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What Gabon's coup means for Africa's democracy and polls

Kamotho Waiganjo
 Election officials carry ballot boxes as people wait for the opening of a polling office during the presidential election in Libreville, Gabon August 26, 2023. [Reuters]

News of the coup in Gabon, ousting the Bongo dynasty from the Gabonese State House follows an almost predictable path in Francophone Africa where military juntas have severally left the barracks to “save the people” in the last 18 months.

There have been at least 7 coups, 2 in Burkina Faso, and one each in Guinea, Sudan, Mali, Chad, and Niger.

Largely unreported were unsuccessful coup attempts in Guinea Bissau, The Gambia and the island nation of Sao Tome and Principe. Even Gabon had an unsuccessful attempt in 2019!

This weekend’s Gabon takeover however came as a shock to many in Africa.

Unlike places like Niger, where the coup is said to have resulted from a clash between the President and General Tchuani, the eventual “transitional leader” when the former tried to fire the General, or Chad and Sudan where there were clashes between generals, the relations between the Bongos and the military have been superb.

Indeed, General Bruce Nguema, the man named as the “transitional president” served as the elder Bongo’s ADC for years and was the head of the presidential guard for the current Bongo.

In a strange “coincidence” Cameroon’s Paul Biya and Rwanda’s Paul Kagame on Wednesday announced far-reaching changes to the top echelons of their militaries. Wait for several such changes in the rest of Africa in the coming weeks.

Gabon’s coup should not come as a surprise. Since 1967, the country has been led by the Bongos. Omar Bongo ruled the country for 42 years until his death in Spain in 2009.

His colourless son Ali Bongo Ondimba controversially won the 2009 presidential elections and was now headed for his third term. The elections on Saturday were held in an opaque environment with foreign observers banned from monitoring the polls.

Once the elections ended, there was a news blackout complete with an internet shutdown until the results were announced on Saturday night. President Bongo had, predictably, won overwhelmingly with 65 per cent of the vote.

Two hours after the announcement there came the now-familiar TV appearance of generals announcing that they had taken power “on behalf of the people”.

What is happening in the Sahel belt? Does this signal a retreat from democracy in the continent?

The reality is that with punishing economic times and an energetic youthful population, there is increased disillusionment with a form of democracy that delivers no substance to the population.

In many of these countries, there has been continual manipulation of the democratic process to either manufacture illegitimate election results or change constitutions to extend presidential term limits.

No wonder the military generals have been received with such fanfare in most capitals. What has made Francophone Africa worse is the conduct of its colonial master, France.

Unlike the United Kingdom, which cut formal links, at least patently, after its departure from the continent, France has continued to exert undue influence in its former colonies, seeing them as avenues for the extraction of raw material and spheres of military influence.

Many of these countries still use the CFA Franc! To solidify this arrangement, France propped up several presidents, even when they were no longer popular with citizens, as long as they delivered for Mother France.

It is not surprising that there is such angst against France in Niger, Chad, Burkina Faso and now in Gabon. All that said, one thing is clear; military takeovers are not Africa’s solution, even where democracy fails us.

The continent’s experience with militaries has generally been negative and it is easier to remove a civilian tyrant than one who comes in through the barrel of a gun. But the coups, and more particularly citizens’ celebration after they occur, should cause the continent’s leaders to introspect.

The message being sent is that if elections are manipulated to the extent that happened successively in Gabon, the general’s “salvation” will possess justification, however contrived.

This is why I celebrate the “system’s” loss in the 2022 Kenyan elections. It said to Kenyans that the vote matters.  But that’s only stage one.

Elections and democracy must still deliver dividends to the struggling youngsters in dusty Africa capitals. Failing that, the generals will feel justified to leave the barracks, a sad alternative for our dear continent!     

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