Africa Watch – Make some noise

4th September 2023

A group of senior military officers in Gabon took control of the country, broadcasting it on national television. They cited the lack of credibility in the recent election held over the weekend. They declared it null and void, dissolved state institutions and closed the country’s borders. President Ali Bongo was declared the winner with 64.27% of the vote, while his main rival, Albert Ondo Ossa, secured 30.77%. Concerns about transparency arose due to the absence of international observers, the suspension of foreign broadcasts and the government’s actions, including cutting internet service and imposing a nationwide nighttime curfew after the election.

This chart on coups does not include the latest incident in Gabon.
This chart on coups does not include the latest incident in Gabon.

It is important to start this by putting forward the results of a 2016 Afrobarometer study conducted in Gabon. In the report, it was found that despite massive public dissatisfaction with the status quo, Gabonese citizens strongly supported democracy and rejected military and one-man rule. The majority of Gabonese citizens said they preferred democracy to any other kind of government (72%) and rejected military rule (71%), one-party rule (87%) and one-man rule (90%). Crucially, only one in 10 citizens (11%) were satisfied with the way their democracy was working. Most Gabonese said their country was going in the wrong direction (87%). Seven in 10 saw economic conditions as worsening (70%) and disapproved of President Bongo’s job performance (72%). More than two-thirds (68%) of Gabonese said elections are the best way to choose the country’s leaders, but fewer than one in five trusted the national electoral commission (16%) and considered the 2016 election generally free and fair. It is very remarkable that four years after disapproving a coup, Gabonese citizens welcomed Wednesday’s coup with open arms.

Since 2020, West and Central Africa have seen a surge in coups, with nearly all the countries involved being former French colonies. This resurgence of coups in Africa gained momentum, particularly in West Africa, amid the COVID-19 pandemic. The trend began when some Malian colonels overthrew President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita in August 2020, following protests over security issues, disputed legislative elections, and corruption allegations. Nine months later, a second unfolded, with Assimi Goita, who had become vice president after the initial coup, leading the second one and assuming leadership. Chad’s situation followed in April 2021, when the army took control after President Idriss Deby was killed while visiting troops fighting rebels. In September 2021, special forces commander Colonel Mamady Doumbouya ousted President Alpha Conde in Guinea, who had previously altered the constitution to seek a third term, sparking riots. There have been at least four more coups, including Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, and the most recent one in Gabon.

Anyone paying attention to the region would have seen Gabon’s coup coming at least 11 years ago when Mali descended into chaos. In several ways, Omar Bongo had it coming. The Bongo dynasty has ruled Gabon since 1967 with an oil wealth that has not translated into a better life for its 2.3 million people, with 30% living on less than $2 a day. Despite being rich in oil, manganese, and cocoa resources, Gabon struggles with high poverty rates and unemployment. The country earns roughly $3 billion annually from crude exports, yet it remains under an IMF programme that has disbursed just over $200 million across two tranches. Gabon’s intricate economic challenges have contributed to public dissatisfaction, laying the groundwork for military intervention. Mismanagement, corruption, and resource misallocation have all created an environment where discontent thrives. In Gabon, citizens grew disillusioned with a system that permitted presidents to rule for life as long as they consistently won elections. It also did not help Bongo Jr that his leadership did not make the much-needed trip to full democracy from the anocracy it practised. This has now led to a military autocracy.

The recent election marked another blow to Bongo Jr’s reputation: by barring international observers and shutting down the internet, it was clear that Bongo Jr wanted to extend his rule through both legitimate and deceitful methods, particularly the latter. In his case, tears may be shed only for deceit. The first warning sign came in January 2019 when junior officers of the Gabonese military staged a coup in the first week of the year. Bongo only survived because the coup was badly organised and implemented, and public opinion did not support it at the time. Bongo’s failure to read the writing on the wall was extant: he appointed his younger brother Frédéric as the head of the country’s intelligence: a move geared towards forestalling another putsch. Even worse, he was rumoured to be preparing his son, Noureddin Bongo Valentin, as his successor.

If this is true, it may have fuelled the possible animosity of Frédéric, who may have cast his lot with the military after turning his back on his brother. In effect, like other coups that have taken place on the continent, a military government does not necessarily exist as a good alternative despite being direct products of the failure of democratically elected civilian governments. Military governments are a bad alternative underpinned by the desire to acquire wealth and glory as against the touted concern for national development.

In addition to the notable trend of recent coups being orchestrated by high-ranking officers, the French involvement has also been significantly detrimental. Earlier this year, French President Emmanuel Macron visited Libreville to express support for Bongo, but with recent developments in former French colonies across the Sahel, Macron and his country are, and will continue to be seen as, the angels of death.

Getting that head of state to deliver on his democratic mandate is another uphill battle. African leaders on the South of the Sahara, have shown that they are impervious to such reasoning. The Gabonese coup leaders might face sanctions depending on the viability of their transition plan. International reactions have already been swift and varied. France, the African Union, the United States, the Commonwealth, and the European Union have all condemned the coup, urging a return to democratic rule. Even Russia and China, from the opposing geopolitical sphere, have weighed in. Moscow expressed concern about the situation’s deterioration and is monitoring developments closely, while China called for a swift restoration of order. In one of the clearest indicators that the coup fever is sending shockwaves in possibly the right quarters, long-term presidents in Cameroon and Rwanda reshuffled their military top brasses, moves designed to make their governments coup-proof. On paper, this seems like a smart move towards regime security. However, what the Gabon coup has shown is that the enemy within might prove even more deadly than the enemy at the gates. While the Gabonese coup leaders have not explicitly declared anti-French sentiments, geopolitical manoeuvres are yet to unfold.