By Monica Johnson, International Banker
In a matter of minutes following the confirmed re-election of Ali Bongo Ondimba for a third term as president of the Gabonese Republic on August 30—a process that observers confirmed was marred by irregularities—military leaders in the country seized power in a coup d’état and annulled the election results. As such, Gabon became the eighth military takeover of a francophone country in West and Central Africa during the last three years, with other notable putsches taking place in the Republic of the Niger (July 2023), Burkina Faso (January 2022 and September 2022), the Republic of Guinea (September 2021), the Republic of Chad (April 2021) and the Republic of Mali (August 2020). And with anti-French sentiment in the region perhaps higher than ever, France’s once-mighty economic and military influences over its former African colonies will continue to suffer.
Indeed, the region has collectively become informally known as the “coup belt”, given the alarming frequency with which leaders have been removed from power. And the former French colonies have experienced the most unrest. “Since 1990, a striking 78% of the 27 coups in sub-Saharan Africa have occurred in Francophone states,” according to an August 6 BBC article written by Leonard Mbulle-Nziege, a researcher at the Institute for Democracy, Citizenship and Public Policy in Africa at the University of Cape Town, and Nic Cheeseman, the director of the Centre for Elections, Democracy, Accountability and Representation at the University of Birmingham.
In Gabon, which experienced the most recent coup, French economic interests have been almost continuously served throughout the country’s 63 years as an independent state. This is mainly because 57 of those years have seen the Bongo Ondimba family rule the oil-rich nation (Gabon is the fourth-biggest oil producer in Sub-Saharan Africa), with Ali Bongo Ondimba’s father, Omar Bongo Ondimba, taking office in 1967. With unwavering backing from the French, Omar remained in power until he died in 2009, at which point he was succeeded by his son, Ali. But Gabon’s military coup seems to have ended one family’s grip on power that had endured for beyond half a century, a period in which this family amassed substantial wealth but left much of the country in poverty.
“The relationship between Gabon and France is marked by close cooperation. Under Ali Bongo’s presidency, Gabon has been one of France’s closet allies in Africa, and through [the] years, Bongo became known as a loyal supporter of French policies,” Ismael Buchanan, a political scientist at the University of Rwanda, told Turkish news outlet Anadolu Agency. But after the recent events in Niger and other countries, Buchanan added, the Gabon situation “is going to be more dangerous for France’s economy and military interests in Gabon and the region”.
Indeed, discontent has grown considerably during the 2020s to date over “Françafrique”—that is, the sphere of economic, military and even cultural influence that France has maintained over its former African colonies. This sourness has been no more clearly demonstrated than in the scenes broadcast from Niger following its coup on July 26, which saw the military oust then-President Mohamed Bazoum. Daily crowds of protestors in the thousands amassed outside the French embassy, demanding that its staff and the roughly 1,400 French military troops stationed in Niger leave the country. After several weeks of resistance to these demands from the French side, it was confirmed in September that the troops would leave, with the first departures being reported on October 10.
The coups unfolding across the Sahel region have significantly dwindled France’s military presence. Indeed, Niger’s exodus follows a similar French withdrawal from Burkina Faso in February, mandated by the military government, which seized power in September 2022. Perhaps the most significant of all was the withdrawal of 2,500 soldiers from Mali, completed in August 2022 after the failure of Operation Barkhane. This nine-year counter-terrorism campaign was aided by the French military, initially brought in by the Mali government in 2013 to combat the growing wave of Islamist extremism. But with the fighting leading to the deaths of thousands of civilians in the region and the displacement of millions more, a tide of resentment from Malians swelled against the presence of French troops in the country, ultimately leading to their exit. Again, this departure was expedited by the May 2021 coup carried out by Vice President Assimi Goïta, with the incoming junta blaming Paris for failing to achieve Operation Barkhane’s objectives.
With many of those French soldiers crossing into Niger, their recent exit following the July coup in the capital city, Niamey, marks a major depletion of French military resources in the wider region. “The recent military coup in Niger marks the point of no return for the unraveling of France’s dominant economic and military influence across West Africa,” according to Michaël Tanchum, a professor of international relations of the Middle East and North Africa at Universidad de Navarra. “Occurring solely among francophone West African nations, the assumption of power by military elites in these impoverished yet mineral-rich countries was justified as an effort on their part to end exploitative neo-colonialist relationships with France.”
Indeed, France’s economic interests, particularly through its widespread extraction of West and Central Africa’s abundant mineral resources, have stoked the most anger amongst local people. According to French daily news publication Le Monde, many of France’s flagship companies have long-established roots in these countries, with around 200 companies or subsidiaries operating in Mali, 45 in Burkina Faso, 30 in Niger and 10 in the Central African Republic (CAR). Whether it’s manganese in Gabon, uranium in Niger or gold in Burkina Faso, France’s longstanding colonial relationships with such countries have enabled it to secure many privileged contracts to extract vast quantities of resource wealth, while local populations have experienced few economic benefits.
Their dismay has extended beyond France’s presence to their own leaders, who, in many cases, are viewed as puppets installed to serve France’s interests rather than those of their own people. “Central Africa is a region that is unusually rich in natural resources whose leaders have accumulated vast wealth essentially through what economists refer to as rent collection,” Howard W. French, a professor at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism and a longtime foreign correspondent, explained in an August 31 piece for Foreign Policy magazine. “In doing so, they have not only grown fantastically wealthy, but they have also provided unwavering support to France internationally while taking care to give its companies a large share in a variety of lucrative extraction industries.”
Despite Gabon having one of the highest income-per-capita figures in Sub-Saharan Africa, for instance, the World Bank has calculated the oil-rich country’s poverty rate—that is, those who live on less than US$1.90 per day—at a hefty 33 percent. And with the Bongo Ondimba family’s close relationship with France proving significant for Gabon’s political and economic landscape today, Ali’s removal from power at a time of heightened anti-French sentiment is further eroding France’s economic presence in the region. “There is a sense in some African countries that economic and political life is still being controlled by the French. The reality is that we are now in an age of revolt against the French establishment, and these African countries are seeking ‘a second independence,'” Gnaka Lagoke, a professor of history and African studies at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, told US state media Voice of America on October 5. “People want their political and economic freedom, and they feel France is an obstacle to them achieving that.”
For some, France’s neoliberal approach to Africa under President Emmanuel (Jean-Michel Frédéric) Macron has also failed to win many friends, with French businesses and culture still at the helm of any development initiatives being thrust upon local communities. According to Frank Gerits, a research fellow at the University of the Free State, South Africa, and assistant professor in the History of International Relations at Utrecht University, Netherlands, Macron’s policies have not engendered amongst locals a feeling that France is a more benevolent coloniser due to the cultural links it has established with African elites.
“Macron’s approach has only increased distrust and anger because a large military presence has not been replaced by a new international economic order, but with small-scale business deals and start-ups. This is not what Africans wanted, but it is what they got,” Gerits explained in a September 5 article he wrote for current affairs publication The Conversation, adding that Macron wants French development policy to be driven by private initiatives that remain under France’s control and has thus “played into a widely accepted African worldview in which underdevelopment is the product of dependency on Europe and neocolonial exploitation”.