On August 30, 2023, a dramatic turn of events unfolded in Gabon as military officials staged a coup, seizing control of the nation. This upheaval followed controversial elections in which President Ali Bongo secured his third consecutive victory.
The coup leaders made a public appearance on state television, where they announced the dissolution of state institutions and the complete closure of borders. In addition, President Ali Bongo found himself placed under house arrest.
The military officials unanimously declared General Brice Clotaire Oligui Nguema, the former head of the presidential guard, as the president of the transitional committee tasked with leading the country during this period of instability.
In response to these events, hundreds of people took to the streets of the Gabonese capital, Libreville, to commemorate the military’s intervention. However, the international community, including the United Nations, the African Union, and notably France, the former colonial ruler of the country, strongly condemned the coup.
UN Secretary-General António Guterres also took to Twitter to express his condemnation, stating, ‘The UN stands by the people of Gabon. I firmly condemn the ongoing coup attempt as a means to resolve the post-electoral crisis in the country. I call on the national army & security forces to guarantee the physical integrity of the President of the Republic & his family.’
Gabon’s recent military takeover marked the end of the Bongo family’s nearly six-decade reign. This event is part of a concerning trend in West and Central Africa, where eight successful coups have occurred since 2020. Notably, it is the second coup in just two months, echoing the recent military takeover in Niger.
The surge of Military Coups in West and Central Africa
Between 1960 and 2000, Africa experienced a relatively high frequency of military coups, occurring at an average rate of about four per year. However, following 2000, a period of relative democratic stability led to a decline in military interventions across the continent.
Yet, in the past three years, the Sahel region has witnessed a resurgence of coups, creating a ripple effect of military interventions in countries such as Mali, Guinea, Burkina Faso, Niger, and Chad.
This surge in military coups across Africa, particularly in former French colonies, is not coincidental. It stems from a complex interplay of factors, including deteriorating domestic conditions, historical French influence, and the passive role of the international community in the region.
Despite the abundance of resources in some African nations, economic instability and social unrest persist. The region faces multifaceted security, humanitarian, and socio-political challenges. Despite efforts by national security forces and international partners, insecurity and poverty are on the rise, wearing down the public’s confidence in civilian governments.
Gabon serves as a stark example. Despite being the fifth-largest oil producer in sub-Saharan Africa, with a daily crude oil production of around 200,000 barrels, a third of Gabon’s population lives in poverty. In 2022, nearly 36.9% of the Gabonese youth workforce, aged 15 to 24, were unemployed, according to the World Bank.
These dire conditions create fertile ground for military takeovers. Frustrated citizens, grappling with economic hardships and political instability, view coups as a potential escape from their misery. They demand change and a departure from the status quo that has failed them for so long, in hopes of a brighter future for their nation.
Consequently, citizens often welcome these coups. In Gabon, for instance, people flooded the streets to celebrate the coup, despite pleas from Ali Bongo, urging them to ‘make some noise’ against the coup. Similarly, in Niger’s capital city, Niamey, people gathered to express support for the junta following the July 26 coup and celebrations were observed in 2021 on the streets of Conakry following the military coup in Guinea, which ousted President Alpha Conde from power.
This welcoming attitude toward military seizures of power reflects profound discontent among civilians with political leadership in Africa.
Colonial Legacies and Coups in Africa
Despite the diverse motives behind the recent coups, a striking fact is that most of the nations that have recently experienced military intervention were former French colonies.
One cannot underestimate the long-lasting impact of colonialism, even decades after African nations gained their hard-fought independence. France has continued to pursue its interests in these nations, heavily investing in their domestic politics and security cooperation, which has fueled anti-French sentiment among the masses.
A particularly notable aspect of this influence has been France’s historical partnerships with corrupt political figures in the region, including Chad’s former President Idriss Déby and former Burkina Faso President Blaise Compaoré, which enriched a select elite at the expense of African citizens.
Consequently, these military juntas have consistently taken a firm stance against French involvement in their domestic affairs. They reassure the masses that the military’s presence would guarantee the preservation of their nation’s identity and sovereignty.
In the case of Niger, the junta has revoked five military deals with France since the coup, accusing President Mohamed Bazoum of serving French interests. Additionally, the Nigerian junta has also accused France of exploiting the country’s riches, such as uranium.
Another factor fueling the trend of coups in Africa is the mutual support among military leaders. For instance, the Nigerien junta has rapidly established strong connections with the juntas in Burkina Faso, Mali, and Guinea, seeking their support in the event of a military intervention by the ECOWAS.
The support extended by neighboring juntas boosts the confidence of juntas in other nations, accelerating the potential for military coups.
The International Community’s Role in the Proliferation of Coups in Africa
The international community’s lack of consequences for coups has made them a low-risk option for those who seek power.
Like in the case of Niger, ECOWAS suspended the country’s membership and threatened military intervention, but no effective step was taken to restore democratic government, which nurtured confidence among the respective army juntas.
Similarly, after Gabon’s coup, the African Union suspended its membership, demanding the reinstatement of the democratic government.
The condemnations and suspensions of coup-involved nations from regional organizations have been largely ineffective in restoring democratic governance and halting the coup trend.
The international community’s reactions to the coups in Niger and Gabon were sharply contrasting. In Niger, all international forces called for the restoration of President Muhammad Bazoum, while in Gabon, no strong demands were made due to the rigged elections.
Such inconsistencies in international responses can inadvertently create an environment that encourages more coups.
The current situation in Africa is grave. The number of coups is on the rise and the underlying factors that are driving it are complex and deep-seated. These factors include historical colonial legacies, mounting economic hardships, and political corruption.
In order to safeguard the region, it is essential to address these underlying factors. This will require immediate and sustained action from the international community.
The primary and long-term goal should be to fortify democratic governance and stability in African nations.
For this purpose, International organizations like the United Nations and the African Union should offer vital technical assistance to these nations that uphold democratic values and principles in the region.
Moreover, economic stability is also instrumental in curbing coup support in the African region. The international community could be a driving force behind Africa’s economic resurgence, through investments, development aid, and fostering a favorable business environment.
For example, ECOWAS should foster its efforts to promote its agenda of economic cooperation and self-sufficiency among member states in order to raise living standards and promote economic development. This would ultimately reduce the economic misery of the masses, preventing more coups in the region.
Lastly, The global community must impose swift and forceful sanctions, specifically targeting coup leaders and their supporters, limiting their power and authority. This would convey a resolute message to prevent further proliferation in the region.
**The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of The Diplomatic Insight. The organization neither endorses nor assumes any responsibility for the content of this article.