Following the post-election coup in Gabon, it is important to pay close attention to the upcoming elections in the surrounding countries. Of particular importance is the 2024 Senegalese election, where the third term debate, similar to Gabon and Guinea, may bring unexpected outcomes. Despite having a long-established democracy, Senegal's President Sall and opposition Sonko's moves should be monitored closely. Additionally, the recent loss of Chad's President and Ivory Coast's status as one of France's most important allies, make them countries worth watching.
After Mali, Burkina Faso, Chad, Sudan and Niger, the military coup in Gabon has raised the question "African Spring?". Are these coups, mostly in former French colonies, really the harbingers of spring, or will this new wave land on the shores where other dependencies will begin? Before examining the answer to this question, I think it is necessary to elaborate a little on the term coup d'état in Africa. Indeed, in democratic countries like ours, any interference in democratic processes is a coup d'état and is condemned. However, in Africa, this phenomenon has been perceived as a war of independence against imperialist powers and as a revolt of the people against corrupt rulers. In the above-mentioned countries where coups have taken place, the people taking to the streets and shouting for joy should be read together with this sociological structure. In countries where democracy is functioning, all interventions in democratic processes are coups and are condemned. In some African countries, this perception is slightly different. For example, the leader of the coup in Mali, Mamady Doumbouya, quoted former Ghanaian President Jerry Rawlings as saying "If the people are oppressed by their own elites, it is up to the army to give the people their freedom" to legitimize the coup. On the other hand, Ibrahim Traore, the coup leader in Burkina Faso and one of the most talked about Africans in recent times, has been praised for his resemblance to the country's legendary leader Sankara, who came to power through a coup. Therefore, the perception of coup d'état differs in some African countries.
Gabon is the last link
The last link in the coup series was Gabon. The 56-year rule of the Bongo family ended with a military intervention just after the election in which Ali Bongo ran for the third time after his father Omar Bongo and won with 64 percent. A small number of military officers announced on Gabon 24, a television channel set up in the presidential palace, that the elections had been canceled and all institutions of the republic dissolved. "We have decided to put an end to the current regime and defend peace," they concluded. Gabon was once seen as having the potential to become the "Kuwait of Africa". Much of the country is forested and has abundant underground resources. It is a major producer of high-quality manganese ore, one of the world's most widely used metals, used in steel production and electric vehicle batteries. According to analysts, it accounts for about 14 percent of global supply. The OPEC member is also one of Africa's largest oil exporters, producing about 200,000 barrels a day. With a national income four times that of neighboring Cameroon, the country's lack of a middle class is one of the factors contributing to a large income gap between the rich and the poor. Although the fact that the Bongo family is a loyal French ally made France uneasy after the coup, we did not see a strong anti-French discourse in Gabon as in other coups.
Why are coups more common in former French colonies?
To date, 98 out of 216 coup attempts in Africa have occurred in former French colonies. One of the most important reasons for this is the different pattern of French exploitation. After independence in these countries, France, which managed to bring its own elite cadres to power, took full control by virtually forbidding other allies to the new sovereign states and started a new process of dependency, which we call neocolonialism. This process facilitated the construction of countries with all their institutions and bureaucracies in a way that did not contradict France. Today, as different actors such as Russia, China and Turkey have expanded their presence in Africa, opposition voices outside the existing governments have turned their anger towards France. For example, the ousted President Bazoum was a good friend of France, inviting French troops to Niger after they were expelled from Mali. Niger was even called the last French ally in the Sahel. With this effect, the coup gained an anti-French discourse. To all this, one can add the failure to mobilize reactions in the international arena that would sufficiently challenge the coup plotters. As a matter of fact, all the threats made by organizations such as ECOWAS and the African Union remained only at the level of economic sanctions. Moreover, the availability of new backers such as Russia to support the anti-French narrative is another factor encouraging the juntas. Domestic reasons can be summarized as an effort to adopt a one-party rule by restricting opposition voices, rampant corruption and the inability to ensure income justice.
Different causes similar results
The coups in Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger were carried out with an intense anti-French rhetoric and Russian flags waved in the squares. Conditions in Gabon were more similar to Guinea. In Guinea, Alpha Conde sought a third term after his country changed its constitution to allow him to run again. In Gabon, too, the constitution was changed several times and Ali Bongo ran again. In Senegal, a similar process took place ahead of next year's elections, with protests against the third term of current President Macky Sall. In the Central African Republic, Faustin-Archange Touadéra went to a referendum to run for a third term, and the result of the vote, held under the shadow of Wagner, was 95 percent yes. The overstepping of constitutional powers by governments has therefore become one of the causes of recent protests and coups in Africa.
How did international reactions differ?
Strong condemnations came from France, the African Union and the European Union. Noting "irregularities" in the election that Bongo allegedly won, the EU insisted that Gabon's problems be resolved through "constitutional order and democracy". The US has refrained from characterizing the military action in Gabon as a coup, in line with its cautious approach following the coup in Niger, which it has not yet characterized as a coup. But State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said the US continues to "strongly oppose military seizures or unconstitutional transfers of power." An important difference is that the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS) has a lower profile than West Africa's regional bloc ECOWAS. While ECCAS condemned the coup in Gabon, it did not react as strongly as ECOWAS did after the coup in Niger. None of the statements made by global powers specifically called for the return to the presidency of Bongo, who has been under house arrest and called on Gabon's friends to "speak out". Like China, the African Union has only called on the junta to guarantee Bongo's safety.
The overlooked rivalry France-US
The recent focus on the Russian-French rivalry has led us to overlook a larger rivalry behind the scenes in the region and in Gabon in particular: The power struggle between France and the United States. Brice Oligui Nguema, a general in the Gabonese army and Bongo's cousin, was appointed head of the junta's transitional government. Previously Omar Bongo's bodyguard, in 2018 Nguema became the leader of the elite military unit protecting Ali Bongo. Speculation that Nguema has bought property in the United States has been dismissed by him as "private". "He was not entitled to a third term in office, the constitution was violated, the election itself was flawed and that's why the army decided to turn the page," Nguema told reporters.
Coups increase instability
The fight against terrorism in the Sahel region is deteriorating after the coups. Organizations in the region are taking advantage of the security vacuum and stepping up their attacks, adding to instability. In Burkina Faso, acts of violence linked to terrorist groups increased by 140 percent compared to the previous year, despite the military government's plan to spread the fight to a wider area. On the other hand, increasing international economic sanctions worsen the quality of life in countries facing coups. In Niger, 2 out of every 5 people live on less than 2 dollars a day, and there is a danger that the income of the people may continue to decrease after the sanctions.
Who is next?
It is worth looking at some of the characteristics of recent coups. These coups have mostly taken place in former French colonies, countries with leaders who have been in power for a long time, and countries with rulers whose constitutional candidacy has been disputed. In this context, it is useful to focus on long-term power. Obiang Nguema in Equatorial Guinea 1979, Paul Biya in Cameroon 1982, Museveni in Uganda 1986, Afewerki in Eritrea 1993, Sassou-Nguesso in Congo 1997, Guelleh in Djibouti 1999, Kagame in Rwanda 2000 and Gnassingbé in Togo since 2005. Togo and Cameroon are countries where political issues need to be monitored sensitively because of their region. On the other hand, Bobi Wine's opposition to Museveni has been blocked many times, but Wine is still in the squares with his sharp tongue. The post-election coup in Gabon means that elections in other countries in the region also need to be carefully monitored. Senegal's elections in 2024 are the highest priority. In the context of the third term debate similar to Gabon and Guinea, the moves of President Sall and the opposition Sonko may bring unexpected surprises in Senegal, which seems to have established its democracy for a long time. Chad and Ivory Coast which lost its president on the battlefield an important ally of France, should also be countries to watch.