By Gerauds Wilfried Obangome
LIBREVILLE (Reuters) -The leader of a coup that ousted Gabon's President Ali Bongo was sworn in as interim president and cheered by jubilant supporters on Monday in a televised ceremony designed to cast the military as liberators of an oppressed society.
In West and Central Africa's eighth coup in three years, army officers led by General Brice Oligui Nguema seized power on Aug. 30, minutes after an announcement that Bongo had won an election they annulled and said was not credible.
The coup drew cheering crowds onto the streets of the capital Libreville but condemnation from abroad, including from Central African regional bloc ECCAS which said on Monday it was suspending Gabon until a return to constitutional order.
Nguema was given a standing ovation by military officers and officials as he arrived for the ceremony, and again after he was sworn in by a panel of constitutional court judges.
State TV showed images of a cheering crowd and armoured personnel carriers firing into the sea to mark the moment.
In a speech, Nguema proposed reforms including a new constitution to be adopted by referendum, new electoral and penal codes, and measures to prioritise local banks and companies for economic development. He also said political exiles would be welcomed back and political prisoners freed.
Repeatedly interrupted by cheers, he described the coup, which ended the Bongo family's 56-year hold on power in the oil-producing country, as a moment of national liberation and a manifestation of God's will.
"When the people are crushed by their leaders ... it's the army that gives them back their dignity," he said. "People of Gabon, today the times of happiness that our ancestors dreamt of are finally coming."
Several figures from Bongo's government, including the vice president and prime minister, attended the ceremony.
Bongo himself remains under house arrest. He was elected in 2009, taking over from his late father who came to power in 1967. Opponents say the family did too little to share Gabon's oil and mining wealth with the country's 2.3 million people.
PLEDGE TO RETURN POWER TO CIVILIANS
Nguema reiterated that his administration would organise free and fair elections, though he gave no timetable.
"After this transition ... we intend to return power to civilians by organising new elections that will be free, transparent, credible and peaceful," he said.
Previously, Nguema had said the junta would proceed "quickly but surely," but cautioned that too much haste could lead to elections that lack credibility.
After a summit held in neighbouring Equatorial Guinea, the ECCAS bloc announced Gabon's suspension and called for a swift return to constitutional order.
"All threats to the peace, security and stability of any ECCAS member, such as Gabon, has repercussions for our countries and communities," said Equatorial Guinea's President Teodoro Obiang Nguema in a brief address closing the summit.
Gabon's main opposition group, Alternance 2023, which says it is the rightful winner of the Aug. 26 election, has called on the international community to encourage the junta to hand power back to civilians.
Members of Alternance 2023 met Nguema on Sunday for talks, a source in the alliance told Reuters, without sharing further details.
Gabon's international bonds continued to claw back ground after their sharp tumble last Wednesday. The 2025 bond recorded the biggest gains, up 1.8 cents in the dollar according to Tradeweb data.
The bonds, which are trading between 91.3 cents from 2024 maturities and 74 cents for issues coming due in 2031, remain around 5 cents below their pre-coup levels, however.
(Additional reporting by Nellie Peyton, Karin Strohecker and Sofia ChristensenWriting by Alessandra Prentice and Estelle ShirbonEditing by Peter Graff and Christina Fincher)