Tropical Disruption: Gabon
To use a cliche: details are sketchy right now – as always in these fluid, chaotic situations surrounding power grabs, but it seems that in Libreville, capital of the Republic of Gabon in central West Central Africa, five soldiers attempted a coup d’etat. On Monday night they took control of the radio station broadcasting their demands and taking advantage of the absence of the Gabonese president and dictator Ali Bongo, 47. He is recuperating from a stroke in Morocco.
Control of the radio station is a classic move in these circumstances: traditionally radio has been the central node of national mass communication in Africa. From the 1960s to the 1980s army lead coups were the primary means of replacing one dictatorship with a new, almost identical dictatorship, at times being so frequent as to be almost comical. A link to 60 years of worldwide coup frequency by political scientist Jay Ulfelder is linked via Gabon’s twitter page at https://twitter.com/marceldirsus/status/1082195626350297089
Coup data shows violent transfers of power have been gradually going out of fashion, thankfully, as democracy spreads. Additionally, this attempted coup comes as a surprise since Gabon is one of two countries in the Central African area which has not experienced armed civil conflict since independence.
By a strange co-incidence there are 80 US troops in Libreville right now in case events surrounding the recent elections in the nearby Democratic Republic of the Congo turn nasty. Evacuating American citizens from war and civic strife is one of the primary duties of our military. The Americans forces there are out-numbered 10:1 by the permanent presence of 800 French troops propping up the Bongo family and its rapacious kleptocracy.
It is a tough neighborhood: oil rich Equatorial Guinea next door has been under the fist of the Obiang dictator family since 1969, to the south the Republic of Congo has endured long time president Denis Nguesso on and off since 1979 and to the north is Cameroon, a country currently suffering the trauma of 37 years of dictator Paul Biya’s incompetence.
Cameroonian President Biya resides more or less permanently in a swanky hotel in Geneva, presumably counting his loot while his country is torn apart by the oppression of the English speaking minority by the French speaking majority. Further East is the anarchic Central African Republic – a lawless failed state, and further south is a Democratic Republic of Congo shaped hole in Africa, arguably another failed state. Its hard to find a region with worse governments than Central Africa, particularly the Francophone bits.
Given the neighborhood the sclerotic dictatorships of the Bongos, father Omar (ruled:1967-2009) and son Ali (from 2009) in Gabon looks positively serene. With oil Gabon has one of the highest GDPs in Africa but the fact it is the largest African importer of champagne illustrates the fact the wealth distribution there basically runs along the lines of the Bongo family verses the rest of the robbed and impoverished two million Gabonese.
President Bongo periodically holds phony, violence marred elections which, unsurprisingly, keep him in power. The latest was in 2016. The Anglosphere and rest of the non French world has barely heard of Gabon and those who have rarely make a peep as the Bongo family have a relatively (for the area, anyway) decent record regarding conservation of Gabon’s rich forests and wildlife. Well when the country is your family’s property for generations you take care of the garden, don’t you?
It seems this handful of army coup plotters failed in their attempt to overthrow President Bongo and it would be speculation at this stage to suggest the French were responsible for putting down this small insurrection. Be that as it may, the French have a long record of supporting, often with force of arms, the vilest of African dictators to benefit French corporations and promote general Gallic principals of La Francophonie – the community of French speaking nations comprising their now mostly moribund empire. What fate awaits the rebels in Libreville is open to conjecture, but it won’t be pretty, and there’ll be no champagne.
David Anderson is an Australian-American attorney in New York City. He contributes to various publications regarding international politics and law.
Map: Sebk. [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], from Wikimedia Commons