No to all looters, civilian or military
Working people need to build a movement for democratic rights and socialist change
“In the name of the Gabonese people” the military coup leaders on August 30, 2023 declared that they have decided to put “end to the current regime”. There was no open forum where the military leaders had secured the mandate of the Gabonese people. But the announcement enjoyed popular support as jubilant crowds trooped to streets. Jules Lebigui, a jobless 27-year-old who joined crowds in Libreville aptly captured the prevailing mood. “I am marching today because I am joyful. After almost 60 years, the Bongos are out of power” (Reuters, August 30).
The coup, which came few hours after the official declaration of Ali Bongo as the winner of August 26 Presidential election to begin his third term despite his poor health, has ended his political dynasty. Ali Bongo came to power in 2009 to replace his father Omar who had ruled the country since 1967 until his death. Between father and son, the Bongo dynasty had ruled the oil-rich but poverty-stricken Central African country for over half a century!
The election which Ali Bongo officially won by clinching 64.27 percent of vote cast has been described as lacking transparency. In the real sense however, it was by all means farcical. International observers were not allowed to monitor the poll while some foreign broadcast media were suspended. Also Gabonese authorities cut the internet and imposed a nighttime curfew nationwide after the poll. Ali’s previous two elections in 2009 and 2016 were also widely disputed and considered fraudulent, triggering protests and attendant repression which claimed many lives and property.
Knowing fully well that there is no significant support amongst the mass of the Gabonese people Ali Bongo, in a video done while in house arrest, called on his friends all over the world to make noise. This viral video has become the butt of the joke on social media’.
Understandably, to many Gabonese there is no difference between a military coup and perennial rigged election which has put the same family in power for decades. Besides, the majority of the about 2.55 million population do not benefit from the enormous wealth of the country in the 55 years Bongos were in power. The country is rich in oil, cocoa and has the second largest manganese deposit in the world. Manganese is a mineral used in steel making and batteries.
During his presidency, Bongo senior, had the reputation of a kleptocrat – one of the richest men in the world, with a fortune stolen from Gabon’s oil wealth (France24, August 30). His son, Ali, was also implicated in many reports as patently corrupt. French investigators once charged four of Bongo’s siblings with embezzlement and corruption, and believe both Omar and Ali Bongo knowingly benefited from a fraudulently acquired real estate empire worth at least 85 million euros (France 24). However, this investigation is said to have since been dropped.
Despite their pillage of Gabon’s wealth, the Bongos continued to enjoy patronage and backing of France. Omar Bongo was regarded a pillar of Francafrique – France’s economic and military grip on its ex-colonies – while Ali was recently feted by French President, Macron, while on a state visit to Paris.
Beyond Bongo’s family, the country’s wealth especially from oil is appropriated by a few thieving elites. The country’s oil export revenue was $6 billion in 2022, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Tragically, despite having one of sub-Saharan Africa’s highest average yearly incomes per head – almost $9,000 in 2022, according to the World Bank – over a third of its population are said to live in poverty (BBC, August 30).
Therefore, the support for the coup is a reflection of the failure of capitalism in neo-colonial country with backward and corrupt ruling elite as well as the growing disillusionment in bourgeois democracy to guarantee basic needs for the vast majority despite huge mineral resources. One of the jubilant Gabonese Hermann Ngoulou told AP “It is an expression of the popular dissatisfaction … The country has been experiencing a deep crisis on all levels due to bad governance, the rising cost of food (and) the high cost of living.” (AP, August 31).
But this is not peculiar to Gabon as evident by the resurgence of military coups in Africa, especially in the west and central regions where there have been eight military takeovers in the last three years. As a news article by AP revealed, “at least 27, or half, of the 54 countries in Africa are among the 30 least developed in the world, according to the latest United Nations Human Development Index. Most are in West and Central Africa, often endowed with natural resources whose rich profits are little seen by everyday citizens” (AP, August 31).
So, it is not accidental that the research network Afrobarometer’s 2023 surveys found that the number of people supporting democracy and elections in Africa has fallen. Only 68% of respondents across 34 countries preferred democracy to any other system of government, down from 73% a decade ago (AP, August 31).
While the decline is relatively small, it underscores the reversal of a past trend towards civil rule. But in Mali, one of the countries that set the path for a recent domino effect of coups in West Africa and Central Africa, the figure is striking . 82% of people trust the military “somewhat” or “a lot” (BBC, August 29).
This result here actually reflects the more complicated situation in Francophone West Africa where palpable grievances over the inefficiency of the local corrupt capitalist leaders amidst the growing wave of jihadist insurgency in the region intersect with historical resentment at the role of ex-colonial master, France, which backs the crooked leaders to produce a powerful anti-colonial mood that local military adventurers are exploiting for their own goals. In tow of the Putschists is Putin’s Russia which, previously acting through Wagner mercenaries, is trying to take advantage of the situation to establish a footprint in the region.
“Contagion of Autocracy”
In many countries like Nigeria, there has been progressive decline in the voters’ turnout. Only 27 percent of eligible voters cast ballots in the last presidential election. This suggests a massive lack of faith in bourgeois elections. In the absence of a genuine mass working people alternative amidst mass discontent the possibility of a coup in Nigeria while it is low at present, cannot be ruled out in future. However, a coup in Nigeria has a high potential of plunging the country into civil war and disintegration, given the degeneration of the unresolved national question and the escalation of ethnic identity politics in recent time.
Meanwhile, in reaction to the situation in Gabon, President Bola Tinubu of Nigeria, whose election was characterized by rigging and manipulation and where his official victory is currently being challenged by opponents in court, talked about a “contagion of autocracy” spreading across Africa.
By “contagion of autocracy”, Tinubu apparently meant the current coup epidemic in Africa. But many of African leaders with whom he sits at ECOWAS and the AU and plans to discuss the malaise are autocrats who have re-written the constitutions of their respective countries and periodically conduct farces described as elections to perpetuate themselves in power. Therefore, beyond the façade of elections, they are not fundamentally different from military juntas.
Already some of these autocrats are now living in mortal dread of a military coup that could chase them out of power. For instance, hours after the coup in Gabon announced, president of neighbouring Cameroon, Paul Biya, who’s been in power for 40 years, shuffled his military leadership, and Rwandan President Paul Kagame “accepted the resignation” of a dozen generals and more than 80 other senior military officers. Kagame has been in power since 2000 and has changed the constitution in such a way that he can remain power at least until 2034.
However, a major element in the recent spate of coups in Africa is a strident sentiment against French imperialism. While it is not boldly seen at present in the coup in Gabon unlike Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso, the fact that this is another coup in a former French colony and the eighth in three years and just over a month after Niger’s, has helped sustain the question of French neo-colonialism on the front burner. Indeed, a news bulletin anchor of Al Jazeera on August 30 described the situation as “Francophone Spring”. While this is a series of military conspiratorial actions and not like the 2011 “Arab Spring” which was a wave of independent mass uprising of the people against different authoritarian regimes in the Middle East and North Africa, it is also enjoying a mass support and acceptance.
France is seen as the prop for corrupt leaders who enjoy its protection in exchange for allowing the continued economic exploitation and political control including direct military intervention in domestic affairs. This post-colonial arrangement pejoratively called Francafrique was put in place by France to protect its sphere of influence in resource rich African countries against competing interest from the rival imperialist powers. As a result, the economy including exploitation of mineral resources is dominated by French businesses and multinationals. Therefore, France is directly linked to the economic failures of these African leaders.
Another element of the arrangement is the currency of 14 Francophone countries in west and central Africa, CFA franc, which is pegged to euro, something that reportedly requires that these countries to deposit half of their foreign exchange reserves with the French Treasury. This together with the existence of French, and other Western countries, military bases is seen a colonial relic and thereby a source of growing mass anger in many francophone countries especially among the young people.
Apparently, there is an internal conflict within capitalist ruling elite including top military brass. But it is the mass discontent with political leaderships that the opportunistic military officers, some of whom are true blue members of the robber elite, are riding on to power. For instance, General Oligui Nguema, the Gabonese coup leader, just like General Tchiani of Niger, was head of Republican Guard, an elite military unit responsible for many of the repressive actions of President Bongo. He is first cousin of Ali Bongo and a former ADC of his father.
Implicated in a 2020 investigation into the Bongo family’s assets in the United States, Nguema was said to have invested in real state, paying in cash over $1milion. He was unabashed when journalists questioned him about the properties. He said it was a private affair. “I think whether in France or in the United States, a private life is a private life that [should be] respected” (Al Jazeera, August 30, 2023).
By and large, in Gabon there is not likely to be any improvement in the quality of life of the vast majority as the new military government will implement fundamentally the same capitalist policies and arrangement that would worsen the economic woes of the country despite its huge mineral resources. It is not likely for the military rulers to undermine the interest of French multinationals and businesses which dominate mineral resources while it continues the tradition of a few local elite appropriate the accrued wealth. But even if for any reason yet unforeseen the junta leaders decide to break with France, this would not mean hurrah as they are likely to simply embrace another imperialist master, perhaps Russia or China, as we already see in Burkina Faso and Mali. In any case, African leaders have a history of jostling among different imperialist masters hoping to get the best available deal. Ali Bongo himself took Gabon, a French-speaking country, to join with the Commonwealth last year.
It will require mass struggles, like 2019 mass protest of students that forced Bongo to suspend a planned attack on access to university education, to extract any concession from the new military junta.
While understanding why such coups can have initial support, as was the case in Nigeria in the 1980s, socialists will support any pro-democracy movement for full democratic rights, oppose military rule, while striving to build independent organisations of the working class and poor. Socialists should call for a democratically based revolutionary Constituent Assembly to determine the country’s future and argue that, for lasting democratic rights and the majority to benefit from the resources of the country, there has to be a working peoples government on a socialist programme. Such a program should include the nationalisation of commanding heights of the economy such as oil and gas, mines, banks, etc and placing them under democratic management and control of working people themselves. This will enable the start of socialist planning that can guarantee provision of basic needs of life for the vast majority, begin to develop the economy and prevent economic sabotage.
Given their domination of the economy by multinationals, such a government will draw the rage of imperialist powers including France and elsewhere. Therefore, especially in a small country like Gabon, such a government has to be built on a revolutionary mass movement and appeals for the solidarity of the working class internationally in Africa and especially in the imperialist countries.
In Gabon, at present there is no such mass socialist consciousness or movement. But as the military proves not to be different from the civilian section of the ruining capitalist elite, the quest for change and better quality of life that prompted the support for military coup in the first instance will most definitely propel the mass of the Gabonese working people and youth on the path of searching for a better political and economic alternative. This could open possibilities for the ideas of mass struggle and a socialist alternative to gain support.