Gabon Coup: Another Instance of Colonial Legacy?

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Gabon, a Central African country rated 35th in terms of oil reserves and producing roughly 0.1% of total global oil output, was thrown into upheaval on August 30, 2023, by a military revolt. This coup occurred just minutes after a contested election declared the president, whose family had ruled for nearly 50 years, the winner.

With a population of only 3.1 million, has seen three coups in the last 70 years. This incident is part of Africa’s ongoing coup season, which has raised a number of difficulties and cast doubt on the region’s future. The expelled leader, Ali Bongo Ondimba, often known as Ali Bongo, faced multiple claims of election fraud and corruption during his 14-year reign over the oil-rich but poor country. Following the coup, locals in the capital city rejoiced and demonstrated in the streets in favor of the military.

However, there are several questions in the aftermath of the coup. Ali Bongo is said to be under house arrest, his son has been imprisoned, borders have been blocked, and the government looks to be inoperable. International leaders have voiced their grave worry and denounced the coup, with some encouraging their nationals in Gabon to stay home for their own protection.

How did the coup happen?

The military’s takeover unfolded on August 30, shortly after Gabon’s election authority declared the re-election of President Bongo in the aftermath of the weekend’s election. Soldiers donning army uniforms took to national television to announce their seizure of power. They declared the election results null and void, imposed a shutdown of all borders, and dissolved various government entities, including both houses of parliament. The leaders of the coup disclosed that President Bongo had been confined to his residence and was surrounded by “family and doctors.”

Additionally, the coup leaders arrested Noureddin Bongo Valentin, the ousted president’s son, along with six others on charges of “high treason.” A video broadcasted by the Agence France-Presse news agency featured Bongo seated in what appeared to be a library, expressing his uncertainty about the situation. He mentioned being at his residence and not having knowledge of the events unfolding, stating that his son and wife were in different locations. The circumstances under which the clip was recorded remained unclear.

Meanwhile, the junta appointed Gen. Brice Oligui Nguema as the transitional leader. Gen. Nguema, once the bodyguard of Bongo’s late father, the former ruler of Gabon, assured in an interview with the French newspaper Le Monde that President Bongo was enjoying “all his rights” as a “regular Gabonese” citizen.

Why the coup happened?

Post-colonial struggle

Africa has undergone significant transformation over the past seven decades, yet the influence of post-colonial powers continues to have a profound impact on the politics of African nations, including Gabon.

The enduring legacy of French colonialism still looms over Gabonese politics, and the post-colonial structure has proven to be fragile when it comes to internal politics and the overall political landscape in Gabon over the past 40 years. Notably, a single family with close ties to France has maintained a firm grip on the state, further perpetuating the influence of the post-colonial era. This situation underscores the enduring presence of the post-colonial framework in the country.

The recent withdrawal of French military forces from various African states has contributed to a growing propensity for coup attempts within certain factions. Additionally, Gabon is currently grappling with economic challenges, intensifying public discontent with the longstanding autocratic rule. It’s worth noting that the seven African countries that have witnessed coup attempts in the last two years all share a common feature: they were former French colonies.

This has led many observers to question whether France or the enduring legacy of French colonialism bears responsibility for the instability prevalent in the region. Anti-French sentiments have gained traction across the Sahel region, particularly in areas where French companies have held significant control over mining resources.

The Consequences of Exploitation

The recent coup in Gabon sheds light on a common underlying factor in coups across Africa — an enduring pattern of exploitation. The dominance of external powers in African countries, including Gabon, has weakened their domestic political structures. Exploitation, whether in terms of economic resources or even political norms, has taken a toll on the entire African continent. Consequently, these nations struggle to establish stable political frameworks for themselves in the years ahead.

In the post-COVID era, the world is grappling with political upheaval, and this turmoil is now evident in many countries. The rise of coups in Africa reflects a growing inclination toward military rule in response to global political challenges. Recent events in Mali, Sudan, and Guinea demonstrate a rising trend where the populace appears to favor military governments. This development poses a fresh challenge to the established global order, as the appeal of democracy in Africa is waning.

Over the past three years, a number of African countries, predominantly former French colonies like Mali, Guinea, Burkina Faso, Chad, Niger, Tunisia, and now Gabon, have witnessed coups. These events jeopardize the progress made in democratization on the continent over the past two decades.

Historically, coups were common in Africa during the early postcolonial years, often justified by leaders citing issues such as corruption, mismanagement, and poverty as reasons for overthrowing governments. Regrettably, in many countries, these problems appear to be worsening, with a growing population in the world’s youngest continent intensifying competition for limited resources.

These conditions have contributed to the resurgence of coups in recent times, as many young Africans become disillusioned with allegedly corrupt leaders and seek radical change. This sentiment was evident in the jubilation that followed the coup in Gabon, similar to the reactions after the coup in Guinea two years earlier. While economic hardship and poor leadership quality often serve as the main reasons behind these coups, the recent wave of events underscores that the African continent is following a disturbing trend.

The impact of global economic downgrade

Gabon, despite its natural resource wealth and a GDP per capita of US$8,820 (among the highest in sub-Saharan Africa), still grapples with widespread poverty. Only a small elite has benefited from the nation’s resources, leading to high unemployment rates, reportedly as high as 37%, and 35% of the population living below the poverty line of US$2 a day.

Ali Bongo Ondimba’s ascent to power in 2009 brought with it promises of economic reform. However, by 2016, Gabon was still grappling with economic stagnation. Frequent power outages, limited access to running water, and the widening wealth gap have compounded the difficulties faced by the Gabonese people. These socio-economic disparities and mounting frustrations have created fertile ground for political upheaval and coups.

The rising popularity of coups: An emerging trend

The decline of democracy in Africa and the increasing polarization in support of military regimes, as seen in the recent coup in Gabon, serves as a glaring example of this phenomenon.

Lately, a common thread linking these coups across the African continent has been the erosion of electoral systems and the growing favorability of military rule. In Gabon, we witness a similar trajectory, where the populace expresses its contentment and relief in the military’s role as the savior of the nation.

Despite previous attempts to showcase democracy, the enduring influence of military regimes in these African countries has gradually transformed them into supporters of authoritarian rule. In this process, the population has shifted its allegiance towards military or authoritarian governance.

What has the world said?

The recent coup in Gabon has garnered widespread criticism from both African nations and Western countries. The African Union, representing 55 member states, strongly condemned the coup and suspended Gabon from participating in its activities until constitutional order is restored. The Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS) also condemned the coup and called for dialogue to return the country to civilian rule, planning to discuss this further with member nations.

United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres expressed concern over reported infringements of fundamental freedoms during the contested election but called for respect for the rule of law and human rights. The U.S. State Department strongly opposed military seizures of power, urging the coup leaders to uphold civilian rule and expressing solidarity with the people of Gabon. The U.S. embassy in Gabon advised American citizens to remain cautious and have evacuation plans.

The European Union and several European nations, including the United Kingdom, Germany, and Spain, rejected the coup while sharing concerns about the electoral process. However, the EU did not have immediate plans to evacuate its staff in Gabon.

To summarize, the recent coup in Gabon has prompted numerous inquiries into Africa’s political landscape. Once again, the global stage has witnessed a significant division in political allegiances worldwide. These divisive practices continue to undermine the progress of democracy and human rights. The recent Gabon coup serves as a stark reminder of the long-standing exploitation in Africa, which has weakened domestic political structures.

Additionally, the enduring legacy of post-colonial dominance has created an environment conducive to coup attempts. However, the efforts to promote democracy have largely failed, resulting in the rise of military rule and a period of uncertainty. As a consequence, it is the well-being of individuals and the sluggish economic growth of these nations that suffer the repercussions of such coups. Furthermore, the people of Africa bear the brunt of these coups, making it imperative for humanity and world leaders to reconsider their approach to Africa and work toward establishing a peaceful future that benefits all, in the interest of humanity.

– S. M. Saifee Islam is a Research Associate at the KRF Center for Bangladesh and Global Affairs (CBGA).

Published in Eurasia Review [Link]