Of all the nations carved from French Africa, none is less populous or more richly endowed with natural resources than tiny Gabon. With a population of only 450,000, it is one of the biggest producers of uranium and manganese in the franc zone, and its magnetic deposits of iron ore (1 billion tons) are just beginning to be tapped. Hence French President Charles de Gaulle's sudden interest last week in a political upheaval in the steaming, rain-forested republic. No sooner had an army coup toppled Gabon's President Léon Mba than De Gaulle came to the rescue. With a lightning strike of planes and paratroopers, he restored Mba to power and demonstrated that the grand Gaullist manner extends to darkest Africa as well as to Europe and America.
Rude Awakening. No African leader had seemed more secure than pro-Gaullist Mba (pronounced um-bah), who won a 99.6% mandate in 1961.
But the overwhelming mandate was illusory. Mba won it only by promising his archrival, Jean-Hilaire Aubame, the prestigious Foreign Minister's portfolio.
Aubame had only one thing in common with Mbathe roots and culture of the once-cannibalistic Fang people, a tribe that has dominated Gabon's northern reaches since the early 1800s. Last year, when Mba tried to ease Aubame out of the Cabinet by offering him the presidency of the Supreme Court, the deal fell through. As chief of the opposition, Aubame insisted on also keeping his National Assembly seat. Last month, with the defeat of a bill aimed at eliminating one of Aubame's two jobs, Mba flew into a rage and tried to force his rival out. He dissolved Parliament, called for new elections, and reduced the number of seats from 60 to 47. This "economy measure" would have given Mba a one-party state, but he reckoned without his 400-man army.
Early last week a handful of junior army and police officers crept into the white, bougainvillea-shrouded presidential mansion overlooking Libreville's humid harbor. The sleeping President was hauled from his bed with a revolver in his side, then found himself quickly spirited off to the Baraka military camp outside the capital. When Libreville awoke, the rebels had control of the airport, post office, radio station and government buildings. The coup committee announced that "Léon Mba and his acolytes" had been thrown out, named Aubame provisional Prime Minister, and looting got under way.
It looked as if Mba had followed in the ignominious path of Dahomey's Hubert Maga and the Congo Republic's Fulbert Youlou, both of whose governments were toppled last year. De Gaulle did not choose to intervene in those insurrections. This time, however, more was at stake. Claiming that the Gabon coup did not have popular support, De Gaulle implemented a "mutual defense" agreement signed in 1960 when Gabon became independent. Eleven hours after Mba's rude awakening, French help was on its way.