Democratic Autocracy à la Gabonaise: International Politics, Double Standard, and Implications

Bola A. Akinterinwa 

Autocracy, politically or legally defined, is political governance by one person with unlimited power and authority. It is a system of government also referred to as unlimited monarchy. Monarchy is similar to autocracy because it is also a one-person rule in which the powers vary from absolute dictatorship to the merely ceremonial. True, there is limited monarchy in which the monarch’s power is either limited by the constitution or other restraints. Political governance in Gabon has been monarchical and autocratic since more than fifty years of sovereign existence of the Republic of Gabon.

Gabon is geopolitically located on the Atlantic coast of the Central African region of Africa and has a population of about $2.5bn as at 2021. In the period from 1839 to 1841, France established a protectorate over the Gabonese coast. The slaves released in 1849 from a captured slave-ship founded Libreville (Freetown), the modern day capital of Gabon. In fact, France not only extended her control to the interior of Gabon from 1862 to 1887 and acquired full sovereignty over Gabon, but also made it part of the French Equatorial Guinea in 1910.

Gabon acceded to national sovereignty in 1960. There were then only two political parties: Gabonese Democratic Bloc (BDG), led by Léon M’Ba and the Gabonese Democratic and Social Union (UDSG), led by Jean Hilaire Aubame. The main problem then was that, in the first post-independence election, none of the parties had the majority under the parliamentary system to be considered elected. This situation compelled the two party leaders to reject the idea of a two-party system but to accept to run with a single list of candidates. It was on this basis that Léon M’Ba became the president and Hilaire Aubame became the Foreign Minister in the February 1961 election.

Perhaps more problematic was the fact that the one-party solution became unworkable as from 1963 and that the first coup d’état took place in 1964. However, Léon M’Ba and Omar Bongo were both elected President and Vice President in March 1967. Mr. M’Ba died  in 1967 and Mr Bongo declared Gabon a one-party state by creating the Gabonese Democratic Party (PDG) to replace the BDG. This was how Bongo remained in power until his death in 2009. Explained differently, there was no plural democracy in Gabon from 1960 to 2009. This is the background to the current coup in Gabon. It has been more of democratic autocracy if we are to admit of democracy in Gabon. The African Union has, most unfortunately, been acquiescing to this situational reality until the people’s current revolt.

Gabon as a Democratic Monarchy

Opinion on the announcement of the results of the Gabonese election on Wednesday, 30th August, 2023, especially in terms of who was the winner, varies. Many observers believe that the presidential elections, held on Saturday, 26th August, 2023, were responsible for the coup. Without any whiff of doubt, however, the election can only be one of the dynamics but not really the main causal factor. It is necessary to differentiate between the profound cause, incidental cause, and immediate causal factors. In other words, the election controversy can is, at best, an incidental and an immediate causal factor of the coup. The profound or remote reason is the intolerance of democratic monarchy in Gabon which appeared to have reached its crescendo with the announcement of re-election of President Ali Bongo Ondimba on August 26. This profound cause is made clear in the statement of the coupists.

Besides, there is also the observation that the Gabonese coup should not be likened to the coup in Niger in the sense that the coups in Niger Republic and in other West African countries are driven by security and governance concerns while the coup in Gabon is driven by election results. As much as we do agree that the announcement of the election results generated controversies, and by so doing, constituting an accidental factor, we strongly believe that the profound reasons for the coups in Niger Republic, as well as in Mali, Guinea (Conakry), and Burkina Faso are the same. In fact, the attitudinal disposition of the international community and many other political stakeholders has been the same. 

And perhaps more importantly, it has been argued that the coup in Gabon is not really a coup d’état because the coup leader is a relation of the incumbent president. The first implication of this observation is that, for a real coup d’état to exist, the sponsors must not be related to the incumbent president. We do not subscribe to this type of logic. It is because of this factor of closeness that coups have been taking place. In fact, Shakespeare explained it better in Macbeth that ‘the near in blood, the nearer bloody.’ The unconstitutional change of government in Gabon is a coup d’état per excellence, especially that the act involved the use of force and also enabled a change of government.

Additionally, the election is a pretext or an immediate dynamic for the coup and not the main reason for it. As made clear in the statement of the coupists, they are ‘forced to admit that the organisation of the general election of 26 August 2023 did not meet the conditions for a transparent, credible and inclusive ballot so much hoped for by the people of Gabon.’ Put differently, the interest and aspiration of the Gabonese is to have electoral transparency, credible election, and an inclusive ballot, but this hope appears to have been dashed, hence the need to protest.

Besides, the coupists also complained about the ‘irresponsible and unpredictable governance, resulting in a continuing deterioration of social cohesion with the risk of leading the country into chaos… People of Gabon, we are finally on the road to happiness. May God and the spirits of our ancestors bless Gabon. Houses and loyalty to our homeland.’ In this regard, the Gabonese people want the ousted government of Ali Bongo Ondimba to be responsible and predictable. They want a stop to the deteriorating social cohesion. In other words, they do not want chaotic governance. They have faith in their country and they not only invoke the spirits of their ancestors but also want the intervention of God. 

However, the expectations of the people were neutralised with the announcement of the re-election of the incumbent President, Ali Bongo. In other words, the people never expected such re-election announcement. Again, there is nothing to suggest that the Gabonese military were not already hostile to the government of President Bongo Ondimba before the announcement of the controversial election results. Bongo Ondimba was announced to have won 64.27% of the votes cast, while the main challenger, Albert Ondo Ossa, reportedly scored 30.77%.

Thus, it was within one hour following the announcement of the re-election of the incumbent president that the soldiers came to announce on the State Television, Gabon 24, that the government of President Ali Bongo had been removed. In this regard, the immediate reaction of the military suggests an existing determination to resist any announcement of victory of the president. It couldn’t have been within the one hour following the election result announcement that the decision to plan a coup would have been taken? Planning of a coup, especially in terms of mobilisation, cannot but require more time.

More interestingly, the coupists made it clear that they were speaking on behalf of the ‘Committee for the Transition and Restoration of Institutions.’ Is the Committee representative of the generality of the people? The answer can be positive because the moment announcement was made that there had been a change of government, people spontaneously began to show support in various parts of the country. This type of public support should not be confused with the rent-a-crowd mentality in the mania of Nigeria. The people of Gabon apparently are saying enough is enough of the Bongos. The coup is a call for a true democracy in which the votes of the people will always count and that an end will be quickly put to the country’s political chicanery and rampant corruption. It should also be noted in this case that bags of cash were attached from the homes of Gabonese Cabinet officials. The very officials that are required to protect the people and prevent societal indiscipline, as well as punish acts of corruption, are the first same people engaging in the acts of misdemeanour.

The coup in Gabon is not different from that of Niger Republic in character: the coupists include regular soldiers, army colonels, and members of the elite presidential guards in both countries. The coupists enjoy popular support in both countries like they did in Mali. Niger Republic is very big territorially while Gabon is not big. However, they are both rich in mineral resources and their people are not rich in spite of their reported GDP per capita income. Gabon has a small population of 2.3 million and a GDP of about USD 21.64 billion in 2023. The GDP is projected to attain USD 22.24 billion in 2024 and USD 22.89 billion in 2025 according to the Trading Economics Global Macro models and analysts. 

The per capita income of the Gabonese is put at $9,294.28 in 2023 compared to $10,147.63 in 2022 and $9,482.51 in 2021. As high as this per capita income may be, the disturbing aspect is that a third of the population still live below the poverty line of $5.50 per day according to the World Bank. This is in spite of the fact that Gabon is adjudged as one of the richest countries in Africa. This scenario is not different from what obtains in Niger which is rich in uranium but is still considered one of the poorest in the world. Again, France remains the former colonial master of the two countries. What really is the problem with France and with her former colonies in Africa?

Politics, Double Standard, and Implications

Many things are wrong: the politics at the national and international levels is wrong. The policy attitude is that of double standard. The implication of the politics and double standard attitude is multidimensional and the international observers care less about them. This has now ignited hostility against the current international or world order politically, economically, and culturally. In the mania of the BRICS protesting against the policies of the Breton Woods institutions, so are many countries, beginning with Francophone Africa, protesting against their colonial masters and the Western world-dominated global governance, but which is being taken with kid gloves.

First, France has never shown any preparedness to be disengaged from Africa before and after decolonisation. The statement made by General Charles de Gaulle at the January 1944 conférence africaine française, a meeting of very prominent Free French leaders, is a good pointer. It was a meeting of the representatives of all French territories in Africa, convened to determine the role and future of the French colonial empire. And true enough, critical decisions were taken at the meeting: forced labour was stopped; French citizenship was granted to the colonial subjects; some powers were decentralised; and election of colonial subjects was allowed. The colonial Régime de L’indigénat was abolished. Not only were traditional institutions maintained, access of natives to all jobs was approved and local assemblies were also established. Several opportunities were created to sustain one French Community. The only opportunity not allowed to exist was the possibility of autonomy or political independence of any of the colonies. It was never part of the political calculations of General De Gaulle. It couldn’t have therefore been a surprise that the French Fifth Republic, under General Charles de Gaulle, the French Community was established to which many Francophone Africans happily joined and those who made reservations or who actually rejected it, like Guinea (Conakry), were severely sanctioned. 

The most current expression of non-preparedness to leave Africa alone is the French attitude to the coup in Niger Republic. The commander of the presidential brigade, General Abdouramane Tchiani, a former UN peacekeeper, led the coup against President Mohammed Bazoum who has installed himself as the new leader of the country. The Abdouramane Tchiani junta declared the French ambassador to Niamey persona non-grata but the ambassador has not complied because his home government says the coupists do not have the legitimate right to declare the French ambassador a person non-grata. 

By implication, the French are simply saying that they do not recognise the government. In other words, the French recognise the State of Niger but not its government. In reaction to the French policy attitude, the coupists directed the stoppage of provision of social services to the Consulate and Embassy of France. Thus, the relationship between France and Niger has reached its lowest ebb. Which way forward for both Niger and France? The French do not want to leave Niger, so are the Americans not prepared to leave the country. Nigériens are saying they are fed up with the French but the French distinguish between acceptable people and not-acceptable people of Niger to relate with. In fact, French diplomatic ties have not only been strained with Niger Republic, they have also been severed with Mali and Burkina Faso at the instance of the Francophone African countries.

Secondly, apart from France, international politics regarding coup making in Africa is not really a big deal. The policy attitude is to condemn every coup, to ask for reinstatement of the ousted elected president, to request for the personal safety and welfare of the president and members of his family and members of government put under incarceration, to monitor, and to insist on return to constitutional order. In most cases, the regional bodies, which often sought to address the problem on the basis of the principle of subsidiarity have only succeeded in negotiating a quick return to civilian rule, but not actually securing the return of the ousted president.

For examples, the UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, expressed a strong opposition to military coups and also ‘firmly condemns the on-going coup attempt as a means to resolve the post-electoral crisis. The United Kingdom and Canada simply condemned the unconstitutional military takeover of power in Gabon and called for a quick return to constitutional order. While Egypt called on all the parties ‘to uphold the national interest in order to preserve the security, stability and safety of the country,’ Russia said ‘Moscow has received with concern reports of a sharp deterioration in the internal situation and hope for its speedy stabilisation in the friendly African country. We continue to closely monitor the development of the situation. In the eyes of the Commonwealth Secretary-General, Patricia Scotland, the Gabonese coup is ‘an illegal takeover of power. The Commonwealth Charter is clear that Member States must uphold the rule of law and the principles of democracy at all times and the Commonwealth Secretariat will be keenly monitoring the situation.’

Nigeria’s reported position is not different: ‘President Bola Ahmed Tinubu is watching developments in Gabon very closely with deep concern for the country’s socio-political stability and the seeming autocratic contagion apparently spreading across different regions of our beloved continent.’ China also ‘closely follows the development of the situation in Gabon and calls on relevant parties in Gabon to…restore normal order as soon as possible. And also ensure the personal safety of President Bongo, maintain national peace, stability, and overall development. 

From the foregoing, it is only Russia that has expressly and more friendly shown solidarity to Gabon as a state without condemning the coupists. The Chinese statement avoided talking about democracy. It is a very diplomatic statement. Coup making always provides an opportunity for political interferences through speeches. Talking but without walking the talk and thereby enabling observers to make their own deductions. This is most unfortunate. 

For us, we contend here that the Gabonese coup has not been, stricto sensu, aimed at simply changing the Ali Bongo administration but, on the contrary, to actually sustain the Bongo dynasty by adopting tactical new policies of making changes-in-continuity, which simply means changing the leader of Gabon, but still sustaining the Bongo dynasty. It is apparently because of the concerns about the likelihood of an entrenchment of a Bongo Dynasty that the military and the people of Gabon found a common interest to want to put an end to the administration of Ali Bongo. There is nothing to suggest that the chief coupist will act differently as times goes on. In fact, we also note here that President Ali Bongo, at 64 years of age, and having suffered a stroke in October 2018, was unable to perform his official functions as required. It is probably in light of his deteriorating health that a coup d’état might have been organised as a cover up to remove him and still ensure the continuity of the Bongos. Consequently, the public support for the coupists might have been misguided and, therefore, should be taken with caution, as Gabon still remains a democratic autocracy with the visible intra-Bongo disagreements.

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