path of a highly-trained “honest” soldier is to serve President Bongo and help stage a coup d’état to flush out potential plotters or instill fear in the population to help maintain a grip on power. One military analyst RFI spoke to did raise the question, “was it an affair triggered internally?” without drawing any conclusions.
The events of 7 January did not force President Bongo to cut short his convalescence in Morocco and hurry back to the country. The coup plotters were paraded in handcuffs on television. One month after Lieutenant Kelly Ondo Obiang led his armed men into a studio to address the world, those who know him still express surprise that he tried to overthrow the Bongo family.
“Yes, it's a little strange,” said a person who knows the soldier. “But better bring three lions to battle than go with 1,000 sheep.”
One person close to him admired him for having “truly sacrificed his life for Gabon”, another said they thought it was a joke when they heard, while others did not want to comment to the media, afraid of the unwanted attention this had brought on those close to the Gabonese lieutenant.
Ondo Obiang and his fellow coup plotters remain in detention and are likely to face charges before a military tribunal. It is unclear what the future holds for the “honest” soldier.
He could be remembered for boldly declaring that the “army had decided to stand by its people”, as he said in his speech during the coup attempt. Or maybe people will ridicule the putschists for such a brazen attempt to overthrow the government, much like the jokes shared on social media, parodying Ondo Obiang reading out the statement flanked by two other members of the republican guard.