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Gabon, celebrate, coup
People wave Gabon national flags as they celebrate after a military coup, in the streets of Akanda, Gabon, August 30, 2023. Photo credit: © Str/EFE via ZUMA Press

The military coup that overthrew Gabon’s President Ali Bongo Ondimba may have put an end to neocolonialism, but it also reveals a new shift in global power.

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The overthrow of yet another African government following a suspect election is not unusual these days. The overthrow of Gabon’s president, Ali Bongo Ondimba (also known as “Ali Bongo” or just “Bongo”), 64, is the eighth military takeover to hit sub-Saharan Africa in just three years. 

Niger, Guinea, Chad, and Burkina Faso have all experienced recent military takeovers, and Sudan and Mali have been subject to two coups d’etat each. Bongo’s incarceration by his presidential guard on Wednesday might look like just another incident in what is fast becoming an unsettling trend. 

In fact, something more is happening here. The coup in Gabon signals the collapse of one of the last remnants of neocolonialism and possible closure for Europe, which is still trying to come to terms with memories of its violent colonial past.

If China and Russia step into the vacuum created by the lack of interest in Africa from Europe and the US, we could be looking at a new global alignment.  

When he finally managed to make a phone call despite his house arrest, Gabon’s newly deposed president pleaded somewhat incongruously with the outside world “to make noise.” The request sounded out of touch with the reality of the moment. There is nothing new in that.  

When he assumed the presidency in 2009, Bongo’s reputation was largely that of a fun-loving playboy who had gained a certain amount of fame playing in a rock band in neighboring Congo. Bongo’s specialty was funk, a variation of rock that relies heavily on drums and bass to emphasize rhythm over melody. Bongo’s main claim to power was that his father, Omar Bongo had already managed to hold on to the presidency for 42 years. 

All told, Bongo and son had a stranglehold on Gabon’s fate for more than 55 years. In political terms, the Bongos were a hereditary monarchy pretending to be a democratic republic.

As with most pseudo-monarchies, or to put it more accurately, autocracies, a rising group of supporters and followers gained political and economic power using the Bongos as a front.  They weren’t alone. French commercial interests made sure that the political and economic system that defined Gabon continued to function without meaningful opposition. 

Neo-Colonialism

It all started in the 1500s when Gabon was a thriving center for the European slave trade. By the mid-1800s, France had established a protectorate over the country’s coastline through a number of treaties negotiated with various tribes. When Europe finally outlawed slavery towards the middle of the 19th century, a French naval ship captured a slave ship in 1849 and released its captives near an American missionary settlement. The newly freed slaves established a community, Libreville (free town), which eventually became Gabon’s capital. 

By the late 1800s, France increasingly ventured into Gabon’s interior and, in 1903, it formally established administrative control over all of Gabon’s current territory. Seven years later, Gabon was officially incorporated into French Equatorial Africa, which at the time consisted of Gabon, Chad, Ubangi-Shari, and Congo. The French government then sold concessions to private companies to exploit Gabon’s resources. Estimates are that half of the population died during the colonial period. Many of the deaths were caused by outbreaks of sleeping sickness, malaria, and other tropical diseases. Horrendous work conditions, forced labor, torture, and murder in the service of colonial exploitation accounted for the rest. 

What independence in 1960 really meant was a shift from direct colonial control to a more subtle, modern version of neo-colonialism. Gabon might technically be independent, but its economy and its vitality remained tethered to the forces that had formerly exploited it.

 

By 1960, France was disbanding the last pieces of its colonial empire, and Gabon was granted independence. Two leading politicians, Léon M’Ba and Jean-Hilaire Aubame, competed for the presidency of the newly declared republic. Neither could get a majority of the vote, so they decided to form a single party: M’Ba became president and Aubame accepted the role of foreign minister. By 1963, Aubame’s political following had diminished, and it looked as though M’Ba would be elected by default in elections slated for February 1964. Gabon’s army seized power briefly and tried to arrest M’Ba. French troops put down the coup and reinstalled M’Ba the next day. Three years later, M’Ba was reelected president and Omar Bongo was elected vice president. M’Ba died later that year, and Bongo was installed as president — a position he would hold until his death in 2009, when his son, Ali Bongo, was anointed as his replacement. If Ali didn’t know much about governing, at least he had name recognition.     

What independence in 1960 really meant was a shift from direct colonial control to a more subtle, modern arrangement known as neocolonialism. Gabon might technically be independent, but its economy and its vitality remained tethered to the forces that had formerly exploited it. Its former rulers maintained access to its resources: diamonds, gold, timber, the world’s largest reserves of manganese, and oil. As the fourth largest supplier of oil south of the Sahara, Gabon earned the nickname of Africa’s “little emirate.” In short, business continued as before — only the political administration was changed. From 1960 on, the system had an African face. Any homegrown attempt to change that arrangement could easily be thwarted by an injection of funds from Europe, or, if necessary, by military force. 

The French were not the only ones involved. In 2019, when military officers tried to launch a coup by seizing the local TV station, Donald Trump’s administration sent US troops into Gabon, ostensibly as a protection against unrest in neighboring Congo. 

Gabon, it should be said, is far from alone when it comes to neocolonialist deals or aging presidents. Denis Sassou Nguesso, president of the formerly French Republic of Congo to the east and south of Gabon, is 79 and has been in power for 39 years. 

Paul Biya, the president of Cameroon, just north of Gabon, is 90 years old. He has been in power for 41 years. I visited Cameroon in the late 1980s, just as a coup attempt had tried to overthrow Biya. Trembling in a refuge where he was hiding, Biya was ready to surrender, but a Cameroonian army lieutenant told him to be quiet and wait. The coup was put down and Biya returned to power.     

End of Neo-Colonialism

What Bongo’s overthrow really signals is not just an end to neocolonialism but also a Western exit from a continent that has been largely ignored since the end of colonialism. After the American disasters in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, the prevailing mood at the moment is against Western direct intervention in Third World affairs. Let them work it out for themselves. The problem is that in the aftermath of colonialism, few developing countries have been able to do that. 

In the end, the real problem with the administration of both Bongo and his father is that they never really changed anything, or at least they didn’t change enough. Gabon is rich in resources, but neither Bongo ever introduced the industry or equipment needed to add value to those resources. Instead, they were ripped out of the ground and shipped to Europe or other parts of the world where they were used to create wealth outside Gabon — and what wealth there was in Gabon never reached most of the people living there. 

Gabon has a small population — only about 2.4 million people — and it has huge pockets of poverty. Roughly 90 percent of the population lives in two or three major cities, and yet these cities are blighted with slums and shantytowns.

Although Gabon was considered to be one of the most stable pro-French countries in West Africa, Gabon’s contribution to the French economy today is relatively minor. Roughly 81 French companies still operate in Gabon, but only Eramet, a French mining company that exports manganese and nickel, is considered genuinely important. Most of its exports along with most of Gabon’s oil currently go to China. France only has about 350 soldiers in Gabon today, and no one really expects them to try to put Bongo back in power. The real message that the coup has sent is that neither Western Europe nor the US really cares anymore, at least not enough to take action.  

Seeing that they no longer need to worry about Western intervention and there is no one left to object, one military force after another is beginning to look at Africa’s riches as free for the taking. Who is going to stop them? In most of these countries, the army is able to seize power, simply because it is usually the only organized force capable of doing so.   

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What Will Fill the Vacuum?

If the Western powers are no longer determined to exploit Africa, then the spoils are open to anyone with a gun, just as the collapse of the Soviet Union laid Russia open to exploitation by oligarchs whose only ethics were formed by personal greed. It will very likely result in a new colonialism, only this time it will be run by local strongmen who are likely to care even less about ethics or the fate of the populations that they control.  

If they need outside help, they can always turn to Russia or China. The Central African Republic is already essentially run by Russian mercenaries of the Wagner Group, which also offered to replace the French in Mali.    

The coup in Gabon may, in fact, be a symptom of a major shift in the global balance of power which is quickly becoming an accomplished fact. The BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, China) summit held in South Africa on August 22, made it clear that Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin would be very happy to redefine world leadership after more than half a century of what they consider to be hegemony led by the US and Western Europe.  

In case anyone missed the point, Xi, who was at the BRIC summit, indicated that he probably won’t bother to attend the upcoming G20 summit, which represents the current leading global economies. 

At a meeting that the World Economic Forum held a few years ago to discuss the failures of global governance, a Russian stood up and addressed the group. “At least,” he said, “we don’t pretend to be a democracy.” If China and Russia replace the US and Western Europe, any pretense at promoting democratic values or human rights is likely to be a thing of the past. 

At that point, international affairs may be heading in a completely different direction, with a new set of values that run counter to those promoted by the West. That is something for both Europe and the US to consider carefully. 

A world in which isolationism creates a vacuum in which  the US and Europe withdraw from international leadership is likely to be filled by malign alliances antithetical to humanistic Western values (even if the West has often failed to live up to those values}. That promises to make the world a much scarier place. 

Author

  • William Dowell

    William Dowell is WhoWhatWhy's editor for international coverage. He previously worked for NBC and ABC News in Paris before signing on as a staff correspondent for TIME Magazine based in Cairo, Egypt. He has reported from five continents--most notably the War in Vietnam, The Revolution in Iran, the Civil War in Beirut, Operation Desert Storm, and Afghanistan. He also taught a seminar on the Literature of Journalism at New York University.

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