Gabon Coup a Pre-Emptive Move by France to Protect Its Influence in Africa

In a military statement released from the presidential palace on Wednesday, August 30, 2023, a group of presidential guard and army officers announced their seizure of power in Gabon, placing President Ali Bongo under house arrest, surrounded by his family and doctors. This came shortly after the Election Commission had declared his victory for a third presidential term. Meanwhile, in the capital city of Libreville, people took to the streets in support of the coup.

Following this coup, which occurred about a month after the Niger coup, sparking regional and international debates and differing stances, international reactions poured in. France condemned the coup through its government spokesperson Olivier Véran, stating that France was closely monitoring the events and expressed its desire to see the election results respected if they were known. Josep Borrell, the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs, commented on the Gabon coup and the coups in the Sahel and Sahara regions, calling it “a significant problem for Europe.” The US also condemned the coup and called for the preservation of civilian rule and democracy.

It is evident that the major powers’ condemnations of the coup have taken on a traditional diplomatic tone, as they seek to establish channels of communication with the coup leaders to influence or secure their interests. They aim to avoid sending the wrong messages to their military clients on whom they rely to suppress populations and expand their influence.

In order to perceive what is happening in Gabon, considering that it reflects the state of affairs between influential nations in the world and particularly in Africa, it is important to note that last month’s coup in Niger deeply alarmed France, especially after its recent losses in Mali and Burkina Faso. This led former French President Hollande to slam the French leadership for the lack of clear French responses and action regarding coups in Africa. He pointed out that this encouraged military takeovers in other countries. President Macron also called on France to support African leaders during a recent conference of French ambassadors in Paris. He emphasised that if France did not support them and showed weakness, who would trust France in Africa or anywhere else in the world?

As a result of this apprehension and considering the evidence and information related to the event and the coup leaders, indications suggest that what happened in Gabon was a preemptive coup executed by French intelligence to safeguard against further erosion of French influence in Africa. This is especially significant because Macron had accused Bernard Émié, the director of the French foreign intelligence agency, of failing to anticipate the ousting of President Bazoum by the Nigerien military council.

Following the coup in Niger, the turbulent electoral situation and popular discontent in Gabon necessitate caution and intervention. The Gabonese people have grown weary of the rule of the Bongo family and their extravagance. Additionally, some members of the family have faced corruption allegations in France. Moreover, President Ali Bongo is ill and incapable of managing the affairs of the country and there is a division within the family following the death of his father, exacerbated by his conflict with his relative, General Brice Clotaire Oligui Nguema, who led the coup against him.

Furthermore, some of President Ali Bongo’s actions have evoked the wrath of France, such as signing a bilateral partnership agreement with China after his visit to Beijing in April 2023 and allowing the US military to train the Gabonese army. All of these factors have contributed to his removal to protect French interests. Despite the long-standing allegiance of the Bongo family to France, dating back to the recruitment of his father, Omar Bongo, by the renowned French intelligence figure Jacques Foccart, known as “Mr. Africa,” who handed power in Gabon to Omar Bongo who in turn exclusively awarded oil licenses to the French company Elf, the political capitalist logic does not hold sentimental value for agents. They can be discarded and replaced if their presence becomes a threat to the interests of the sponsoring states.

This perspective was expressed by one of the French diplomats who said, “If the leader’s popularity wanes, in elections or on the streets, France will distance itself.” This is why Oligui Nguema justified his coup when asked by the French newspaper Le Monde on Wednesday, August 30, immediately after the coup, whether this coup had been planned for a long time or if Ali Bongo’s victory announcement in the elections had triggered it. He replied, “You know there is discontent in Gabon, and behind this discontent, there is the illness of the head of state, and everyone talks about it, but no one takes responsibility. He had no right to run for a third term; the constitution was violated, and the election process itself was flawed, so the military decided to turn the page and assume their responsibilities.”

It’s worth noting here that Ali Bongo had banned French media in the country during the election period. However, following the coup, the coup leaders allowed these media outlets to resume their activities. In fact, the leader of the coup granted an interview to one of these newspapers, Le Monde.

The timing of the coup immediately after the election results were announced suggests premeditation. It aimed to disrupt the constitutional order, absorb the people’s anger, and redirect it through a preemptive coup, effectively preventing both the opposition and any surprise coup attempts, as seen in Niger. General Olga Nguema taking control of the coup was not merely due to his close relationship with President Bongo but to reassure the ruling faction and the political centre aligned with France, deeply entrenched in the power structure, and prevent them from taking action against the coup. Therefore, France, in general, was not satisfied with Ali Bongo and desired a change, fearing a sudden coup or the outbreak of a revolution leading to the collapse of the regime. France swiftly moved to secure Gabon and preserve its influence.

Despite people coming out in support of the coup, there has not been any noticeable attack on France by the coup leaders or the masses. Their jubilation was primarily focused on ousting the corrupt president, in contrast to what happened in Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger, where coup supporters chanted anti-French slogans.

As for France’s mild condemnation of the Gabon coup, it’s little more than a traditional expression to conceal its covert actions. There has not been any hint of military intervention to reinstate the ousted president, as was the case with France’s stance on the Niger coup. There have also been no hostile steps taken by the coup leaders towards France, such as demanding the withdrawal of French troops from Gabon.

One of the most significant signs of France’s planning for the coup is also its deceptive move just one month before the presidential elections. During this time, France bolstered the weaponry of the Republican Guard with four French-made armoured vehicles of the AML-90 model. President Ali Bongo received these vehicles in the presence of high-ranking officials from various branches of the Gabonese army, including the current coup leader, General Oligui Nguema, who stated to the media, “It is a great honour for me, as the highest commander of the Republican Guard, to receive this equipment.”

Therefore, the Gabon coup is a preemptive coup, an internal cleansing operation aimed at preserving French presence against the continuous American encroachment on the remnants of French influence. Gabon is a resource-rich country, particularly in oil, timber, and manganese. About 120 French companies operate in Gabon, including the French mining giant “Eramet,” which produces high-quality manganese. France fears that the American penetration might harm its economic resources since the French economy relies on the exploitation of French companies in African resources. If the US were to gain control, it could establish channels of communication between French companies and American interests. This could lead to the US exerting influence over the deep state in France and the policymakers themselves.

Copyright Ó LCIR 2023

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