A woman talks with a soldier on a street in Port-Gentil, Gabon, on August 30, 2023, as she celebrates with people in support of the putschists.
Another coup in Africa – just five weeks after Niger’s President Mohamed Bazoum was taken hostage by soldiers of his own Presidential Guard, Gabon’s Ali Bongo also found himself under house arrest.
A sudden statement was made on national television in the early hours of Wednesday to declare Mr Bongo the winner of last Sunday’s election, followed within minutes by a second surprise broadcast as a group of soldiers seized power in the former French colony. announced confiscation.
Later in the day, footage of celebratory crowds emerged – after the new junta lifted an internet shutdown imposed by Mr Bongo’s regime on the eve of the election and maintained the shutdown during the opaque vote “counting” – of state The deposed chief appeared in an online video sent from his prison cell.
Looking bewildered, he appealed – in English – to friends outside to “make noise” in the hope that outside pressure might reverse the shocking turn of events, a prospect that seems remote.
But even if Mr Bongo himself was caught unprepared for the coup, perhaps Africa and the world should not have done so.
Mr Bazoum’s coup in Niger on 26 July provided ample warning that the “coup-epidemic” of West and Central Africa has not done its job.
In January last year, it was the turn of troops to oust Burkina Faso’s President Roch Marc Christian Kabouré – whose leader was ousted by lower-ranking counterparts on 30 September after only eight months.
And before that, 2021 brought two coups in West Africa. In May, Colonel Assimi Goita, already the author of the previous military takeover in Mali, made a second attempt to reassert his own power.
Many in Mali welcomed the coup by Colonel Assimi Goita
Then in September, Guinean special forces stormed the Sekhoutaureyah palace in Conakry to detain President Alpha Conde.
And let us not forget Chad, where after the death in battle of longtime strongman Idris Déby Itno in April 2021, a military council stepped in to ensure his son’s succession and, thus, continuity of rule .
What on earth is happening in West and Central Africa, and especially in the former French colonies?
Every country in West Africa has been placed under multi-party constitutional rule since the electorally defeated Gambian ruler Yahya Jammeh went into exile six years ago.
Some authoritarian regimes persisted in the center of the continent, but the era of military takeover seemed long past.
Yet the past three years have seen seven coups in five countries – as well as a strong-armed military seizure of power in Chad.
There are common factors that have, at least in part, created conditions in which soldiers felt they could move with relative impunity, and often with the support of large sections of the urban population, especially disaffected young people. with.
In much of West and Central Africa, young citizens are widely disillusioned with the traditional political class, even those that are legitimately elected to office.
Such disillusionment is fueled by a number of issues – a lack of jobs and even informal economic opportunities for both graduates and those less educated, perceived high levels of corruption and privilege among the elite, as well as France’s persistent Resentment over impact. Many countries where it is a former colonial power.
But there is also deep resentment at the way many civilian rulers manipulate electoral processes or constitutional rule to maintain their grip on power. The elimination of presidential term limits following controversial amendments to the constitution is a source of particularly hurt feelings.
And such abuses also undermine the moral authority of bodies such as the African Union – or the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), often labeled the “outgoing presidents’ club” – that seek to restore elected civilian rule. To try to coerce the coup leaders.
The Central African regional bloc to which Gabon belongs does not even have a serious claim to setting or maintaining governance standards among the member states.
But while all these factors create an environment in which soldiers feel more bold about seizing power, claiming to offer a “new beginning”, each coup is also motivated by specific national or narrow local motivations. – And the acquisition in Gabon is no exception.
Gabon’s ousted president Ali Bongo was accused of dynastic rule
Many Gabonese were skeptical about Mr. Bongo’s decision to stand for a third term. He first came to power in an election 14 years ago following the death of his father, Omar Bongo, who had monopolized the presidency for more than 40 years.
There were also serious doubts about his ability to provide effective leadership, as he had suffered a stroke in October 2018.
The deposed president’s rule saw serious efforts to modernize the government machinery, diversify the economy, and tackle social inequality; And he earned international acclaim for his proactive and innovative efforts to protect Gabon’s rainforests and rich biodiversity. Some concessions were given to the political opposition.
But the momentum for reform gradually faded, while the regime ultimately proved reluctant to expose itself to a serious electoral challenge.
Indeed, from the outset Mr. Bongo’s legitimacy and political prestige were undermined by the opaque conduct of the election that brought him to power in 2009. Many thought that his main election opponent, André MBA, was probably the real winner.
And when he stood for re-election in 2016, in a tight race against former foreign minister Jean Ping, he won only a narrow victory when the official results from the Haut Ogué region, a political fiefdom of the Bongo family, came in. Incredibly large numbers were recorded. of votes for him. Yet polling station records of these alleged votes were destroyed prior to scrutiny.
In the latest election, Mr. Bongo was declared the winner with 64% of the vote. He did not allow any international observers to monitor the vote, and the opposition dismissed the result as fraudulent.
Eventually the military intervened, saying that the election “did not meet the conditions for the transparent, credible and inclusive voting that Gabonese people had so hoped for”.
The coup has been welcomed by many Gabonese people, but it has raised doubts about the future of democracy in many countries in West and Central Africa.
Paul Melly is a Consulting Fellow in the Africa Program at Chatham House in London.