The coup news from Gabon, one of the few Francophone countries where President Emmanuel Macron was still welcome, must be grim reading for the French leader. Gabonese president Ali Bongo, who claimed to have won the recent election, lost power in the coup.
This is the tenth coup in West and Central Africa in the last three years, and both regional and international political leaders have a challenge ahead, as it is unlikely that the Gabonese military will heed calls for restoring democracy.
Both the military and many Gabonese believe the election was neither free nor fair—a view which could not be disproved, since Bongo did not allow independent election observers. This turn of events also mirrors the recent similarly derided election outcome in Zimbabwe and the slew of undemocratic regimes in the BRICS membership queue. Will Washington, Paris, and London be sure-footed this time, or will they continue to mouth diplomatic platitudes and slink off?
President Macron was hosted by President Bongo in Libreville in Gabon as recently as March 1, 2023 at the One Forest Summit. The event kicked off a four nations African tour during which President Macron declared that “the era of French interference in Africa is over.” Some political and intelligence observers in Paris now expect nothing meaningful from the Macron government, “President Macron does not love France and cares nothing for Africa, he only cares about himself,” one of them told me this week. Under Macron, France has given up on Africa, setting up a geostrategic threat to America, Europe, and the UK. France has been ejected from Burkina Faso and Niger, Algeria only recently made up with Macron following a rocky diplomatic relationship, and Morocco recently denied a request for a Macron state visit. Even Macron’s plea for an invitation to the BRICS Summit in South Africa was denied.
The West should not expect help from France in Gabon. In fact, another observer told me that many people in the French intelligence and security establishment hope that America will rescue democratic interests in Africa.
Given the United States’ poor track record of keeping Africa on the side of democratic values, it is unlikely that Gabon will spur Washington from its African torpor. This opens the door further for Russia and China, and newly-accepted BRICS members such as Iran, who are looking to bank Africa for their own account.
The UK also has a problem. Commonwealth members Gabon—a recent addition—and Zimbabwe now have questions about electoral legitimacy. Yet the West does not seem to have a clear policy or plan, unlike with Ukraine, where they immediately stepped into the breach for Ukrainians under attack by Russia.
All the while, the geostrategic threat grows. Algeria provided China with a deep-water port on the Mediterranean, Djibouti contributed one on the horn of Africa, and now Gabon may give one on the Atlantic. France’s retreat in West Africa and the Sahel enables Islamic extremists to march into the breach. This may soon present the West with a nightmare choice. If, for instance, Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin (JNIM)—a Mali-based terrorist group that has expanded its operations to Burkina Faso—participates in the mooted Burkina Faso elections planned for 2024 and wins, what could the West say or do? “This would create an Afghanistan in West Africa, thanks to Macron,” said my French source.
The Gabon development means nearby countries—including Côte d’Ivoire, Senegal, and even Ghana—must be quite nervous about either being next in line for a coup, or subject to extremist Islamic incursions from neighboring military governments weakened by sanctions and isolated from Western influence.
Expect Russia and China also to step into the vacuum in Gabon for the sake of its oil and gas riches. Such a development would be welcomed in many African circles. “When we talk to America they lecture us about pronouns and force ESG policies, but the Chinese give us roads and infrastructure,” a retired Congolese bank executive recently told me.
Until America, the UK, and Europe, particularly France, manage more than platitudes, the Chinese and Russian footprint in Africa will grow, bringing these autocratic regimes the added advantages of strategic ports, access to valuable minerals, and lucrative oil and gas resources.
François Baird is the founder of The FairPlay trade movement as well as co-chairman of the international consultancy Baird’s CMC, with forty-seven partners in seventeen countries.
Image: Radio Télévision Gabonaise.