The concerning rise in military coups in several former French colonies in Africa has reached a dramatic climax with the latest upheaval in Gabon. Gabonese President Ali Bongo Ondimba, seemingly on the verge of extending his 14-year rule, faced an electoral commission’s declaration as the victor of the recent presidential election. This would have perpetuated his family’s staggering 56-year dominance in the nation’s political landscape.
However, a sudden turn of events unfolded as soldiers wrested control of the government, proclaiming that the electoral process failed to meet the criteria for a transparent, credible, and inclusive ballot, in alignment with the Gabonese people’s aspirations.
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In a riveting live broadcast announcing the coup, the military group identified themselves as members of the Committee for the Transition and Restoration of Institutions (CTRI). They articulated their profound concerns about irresponsible and unpredictable governance, which had eroded social cohesion, potentially pushing the nation to the brink of chaos. Their unequivocal intent was to restore peace by dismantling the existing regime.
A predictable revolt reflecting a nation’s longing for change
Nathalie Mezo, a passionate women’s rights activist from Gabon, characterized the coup as predictable, resonating with the yearning for change pervasive among the Gabonese population. Despite the military intervention, relief washed over many as the decades-long family regime seemed poised to meet its long-awaited end. Mezo astutely suggested that the coup had likely been meticulously planned well in advance, as citizens were well aware of the expected election outcome favoring the incumbent president. This recurring pattern, witnessed since 1993, culminated in a crescendo of violence during election disputes in the last 14 years, notably in 2009 and 2016. Consequently, the specter of a coup had become a grimly anticipated reality.
Significantly, this watershed moment marked the first instance where the army had turned against the formidable Bongo dynasty, an unbroken reign of power dating back to 1967.
In the tapestry of African politics, Jocksy Ondo Louemba’s exile-laden voice painted a vivid portrait of Gabon’s tumultuous history. His words carried the weight of revelation as he peeled back the layers of power dynamics within the Bongo dynasty. Omar Bongo, Ali Bongo’s father, had mastered the art of patronage, turning all of Gabon into his clientele, and skillfully silencing opposition by buying their loyalty. It was a political symphony conducted with cunning precision.
But the crescendo of his narrative brought forth Ali Bongo, a leader of a different ilk. Inflexible and unwavering, Ali Bongo eschewed dialogue, opting instead for the ruthless cadence of force and police action. Louemba’s words echoed with the resonance of Napoleon’s timeless wisdom: “You can do anything with bayonets, except to sit on them.” Ali Bongo’s authoritarian approach reverberated through Gabon’s political landscape, a stark departure from his father’s patronage-driven tactics.
The resonance of French influence in African politics
The tale did not end with Gabon; it echoed across Francophone Africa, where the struggle for Western-style democracy faced a tempestuous path. Ibrahima Kane’s revelation exposed a harsh truth: a perception that France, with unwavering loyalty, supported those in power, irrespective of their popularity. This unsettling alliance between France and often unpopular governments sowed the seeds of frustration and discontent among the people. Their anger was not selective; it targeted autocrats and even democratically elected leaders who received French support, only to be entangled in military interventions.
The narrative traversed to Niger, where the voices of the disenchanted reverberated in the streets. Soldiers ousted President Mohamed Bazoum, a stark reflection of the discontent simmering beneath the surface. It was a potent reminder that the yearning for change knew no boundaries.
Ovigwe Eguegu’s voice crescendoed as he argued that elected leaders in former French colonies had failed to deliver on the promises of improved lives. Disillusionment swelled as citizens watched democracy fall short of their expectations. Coups emerged as a disruptive force, a way to break the cycle and usher in transformative change, even though history had shown that military leadership seldom led to genuine progress.
The symphony of political turmoil continued with successive coups in the Sahel region, challenging the very foundations of Western-style democracy. The internal conflicts within ruling elites, exemplified by President Bazoum’s plans to remove a coup leader, and the fractious disagreements among soldiers in Burkina Faso, added complex layers to the narrative. These coups became a symphony of discontent and instability, raising profound questions about the viability of Western-style democracy in the Sahel.
Endemic poverty has also been identified as a contributing factor to these coups in many former French colonies. The region has struggled with economic challenges for years, and citizens have faced daily hardships. It took until 2020 for the long-anticipated bill to ratify the end of the CFA franc, a West African currency controlled by the French treasury, to be adopted. France has faced accusations of exploiting the natural resources in these countries while failing to address the economic needs of their citizens.
Growing frustration with these issues has eroded trust and patience for democratic processes among the population. Many citizens have lost faith in democracy’s ability to address core problems such as violence, poverty, and lack of economic opportunities. Coups, despite their questionable outcomes, often present themselves as solutions to these pressing challenges.
Anti-French sentiment has also played a role in triggering or contributing to coups in the region since 2020. Some experts argue that these sentiments stem from a desire to break away from perceived French influence. There is a perception that France continues to treat Francophone Africans as second-class citizens and maintains an outdated colonial mindset. West Africa, particularly, seeks a change in this dynamic.
However, it’s important to note that while anticolonial sentiments are a factor, they do not fully explain the recent coups. As African affairs analyst Emmanuel Bensah pointed out, not all member states in the region have resorted to armed conflict, even though there has been a historical colonial issue with both French and British influence in West Africa. The reasons for coups are multifaceted and complex, often involving a combination of political, economic, and social factors.
A discordant note in regional governance
Emmanuel Bensah’s voice resonates with a sense of urgency, centering on the pivotal concern of the fact. According to his sight, Francophone Africa stands at a crossroads, struggling to develop the robust governance systems and institutions needed to confront its myriad developmental challenges. In a climax of comparative analysis, he casts a striking contrast with Anglophone Africa, where countries like Ghana, Nigeria, Gambia, Liberia, and Sierra Leone have forged ahead with active civil society organizations and a vibrant media apparatus. These entities tirelessly labor to hold those in power accountable, a steadfast commitment undeterred by the shackles of poverty.
Bensah’s poignant observation pierces through the heart of the matter. Anglophone Africa’s journey toward amplifying diverse voices stands in stark contrast to the deafening silence in Francophone Africa. His insights uncover a painful truth rooted in history, where the long shadow of French influence looms large over the Francophone nations. The dominance of French interests, akin to an all-encompassing tempest, left scant room for the organic growth of indigenous institutions capable of addressing the intricate web of governance and developmental concerns.
Yet, this complex narrative stretches far beyond the boundaries of language. The Sahel region, a crucible of turmoil since 2012, embodies the struggle against insurgencies that began in Mali and rippled outward, engulfing Burkina Faso and Niger by 2015. Along the Gulf of Guinea, sporadic attacks plunge states into disarray, thrusting them headlong into a daunting humanitarian crisis. Thousands flee their homes, a poignant testament to the relentless tides of conflict.
In response, Western countries, led by France, have ventured to tame the tempest of insecurity, but their efforts have often faltered, yielding meager results. The echoes of frustration reverberate as foreign military missions are unceremoniously shown the exit, as witnessed in Mali and Burkina Faso. The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), under mounting pressure to quell the recurring coups, has leaned primarily on the weighty tool of sanctions.
Yet, a pivotal moment emerged, one that cleaved opinions and stirred debate. ECOWAS’ audacious decision to activate a standby force for potential military intervention in Niger ushered in division among regional governments and a chorus of concerns among analysts like Ovigwe Eguegu. Eguegu’s call for a wholesale redesign of ECOWAS’ approach to unconstitutional changes in government echoes through the corridors of policy. He proposes a pivot, urging ECOWAS to redirect its energies toward assisting former French colonies in strengthening their democratic institutions.