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Making sense of the coup in Gabon
Similarities and differences from the Sahelian coups
Dear readers, it seems like I cannot stop writing about coups and elite political instability these days! I put together this quick post because I think it is important to understand the structural challenges facing African states and societies, which in some contexts have found expression in military coups. For related content on African demographics, French neocolonial influence and its demise, and potential ways for African states to prevent or cycle out of coups see here, here, here, here, here, and here. While Wednesday’s coup in Gabon shares some important underlying drivers with those in the Sahelian states of Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger, it is ultimately different in kind and presents much better prospects for political liberalization and institutionalization moving forward.
I: A popular palace coup in Gabon
Last Saturday Gabon held a general election in which the results of the presidential election were disputed by the opposition and widely panned by observers as not credible. Anticipating popular discontent the government shut down the internet, hoping to play the same script it did in 2016: The electoral commission would announce the results. A media blackout would deny citizens any means of collating evidence of rigging or coordinating action against the government. And the lack of access to critical foreign commentary would forestall creation of common knowledge about what really happened in the election.
Except this time was different. Minutes after the electoral commission announced the results, the head of the presidential guard ousted President Ali Bongo, annulled the election, and dissolved all institutions of state. Bongo later sent out a recorded message, supposedly from his residence, pleading for international assistance.
The coup in Gabon is a palace coup. While there is certainly popular discontent against the Bongo family that has ruled the country since 1967 (Ali Bongo Odimba succeeded his father in 2009), I have not seen any evidence that a revolution was in the cards after this election. The regime and its coercive organs appeared poised to jam the manufactured result down Gabonese throats. Bongo (64) suffered a stroke in 2018 and has not been in great health since.
The head of the putschists, Brice Oligui Nguema, is Bongo’s cousin and was likely chosen to head the Presidency’s Republican Guard for that reason. He leads a group calling itself the Committee of Transition and the Restoration of Institutions (CTRI). Like most former French colonies, Gabon has historically coup-proofed through counterbalancing, whereby presidents create multiple centers of power among armed forces that can check each other (Presidency’s Republican Guard, National Gendarmerie, Army, Navy, Air Force). The Presidency’s Republican Guard was the most elite of these security formations and was designed to protect the regime. The French military, with 350 troops in Gabon, has historically served as yet another coup proofing mechanism.
Paris was either surprised by this coup or chose to stand back in light of the backlash it has faced recently for its century-long dominance and influence in West and Central Africa. Another possibility is that Paris strategically chose to cut ties with Ali Bongo now rather than risk the installment of a radically sovereigntist/anti-French leader as happened in Guinea, Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger. Should he manage to consolidate his hold on power, it is not clear if Nguema represents regime continuity with a new face, or if he will radically reorient Gabon’s economy and politics to make both work for its citizens. Notably, unlike the leaders of Sahelian putschists, he did not betray any intention of antagonizing France in his initial media availability with Le Monde, a French news outlet.
The leadership of the main opposition party — runners up in Saturday’s poll — urged the coup leaders to conclude the counting of ballots in the annulled election and declare them winners. It is highly unlikely that the CTRI will honor this request.
Despite being a palace coup with (at the moment) unclear prospects for real change, the ouster of Bongo was greeted with jubilation in Libreville. After 57 years under Ali Bongo and his father, people wanted change. Any change. Bongo was deeply unpopular. According to Afrobarometer data from 2021, his disapproval rating was 83.4% (see above). In addition, 91.3% of respondents in the survey believed that the country was headed in the wrong direction.
A lot might have changed since 2021, but it is hard to believe that it was enough for the president to overcome his ratings deficit and win a third term in office with 64.3% of the vote as announced by the electoral management body. It is no wonder that Gabonese deeply distrust the electoral management body (see above).
Finally, it is worth noting that in the same 2021 Afrobarometer survey 69.9% of respondents rejected military rule. The celebrations in Libreville should therefore be viewed as more of a rejection of 57 years of dynastic Bongo misrule and the sham election and less about a preference for military rule.
A protracted period of political instability in Gabon would not only be harmful to its citizens but also reverberate beyond its borders. In 2021 Gabon was the second largest producer of manganese (a crucial element in steel production and a potential cobalt substitute in lithium-iron batteries). Gabon’s other leading exports are oil and timber. It has also recently emerged as a regional testing ground for “debt-for-nature” bonds, that are meant to leverage conservation efforts in reducing government’s cost of borrowing (I remain dubious of these bonds’ usefulness as a public finance management strategy).
33% of Gabon’s 2.4m people live below the poverty line. Just under half the population lives in Libreville, the capital. The country’s per capita income (current US$) was 8,820 in 2022. Like most CFA countries, Gabon’s official inflation rate has remained low despite global inflationary pressures (the annualized rate for 2022 was 4.2%). The International Monetary Fund (IMF) projects a rate of 3% in 2023. This year the IMF projects non-oil output to expand by 4.5%.
II: Similarities and differences from the Sahelian coups
The latent levels of coup risk have certainly gone up in all African states whose governments rest on shaky institutional foundations (which is a small minority of Africa’s 55 countries). This reality has increased the temptation to see Gabon’s coup as part of the same trend that we have seen in West Africa since 2012. That would be off the mark. There are two important parallels between Gabon’s coup and those in Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger: French-influenced political under-development and a deep dissatisfaction with meaningless ritual electoralism masquerading as democracy. Beyond that Gabon’s coup is different, a fact that should inform regional engagements with the CTRI and other stakeholders in the country.
With the exception of Sudan, all the African countries that have experienced coups since 2020 are former colonies of France. That is not a coincidence. In both Central and West Africa, French neocolonial influence stunted political development through the cultivation of client autocratic rulers and fomenting coups against leaders that went out of favor with Paris. These clients facilitated French firms’ access to natural resources and markets in the region. They were also able to stash their stolen loot in France (and elsewhere). Few played this game better than Omar Bongo. At the height of his power he had virtually turned the tables, and was also able to influence politics and policy at the heighest level. As Howard French writes in Foreign Policy:
Central Africa is a region that is unusually rich in natural resources whose leaders have accumulated vast wealth essentially through what economists refer to as rent collection. In doing so, they have not only grown fantastically wealthy, but they have also provided unwavering support to France internationally while taking care to give its companies a large share in a variety of lucrative extraction industries.
While elites everywhere jostle for power and influence, the quick rush to militarize political disputes witnessed in some francophone states in Africa is a legacy of French neocolonialism. Among former French colonies in Africa, only Senegal and Cameroon have never experienced a successful coup (see above). Coups beget coups.
The other major commonality between the coups in Gabon and the Sahel is deep popular dissatisfaction with democracy. With the exception of Niger (42.6%), overwhelming majorities in Gabon, Burkina Faso, and Mali expressed high levels of dissatisfaction with democracy in Afrobarometer’s Round 9 surveys — with more than 90% in Gabon (see below). These levels of dissatisfaction with a regime type go well beyond partisanship and raise serious questions about government legitimacy. They also make a mockery of critiques of the coups that call for a return to the ex-ante democracy. You can’t eat the “democracy” that Africa’s complacent elites and their foreign enablers keep serving the region’s voters.
Gabon differs from Sahelian states in important respects. The most obvious is demographics. It is the most urban country on the continent, with less than 10% of its 2.4m citizens living in rural areas (forest cover makes up 88% of the landmass). Urban populations in Burkina Faso (32%), Mali (45%), and Niger (17%). It has a much higher adult literacy rate (85%), compared to Burkina Faso (41%), Mali (36%), and Niger (19%). Gabon’s median population of 22 years is also higher than those of the other three (17 years and below). Gabon’s demographic characteristics make it more conducive to a faster transition back to a competitive electoral process.
Gabon is also much richer than its Sahelian counterparts (see below). Having a per capita income of more than $8,800 (close to $14,000 in PPP terms) means that its economy is large enough to finance competitive (clientelistic) electoral politics and associated institutions. Furthermore, the country is not facing any serious security threats that would gobble up scarce resources, aggrandize its military, and significantly increase the cost of coup-proofing. This increases the likelihood of a durable transition to competitive electoral politics were it to happen.
A major potential challenge to a post-coup institutionalization of competitive electoral politics in Gabon is the structure of its economy. Despite its high per capita income level, one third of Gabonese live in poverty. This is partially because the economy is mostly powered (over 60% of GDP) by export-focused enclave sectors (petroleum, manganese, and timber) that haven’t generate mass jobs — a classic example of urbanization without industrialization. The high levels of both urbanization and inequality are a risk factor for the emergence of destabilizing populist politics were the country to transition to a competitive electoral system.
A transition to competitive electoral politics would also force Gabon to reckon with its low levels of political institutionalization and socialization — as measured by citizens’ proximity to a political party. As I have argued here and here, organizational means of channeling popular participation are critical elements of political development. With that in mind, Gabon’s rather high level (76.1%) of citizen non-affiliation to a political party (see below) is an ominous datapoint because it is more likely to result in delegative rather than responsive/representative electoralism.
It is curious why the Bongos did not build a credible autocratic mass party given the resources they had at their disposal. Perhaps they were dissuaded by a sense of invincibility against revolution, trust in their coup-proofing strategies, or the fear of a mobilized educated and highly urbanized population amidst crushing inequality (in contrast, Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni did this very well). Whatever the explanation, one of the legacies of their misrule will be the difficulty of consolidating competitive electoral politics without strong habits of party affiliation and party-based organization.
Coups in relatively high-income countries (like Gabon) are more likely to lead to democratization. Among the recent coups in Africa, Gabon presents the best chance yet of a coup leading to the establishment of competitive electoral politics. Unlike the affected Western African states, it is a society that is relatively educated, middle income, largely urban, and that does not face serious security threats. However, Gabon also faces challenges to a stable process of political development on account of its high levels of inequality and stunted political institutionalization. Another risk factor is whether interested foreign actors like France and others will intervene in Gabonese politics against the establishment of meaningful competitive electoral politics.
With these factors in mind, the African Union and activists in Gabon would be justified in adopting a cautious insistence on a timely transition to competitive electoral politics (marked by an elaborate national conference to rework the country’s constitution and establish a new social contract). While coups in higher-income autocracies are more likely to lead to transitions towards competitive politics, research also shows that consolidated higher-income autocracies are more likely to resist transitions to competitive electoral politics. As always, time is an important variable in these matters. The CTRI must not be allowed time to become a consolidated autocracy.
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