Is it a Russian conspiracy or anti-Paris bias? Or a sign that democracy has never really taken root in post-colonial realities?
PARIS — It's a spectacular phenomenon, and not easily explained. Guinea, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger and yesterday, Gabon: five African countries which have all seen military coups in the last two years. This raises many questions.
A simplistic explanations might label this a wave of coups, a Russian conspiracy or a rejection of France — and without a doubt these factors may be at play here, to some extent. But we need to dig deeper.
Something else these countries have in common is the failure of post-colonial states, which have been shaped under strong French influence. They have experienced two phases: one authoritarian, the other democratic – or, to be more accurate, pseudo-democratic.
In 1960, during the independence movement of French colonies, then-president Charles De Gaulle and his "Monsieur Afrique," the formidable advisor Jacques Foccart, put in place regimes which would perpetuate French influence behind the mask of sovereignty.
Gabon was the epitome of this: Foccart spoke about how he personally picked Omar Bongo, the father of now-deposed leader Ali Bongo, when the first Gabonese president Léon Mba discovered he was suffering from cancer in 1965. Bongo, then just 30, became the chief of staff to the president, and, endorsed by Foccart, led Gabon until his death in 2009, when he was succeeded by his own son. Until yesterday's coup, the family had enjoyed nearly six decades of uninterrupted rule.
This alone is not enough to explain the coup. However, it does explain the coup's popularity and the public jubilation. It also helps us understand the political deadlock in which Gabon found itself, along with many other countries on the continent.
Nothing was done without them.
During the first phase of independence, France not only accompanied but pulled the strings of the authoritarian model. During my first visit to Libreville in 1981, the three most influential men in the country were the French ambassador, the French commander of the presidential guard and the head of Elf Gabon, the French oil company. Nothing was done without them.
Video screenshot showing Gabonese President Ali Bongo delivering a speech on Aug. 30, 2023.
Xinhua via ZUMA
A broken legacy
Then, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, French President François Mitterrand made democratization a condition of receiving French aid. This was a sleight-of-hand, which would allow the autocrats of yesterday to extend their rule — somewhat like the Bongo father-son duo, or Paul Biya, the perennial president of Cameroon: democracies without the alteration of power, without checks and balances, without a brake on corruption.
This political deceit has now reached a time of implosion, and it's happening everywhere.
Coups d'état appear as the only way to bring about change.
But the legacy, institutional frameworks and political obstacles of the French era remain — and new generations will not put up with being misgoverned. The military present themselves as saviours.
Paris is mistaken in evoking a return to institutions that no longer hold any legitimacy. The social contract has been broken, and perhaps this is an opportunity to renegotiate it.
In these circumstances, as noted by Cameroonian thinker Achille Mbembe in the newspaper Le Monde, "coups d'état appear as the only way to bring about change, ensure a form of leadership alternation and accelerate generational transition." A demand that we have refused to hear is now exploding, for better or for worse.