No one doubts the occurrence of military take overs in Africa now. What started in Mali in West Africa in 2020 travelled to Gabon on August 30, after the coup in Niger in early August. The first four coups, which are spoken about most of the time, respectively in Mali, Guinea, Burkina Faso and Niger have a common denominators, namely Jihadist insecurity, poor practice of democratic governance, increasing poverty and anti-French sentiments. The coup in Gabon is different.
Unlike the first four coups de force, the Gabon scenario put an end to the Bongo dynasty that ruled the country for nearly 56 years. Their reign started with 32-year-old Albert Bernard Bongo (later known as Alhaji Omar Bongo Ondimba when he converted to Islam) who became president seven years after the country became “independent”. Omar Bongo, who had previously served as Léon M’ba’s (the first president who was elected in 1961) vice president succeeded him when he passed in 1967. Omar Bongo started the “Bongo dynasty” and ruled the country, solely, for 42 years until his demise in 2009. He was succeeded by his son Ali Bongo who continued the same iron fist pro-France governance style in the oil rich country in Central Africa. Election results were contested several times under the rule of the son, especially by opposition leader Jean Ping in 2016, but nothing tangible happened. The dynasty did not bother in any way to improve the living conditions of the average Gabonese. The wealth of the country remained in the hands of the Bongo family and their close allies. A French financial police investigation in 2007 found that the Bongo family owned 39 properties in France, 70 bank accounts, and nine luxury cars worth a total of 1.5 million euros, according to news agency Reuters. Poverty increased among the populace. The country is known to be suffering an enormous wealth gap.
It might help to recall that the grip of France over that country is well known and blatant. Gabon is one of the “favourite” backyards of France on the continent. Its strategic location and natural resources led France to develop a special interest in that former colony. The French military presence in Gabon is one of the most robust on the continent, the Swedish Defense Research Institute states that 350 French bases and installations are in the country. Other bases are in Djibouti, Côte d’Ivoire, Senegal, and so on. The wealth of the country made it a pole of attraction for many Africans seeking greener pastures within the continent and the increasing number of migrants caused the adoption of stringent immigration laws making it difficult for Africans from other countries to travel and work in Gabon. The friendship between Omar Bongo and French presidents like François Mitterrand and Nicholas Sarkozy was overt and the former used to boast about it. Omar Bongo was, to the astonishment of many Afrocentrists, proud of his closeness to the power in Élysée Palace in Paris, and President Sarkozy referred to him as a “great and loyal ally of France”.
The only small gesture that was not in line with French neocolonialism was noticed when the country joined the Commonwealth in June 2022. Several reasons are attributed to that semblance of a shift. Some critics have it that ousted President Ali Bongo had part of his education in the UK although he studied either in France or French schools in Gabon. It therefore did not come as a surprise when the President who was deposed on 30 August and placed under house arrest was seen pleading lamentably and telling the Gabonese people “I beg you, go on to the streets and make noise”. That was his way of inciting an opposition to the coup. Indeed, Ali Bongo is said to have made history as the president with the shortest third term, since he was deposed by the military just 30 minutes after he was proclaimed the winner of the elections.
The coup in Gabon is not a leap out of the French neocolonial arena, while the previous coups have overtly shown such a penchant. The coup in Chad which is seen by many as a simple replacement of Idriss Déby by his son Mahamat Déby, not a military takeover is, in that respect, somewhat similar to the Gabon event, except that electoral frauds are cited as some of the main causes behind the coup in Gabon. The common thread between those two coups lies in the fact that they occurred in French speaking countries where a military officer takes over as president and no drastic condemnation of the French policy is made. So, the Gabon coup differs from the grassroot revolts that occurred in the first four countries mentioned previously. Those coups were caused by the discontent with French manipulation that create terrorist insecurity, since many observers pose that the Jihadists are simply people handpicked in certain countries, then trained and equipped by France to cause an insecurity that will call for the military assistance of France. Such analysts therefore contend that Jihadists are products of the French military, unlike the general opinion that all Jihadists are violent Muslims linked to Al Qaeda.
Another factor that makes this recent coup different is the background of the coup leader. Unlike most of the first four, the coup leader in Gabon is not a young military officer and newcomer on the political scene. General Brice Oligui Nguema is said to be well-known and unanimously approved by the top military officers of all the defense units in the country. Although he is the chief of the republican presidential guard, just like the coup leader in Niger (General Chani), General Oligui Nguema had never shown any anti-French sentiment and he is seriously close to the dynasty, since he was once the bodyguard of Bongo the father. He made no declaration whatsoever that went against the interests of France, and as a result, France and the international community did not condemn this coup as they did in the case of the first four. While heavy sanctions were administered to the military regimes in Mali, Guinea, Burkina Faso and Niger, no real condemnation was uttered about the Gabon coup.
The Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS) condemned it and called for dialogue to return the country to civilian rule. UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres expressed concern over “reports of serious infringements of fundamental freedoms” during the contested election but urged all parties to respect the rule of law and human rights; other relatively mild “castigations” emanated from certain organizations. Is it because former President Ali Bongo was no more useful to France and de facto had to be replaced? That could be a reason, since he suffered a stroke in 2018 and was perceived as incapable of governing efficiently. Others point out the fact that the country joined the Commonwealth, a move away from the Francophonie, the coalition of all former French colonies, a sure apparatus that guarantees the continuation of Franch neocolonialism.
All these factors point to a semi-palace coup, where the oligarch was simply deposed, and replaced by another leader who might not truncate the political French grip over Gabon. The new leader might maintain the pro-France policy, and that could lead to another coup, since he will be seen as a traitor by the average Gabonese who are suffering under the socio-economic malaise that Francophone Africa, in general, is currently going through. A second coup that echoes the voice of the downtrodden, the masses and the repudiation of France, as we observed in the first four countries is a probability, if the transitional government does not follow a clean-cut progressive path. The junta pledged to continue public services in the country, and to follow the country’s commitments domestically and internationally. To many, this therefore looks like a “mild” coup, if that could be said, a simple anti-dynasty move. The coming measures and decisions constitute what really captures the interest of many. Will Gabon join the group of the first four, who are known for their radical anti-French penchant?
Moussa Traoré is Associate Professor at the Department of English of the University of Cape Coast, Ghana.