OpinionWorld View

Africa experiencing a contagion of coups as Gabon latest to fall

Euphemisms used by western powers are testimony to the complexity of the phenomenon

Celebrations on the streets of Libreville moments after Brice Oligui Nguema was sworn in as Gabon's interim president on Monday. Gabon's coup leader has vowed to restore civilian rule through 'free, transparent and credible elections' after a transition. Photograph: AFP via Getty Images

In Gabon a ruling dynasty that began with Ali Bongo’s father Omar in 1967 came to an end last week after Ali had been “re-elected”. The latter had form – his disputed re-election recalled his 2016 “election” when his winning margin came from his native Haut-Ogooué region, which recorded an impossible, somewhat Soviet-style 99 per cent turnout, 95 per cent of which was allocated to him.

This time his own presidential guard did the necessary, prompting popular jubilation on the streets of Libreville at the departure of a family who have used the pretence of democratic mandates to systematically plunder the country’s oil wealth.

Another military coup, the fifth in the past three years in former French colonies in West or Central Africa, after Guinea, Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger. Out of the 486 military coups attempted globally since 1950, Africa accounts for the largest number with 214, of which at least 106 have been successful.

US researchers estimate that at least 45 of the 54 nations across the African continent have experienced at least a single coup attempt since then. Bola Tinubu, Nigeria’s newly elected president who has been leading regional efforts to return Niger’s Mohamed Bazoum to power, has said the Gabon coup shows an “autocratic contagion is spreading across the continent. “An epidemic”, UN secretary general António Guterres has called it.

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The African military coup is far from being a simple single phenomenon – and certainly not always a case simply of democracy overturned by power-hungry soldiers.

In Niger, stadiums were filled by supporters of the military government after its July 26th coup. In 2021, there was jubilation on the streets of Conakry after the Guinean military removed Alpha Condé, the president who unilaterally extended his stay in office. Africa’s citizens have been increasingly angered by democratically elected leaders who, like the Bongos, have found ways to rob and terrorise their people, and stay on.

Euphemisms used by the western powers, notably the US and the declining colonial power France, are testimony to the complexity of the phenomenon, and reflect the ambivalence of many in the international community and the African Union to the emergent military regimes.

The assumption that every civilian government overthrown by the military is both legitimate and a democracy is far from reflecting the reality

Military and strategic concerns in the face of regional jihadism, the increasing presence of both China and Russia and their proxies such as the Wagner Group, the waning influence and role of France, and dilemmas over whether defending “democracy” or backing an illegitimate junta is preferable in the fight against Islamist extremism all colour responses.

Sylvie Kauffmann of Le Monde notes that according to the US State Department Niger’s was not a coup or a putsch but an “extra-constitutional attempt to seize power”.

President Emmanuel Macron spoke bluntly of “a perfectly illegitimate coup d’etat”.

So far, Washington has been hoping for a diplomatic solution that would allow its forces to stay in landlocked Niger in exchange for a pledge to some sort of democratic transition and return of the deposed leadership. It maintains two important military bases and 1,100 men there – seen as important in the regional fight against Islamist extremism – and it has an interest in preserving relations with its new military rulers. The French, recently displaced from Mali bases, have been asked to get out of Niger.

Gabon, also a former French territory, however, is of far less strategic interest and a very different case. “When the soldiers struck this week,” wrote Chidi Anselm Odinkalu in the Financial Times, “the most they could do was oust a dynasty; there was no democracy left to overthrow.”

The assumption that every civilian government overthrown by the military is both legitimate and a democracy is far from reflecting the reality.

Zimbabwe’s president Emmerson Mnangagwa, just returned in a dubious election, used the military to oust dictator Robert Mugabe in 2017 only to then ape his predecessor. In Sudan a popular movement overthrew a dictatorial regime that rested on military power – generals joined a transitional government committed to democratic elections, then threw the ruling council out and went to war with each other.

The Irish Times view on the coup in Gabon: part of a worrying trendOpens in new window ]

Gabon coup a further setback to France’s strategy in AfricaOpens in new window ]

Popular illusions about the supposedly progressive and democratic ambitions of some of the continent’s military leaders have been fed by deep-seated frustration with civilian leaders and democracy itself. Unsurprisingly given their experience, a 2022 poll by pan-African research network Afrobarometer found that only 44 per cent of Africans said elections enable voters to remove leaders the voters do not want. A 2023 Afrobarometer poll also showed a decline in preference for democracy over the last decade on the continent, from 73 per cent to 68 per cent.

But those supportive of soi-disant soldier democrats have all too often then been betrayed by those militaries they initially applauded. Corruption or the inbred authoritarianism of the military prevailed. Ultimately, as Gandhi observed, “democracy and dependence on the military and police are incompatible”.