Gabon coup bid highlights country in grip of uncertainty

Gabonese President Ali Bongo Ondimba attends the closing ceremony of the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations at the Stade de l’Amitie Sino-Gabonaise in Libreville. (AFP)
Updated 08 January 2019
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Gabon coup bid highlights country in grip of uncertainty

  • Gabon has been without effective government since October, when President Ali Bongo suffered a stroke
  • Security forces attacked the building and arrested the coup leader, killed two and freed radio technicians and journalists who had been held hostage

LIBREVILLE: “Who’s in charge?” asked Gaston, a resident of Libreville, a day after Gabon’s armed forces quelled an attempted coup.
Calm has returned to the Gabonese capital after several hours of upheaval, yet Gaston’s question is on many lips.
The brief attempt on power has prompted many to ponder the flux gripping a country where political change has been negligible for more than half a century.
Gabon has been without effective government since October, when President Ali Bongo suffered a stroke.
Bongo, 59, is the son of Omar Bongo, who became head of state in 1967 and died in June 2009, leaving a legacy of corruption allegations.
In the kingdom of “kongossa” — gossip in local slang — tongues have wagged over the lack of detailed information about Bongo’s health.
The head of state has been flown to Morocco where he recorded a New Year’s Eve address marked by slurred words and a squint that critics said raised even more alarming questions about his health.
In his lengthening absence, a small group of soldiers stormed the state broadcasting headquarters in the capital on Monday and went on the air urging the Gabonese people to “rise up.”
The coup attempt turned out to be short lived. Security forces attacked the building and arrested the leader, killed two and freed radio technicians and journalists who had been held hostage.
The army was deployed in the capital and armored vehicles patrolled the streets, but on Tuesday most shops and restaurants were open and the seafront avenue, where the broadcasting center is located, reopened to traffic.
The Internet, which had been cut, was restored, although the round-the-clock state-run news channel Gabon 24 was off the air.
In a country based on an executive president, Bongo’s absence has been felt in many ways, from institutional fog to press speculation of tensions between Bongo’s cabinet director, Brice Laccruche Alihanga, and the head of the intelligence services, Frederic Bongo.
Gabon is without a new prime minister — there were legislative elections last October, but it is the job of the head of state to name someone to the post.
The opposition has sought to have the Constitutional Court officially declare a power vacuum in Bongo’s absence, but court president Marie-Madeleine Mborantsuo instead announced a new clause in the basic law to clarify the situation, without a parliamentary vote.
“Gabon on (very dangerous) automatic pilot,” an opposition newspaper headlined early in November, prompting a ban on publication.
Frustration, anxiety or anger are not hard to find in the streets of Libreville, although few wish to speak on the record, fearing retribution.
“What happened (yesterday) was a good thing, it should have worked. We have to get out of this situation,” said Stephane, a 27-year-old tripe seller.
He said he had been among people who went out in response to the rebels’ appeal for an uprising.
“We weren’t criminals or looters. We answered the call. We are 120-percent fed up!” he said.
The authorities remain consistent in their communications. The situation after the attempted coup is “normal,” Bongo is “doing fine” and “will soon come back.”
“It’s as if absolutely nothing has happened,” snorted an angry citizen.
“They did the same thing to us in 2016,” the individual said, referring to the government’s posture after a bitterly contested presidential election was followed by clashes.
“Can you understand how frustrating it is to live in a country where there is such a blackout?”


Firefighters battle wildfire in Portugal, 32 people hurt

Updated 22 July 2019
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Firefighters battle wildfire in Portugal, 32 people hurt

COLOS, Portugal: More than 1,000 firefighters battled a major wildfire Monday amid scorching temperatures in Portugal, where forest blazes wreak destruction every summer.
About 90% of the fire area in the Castelo Branco district, 200 kilometers (about 125 miles) northeast of the capital Lisbon, was brought under control during cooler overnight temperatures, according to local Civil Protection Agency commander Pedro Nunes.
But authorities said they expected heat in and winds to increase again in the afternoon, so all firefighting assets remained in place. Forests in the region are tinder-dry after weeks with little rain.
The Portuguese Civil Protection Agency said 321 vehicles and eight water-dumping aircraft were deployed to tackle the blaze, which has raced through thick woodlands.
Nunes told reporters that the fire, in its third day, has injured 32 people, one seriously.
Police said they were investigating what caused the fire amid suspicions it may have been started deliberately.
Temperatures were forecast to reach almost 40 C (104 F) Monday — prolonging a spell of blistering weather that is due to hit northern Europe late this week.
Recent weeks have also seen major wildfires in Spain, Greece and Germany. European Union authorities have warned that wildfires are “a growing menace” across the continent.
In May, forest fires also plagued Mexico and Russia.
Huge wildfires have long been a summer fixture in Portugal.
Residents of villages and hamlets in central Portugal have grown accustomed to the summer blazes, which destroy fruit trees, olive trees and crops in the fields.
In the hamlet of Colos, 50-year-old beekeeper Antonio Pires said he had lost half of his beehives in the current wildfire. Pires sells to mainly Portuguese and German clients, but also to Brazil and China.
“(I lost) 100 out of 230 (hives), so almost half,” Pires said. “A lot of damage.”
The country’s deadliest fire season came in 2017, when at least 106 people were killed.
The average annual area charred by wildfires in Portugal between 2010 and 2016 was just over 100,000 hectares (247,000 acres). That was more than in Spain, France, Italy or Greece — countries which are significantly bigger than Portugal.
Almost 11,500 firefighters are on standby this year, most of them volunteers. Volunteers are not uncommon in fire brigades in Europe, especially in Germany where more than 90% are volunteers.
Experts and authorities have identified several factors that make Portugal so particularly vulnerable to forest blazes. Addressing some of them is a long-term challenge.
The population of the Portuguese countryside has thinned as people have moved to cities in search of a better life. That means woodland has become neglected, especially as many of those left behind are elderly, and the forest debris is fuel for wildfires.
Large areas of central and northern Portugal are covered in dense, unbroken stretches of forest on hilly terrain. A lot of forest is pine and eucalyptus trees, both of which burn fiercely.
Environmentalists have urged the government to limit the area of eucalyptus, which burns like a torch. But it is a very valuable crop for Portugal’s important paper pulp industry, which last year posted sales worth 2.7 billion euros ($3 billion). The government says it is introducing restrictions gradually.
Experts say Portugal needs to develop a diversified patchwork of different tree species, some of them more fire-resistant and offering damper, shaded.
Climate change has become another challenge, bringing hotter, drier and longer summers. The peak fire season used to run from July 1 to Sept. 30. Now, it starts in June and ends in October.
After the 2017 deaths, the government introduced a raft of measures. They included using goats and bulldozers to clear woodland 10 meters (33 feet) either side of country roads. Property owners also have to clear a 50-meter (164-feet) radius around an isolated house, and 100 meters (328 feet) around a hamlet.
Emergency shelters and evacuation routes have been established at villages and hamlets. Their church bells aim to toll when a wildfire is approaching.
With 98% of blazes caused by human hand, either by accident or on purpose, officials have also been teaching people how to safely burn stubble and forest waste. Police, army and forest service patrols are also increased during the summer.