On August 30, shortly after President Ali Bongo was reelected for his third term, a group of Gabonese military officers from the presidential unit seized Bongo, his son, and six other individuals and held them prisoner in his palace.
The instigators of the coup justified this abduction on account of Bongo and his accomplices allegedly committing high treason and electoral fraud. Just hours later, General Brice Oligui Nguema, said to be a cousin of Ali Bongo, was appointed to oversee the transition of power. The military unit has begun consolidating their control throughout the country. However, the results of the coup and the intentions of this new ruling party remains indeterminate at this time.
The recent coup in Gabon, a former French colony, reflects an alarming pattern of political upheaval in several countries in Africa. Throughout the Sahel, pervasive poverty, corruption, and unemployment has led to decreased faith in the ability of multinational institutions, France, and corrupt domestic governments to restore stability and security in the region. As Francophone African states demand independence from these institutions and the politico-economic climate in Africa morphs, there will be a shift in the global distribution of power, granting Africa more influence and diminishing that of France.
This coup has marked the conclusion of the dynastic, autocratic rule of the Bongo family, which has governed Gabon for the past 55 years. The most direct cause of the coup is the exploitative nature of the Bongo family’s rule.
In 1967, France helped Omar Bongo become president, marking the genesis of the Bongo empire. During their faux-democratic stint in office, significant irregularities marred all elections. The Bongos modified the electoral rules in the months leading up to the election and deliberately censored certain media, hindering the free flow of information by cutting the available internet service providers. The Bongos have also switched the country from run-off system voting, in which the people first vote for several candidates and then vote again between the top two candidates from the first round, to single-round voting, in which each voter casts a single vote in a ranked-choice ballot. The line of reasoning for this switch in electoral methodology is that voters with fewer potential candidates to resonate with are more likely to stick with the incumbent candidate. In this case, the incumbents are the all-too-familiar Bongo family. These alterations consolidate the Bongos’ power by diminishing competition by reducing the number of non-incumbent candidates and, in turn, facilitating the reelection of Ali Bongo.
Furthermore, Gabon is an archetypal case of the resource curse, a paradoxical phenomenon in which a state with abundant natural resources underperforms economically, is politically and governmentally less democratic, and experiences underdevelopment. This is because Gabon’s material wealth has been circulated among the elite in order to ensure loyalty to the Bongos. The Bongo autocracy has hoarded Gabon’s oil, timber, manganese and mining wealth, giving Gabon the second-highest GDP in Sub-Saharan Africa, but has not served the 2.3 million impoverished Gabonese people at all.
Although many Gabonese citizens supported the coup, eager to remove the Bongos from office, it is unclear whether the military junta will take this opportunity to continue the cycle of the ruling class enriching themselves at the expense of ordinary citizens or if they will create and uphold a fair and honest democracy. Analysts at the United States Institute of Peace have debated whether this was a case of the people taking matters into their own hands or rather, more likely, if what we are witnessing is just the latest rivalry between factions of the Bongo clan. The Bongos, this latter explanation goes, are possibly using this coup as means to generate more capital for themselves rather than helping disenfranchised Gabonese citizens.
History of Coups in Francophone States
Though the coup arose in Gabon, it forms a larger regional and historical trend. This event was one in a long line of military coups in former French colonies. The military coups in Africa in the past five years are as follows: Sudan in April of 2019 and October of 2021, Mali in August of 2020 and May of 2021, Chad in April of 2022, Guinea in September of 2021, Burkina Faso in January of 2022 and September of 2022, and now Gabon in August of 2023.
These rapidly occurring events have raised questions regarding why Francophone states are so disproportionately prone to putsches as compared to former colonial counterparts of other European countries. The answer has to do with Francafrique, a term used in international relations to describe France’s jurisdiction over former French colonies in Africa. In order to maintain its position on the worldwide stage and be able to successfully compete with Britain and the United States in terms of international leverage, France kept close political, military, economic, cultural and social ties with its former colonies even after the African colonies’ ascension to independence in the late 1950s.
Francafrique and France’s military and defense bases in Gabon created tension and furthered resentment of citizens against France and their own political leaders for not attempting to create distance from France but rather cooperating with them in order to create more capital for themselves. Even in countries with a government that resembles a democracy, such as Gabon, there exists a level of corruption in the ruling class as a result as Francafrique. Perhaps what makes the corruption all the more sinister and, consequently, makes coups so common, is the fact that through Francafrique, French corporations maintained close relations with African politicians, such as the Bongos, in order to cash out on lucrative resource deals. For example, countries still using French currency must store half of their currency reserves with France’s central bank. This practice perpetuates colonial taxation and represents an excuse for France to further enrich itself at the expense of the African economy and remain in control of the distribution of African wealth.
In the eyes of the Gabonese people, politicians’ complicity with France is a deep-rooted betrayal. Gabonese leaders value personal gain and excess and their relationships with their former oppressors over the wellbeing of their governed citizens. This coup and all those that preceded it are simply the continuation of former French colonies distancing themselves from neocolonialism, diminishing the effects of Francafrique, and attempting to transition from corruption and autocracy into democratic governance.
Implications for France
These recent coups in Africa do not take place in a vacuum. Francafrique has been fading into irrelevance for several decades. As France’s sphere of influence in Africa dwindles, its role and ascendancy on a global level comes into question.
Currently, the collective African political consciousness is shifting towards anti-French sentiment and hatred for France is spreading and intensifying. Senegalese foreign affairs analyst Chris Ogunmodede, who claims to have been a personal witness of anti-French protests, stated that “people are attacking French businesses which to many people [in Gabon] represent French neo-colonialism.”
Without the political and economic strength that the African colonies provided, France’s economy will suffer significantly and its political authority will severely diminish. Currently, France has 81 companies performing in Gabon spanning across various sectors that made an overall profit of 3 billion euros last year. To make matters worse, Africa provides between 0.25% and 0.5% of a point to annual economic growth in France. This dependency implies that the longevity of France’s economy is unstable without Africa’s natural reserves and trade deals.
Moreover, as Sahelian countries are becoming independent from France, they are allying closely with other hegemons. Several African politicians have stated that they believe they have no attachment or loyalty to France and actually want a multiplicity of international partners.
“The former colonies are looking [out] for their interests. They’re not looking at their history with France,” stated Seidik Abba, president of the International Center for Reflection for Studies on the Sahel.
The most prominent states that African countries have been eager to cooperate with are China and Russia. These powers are outmaneuvering Western countries as Africa, collectively, has begun to embrace the Kremlin and the Chinese government. For instance, China has replaced France as the biggest trading partner in Gabon and manages over 50% of Gabon’s logging land. Clearly, the geopolitical climate has expanded beyond neocolonial states towards more modern intercontinental states. It is imperative to pay very close attention to see how these international relationships will evolve and strengthen over time and how Russian and Chinese presence changes Africa’s political consciousness and economic state.
The military coups and political unrest in Gabon and the other Francophone states shed light on the highly dysfunctional neo-colonial relationship between France and Africa. This relationship exemplifies that the existence Western-supported African autocracies are just as damaging to the possibility of democratic governance as coups are, if not more.
On a broader scale, the overall trend in Gabon and other Francophone states is not just one of France losing power in Africa but also of the global balance of power shifting away from Western imperialist and colonial hegemony and into the hands of countries such as China, Russia and, eventually, the emergence of fully independent and decolonized African states.
Featured Image Source: The New Arab