When President Leon Mba of Gabon was toppled by the military in 1964, then-French President Charles de Gaulle sprang into action and immediately sent French troops to restore Mba to power.
With vast iron ore and other vital mineral resources, newly independent Gabon was a jewel in the crown of the former French colony and de Gaulle was keen to protect France’s interests.
Fast forward nearly 60 years later and another coup has taken place in Gabon but this time there will be no French cavalry to the rescue as France comes to terms with another close ally coming under military rule, a sign, analysts say, of waning French influence.
In the aftermath of a presidential election marked by irregularities and an internet shutdown, Gabon witnessed a startling turn of events. Military officers stormed Gabon’s state TV Wednesday and said they were now in charge, annulling the results and dissolving the constitution.
The streets of the capital Libreville echoed with gunfire as the army announced the end of an astonishing five decades of Bongo family rule. The streets would later erupt with the sound of cheers and jubilation as Gabonese celebrated the end of the dynasty that vastly enriched the Bongo family at the expense of their citizens.
The junta later announced that General Brice Oligui Nguema – said to be a cousin of Bongo’s – would act as a transitional leader and that authorities will investigate charges against the president’s son, Nourredin Bongo Valentin, who was arrested alongside six other individuals for “high treason.”
When Bongo surfaced, he looked alone and frightened, pleading for help to international partners in a video aired by the Agence France-Presse (AFP) news agency.
Propping up ‘democratic dictators’
Whilst the international community has condemned the coup in Gabon, it has not attracted the same vehement criticism that last month’s coup in Niger did.
Analysts say Bongo’s time is up.
“The Gabonese just want to end the reign of a dynasty that has not improved their economic conditions in five decades. They did that through the ballot but got shortchanged,” says Oluwole Ojewale of the Institute of Security Studies.
Weakened by a stroke in 2018, Bongo had faced a previous coup attempt in 2019 which he quashed almost immediately and many felt he was living on borrowed time.
French Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne said France was watching the coup d’etat in Gabon “with the utmost attention.”
It presents a challenge to France. So far, eight ex-French colonies in West and Central Africa have fallen to military rulers in just three years, each one coming with a wave of anti-France sentiment blamed on interference from the former colonial power.
Mali for example has driven out French troops and cut diplomatic ties with France. It has also changed the official language from French in favor of Malian national languages, while in Senegal, French business interests have been attacked.
In Niger, the French ambassador has been ordered to leave the country but he remains in place as France says it does not recognize the putschists’ authority.
Large crowds supporting the coup gathered Sunday near the French military base in Niamey, with demonstrators displaying signs demanding French troops withdraw.
The evolving political landscape has exposed the vulnerability of the systems of governance that were originally established by colonial powers.
“The systems of government that former French colonies have, which were imposed by Paris are no longer fit for purpose. In a country like Gabon… one family has ruled for about 50 years, that’s not really a government that’s a kingdom and they are not an outlier,” says Ogunmodede.
This phenomenon is not limited to Gabon alone; it resonates throughout Central Africa, where nations like Congo Brazzaville and Equatorial Guinea have single leaders who have ruled for more than four decades. In Cameroon, Paul Biya, who is 90, has been president since 1982 and splits his time between France and Switzerland, barely spending any time in Cameroon, the country he is supposed to govern.
Yet Western leaders and France in particular turn a blind eye to him and others like him.
As Ogunmodede puts it: “The ongoing events in Gabon, taking place in the wake of the coup in Niger, shines another spotlight on France’s dysfunctional relationship with its former colonies in Africa and the damaging ways Western support for autocrats on the continent is just as corrosive to democratic governance as the military coups they claim to oppose.”
This shift in African political consciousness, largely driven by the continent’s youthful demographic, is propelling the anti-French sentiment.
The average age of 20 across Africa underscores the yearning for change among the young population, leading them to seek diverse partnerships beyond the historical ties with France.
Some of those partners include Russia, which has been keen to expand relationships on the continent and where some believe that it is outmaneuvering the US as some African leaders increasingly embrace the Kremlin.
Others are keen to bridge language barriers too. For example, the Commonwealth, a political group of 54 member states, recently admitted Gabon and Togo to its ranks, a pivot that signals a growing desire for association with English-speaking nations.
A complex relationship
The role of France in Africa has undergone major transformations, but there are some who say that France never really left its former colonies.
The ongoing shift in power dynamics also exposes the complexities of France’s relationship with its former colonies.
The practice of “Françafrique,” a term used to describe the continued neo-colonial relationship between France and its former colonies, has perpetuated allegations of French control over African nations’ affairs.
“Françafrique is France’s means of preserving its neo-colonial influence in its former colonies and the intellectual framework that underpins it,” Ogunmodede said.
For example, few things have sparked more controversy than the Central African franc or CFA, a currency used by 14 nations in West and Central Africa including Niger and Gabon.
Countries using CFA Francs are required to store 50% of their currency reserves with the Banque de France, and the currency is pegged to the euro. For many Africans, these mandatory deposits are perceived as remnants of colonial taxation.
While Paris asserts that the system promotes economic stability, others say it allows France to exert control over the economy of the countries using it and enrich itself with African wealth.
Senegalese economist Ndongo Samba Sylla has called for the CFA franc to be abolished.
“For those hoping to export competitive products, obtain affordable credit, work for the integration of continental trade, or fight for an Africa free from imperialist control, the CFA franc is an anachronism demanding orderly and methodical elimination,” he said in a 2019 interview.
France also maintains military troops in many of its former colonies and was involved in a large-scale Operation Barkhane in Niger, which it was forced to pull back recently.
President Emmanuel Macron also recently reframed France’s new policy for Africa and said its military bases would now be jointly run with nations.
The irony is that under Macron France has never been more willing to directly tackle the criticism leveled against the country’s conduct on the continent and has worked hard to reframe the relationship with Africa.
Macron, who spent time in Nigeria as a teenager, has boosted aid given to Africa, initiated the repatriation of cultural artifacts taken during colonial conflicts, and extended his outreach beyond conventional government connections to involve younger generations and civil society.
At the end of a recent tour of Africa in March, Macron was keen to recast the image of France, emphasizing that he wanted to work with Africa on equal terms.
“We want to be long-term partners,” he said. “Africa is a theater of competition. It has to be done in a fair framework … We have our role to play, neither more nor less.”