Just like during the 1970s, coups in Africa have become trendy again. And I mean “trendy”: many human actions, collective and individual, are more contagious than we give them credit for. Individually, street crime, violence and suicide are all extremely contageous. On a larger scale, civil wars and coups often happen in clumps. Take Gabon, the most recent in a series of coups throughout Africa.
In the West we disparage coups and rightly so. They wreck the established democratic system, the economies, and the populations (not all coups are as bloodless as the recent ones) of the countries concerned. Follow the decline of GDPs in coups after they happen, long term.
There is a line, though, where democracy doesn’t deliver the change citizens demand, where the system has been corrupted and jerry rigged to favor the incumbent. These aren’t real democracies, they’re often “anocracies” – states that are autocracies with democratic decorations and pretentions.
In a real democracy, with clean elections, press freedoms and independent judiciaries the coups’ harms are exacerbated by the opprobrium of the international community. A country’s situation is dimmed in the face of such international, powerful opposition, even moreso in today’s global world.
Exhibit A is Niger. Disappointingly the recent coup there overthrew their first ever democratically elected president. “Democracy” as we know it, as Nigereans wanted to get to know it, has been doomed. The blowback of powerful allies (France, US, EU, Nigeria) is to be felt by international sanctions. The electricity is nearly out, the all important cross border trade halted, international aid (MOST of Niger’s budget) and Niger’s only export of importance, uranium, are all imperilled or stopped.
In all these coups, everybody blames France (and loves Russia). Why they have such ire against a country that left over 60+ years ago, gives them money, supports their currencies and is a destination where so many young Sahel men do anything, anything to get to…is another question.
Then there’s a line, though, a line between what is an “acceptable” coup and what isn’t. Perhaps that line is where elections are a sham, institutions weak and it seems these days, where the Russians are infesting. In most of West Africa, in the past decade particularly, the media has been strangled or infected by bad actors like Russia. Russian mass media pushes, in French, online and broadcast have actually increased dramatically throughout most of West Africa in the past decade, something few have noticed outside Africa. Russian influence encourages military coups: they’ll (formerly Wagner) keep the generals in power for a cut of extracted resources.
On the side of that line where coups are a disaster lies the elected but imperfect Nigerean and Malian governements, on the other side are where coups might be the only other option: most other countries in the neighborhood.
Gabon is a case in point and possibly a bellwether of the near future in that region. It is an example of where, perhaps, a coup was the only alternative to dislodge the sclerotic, corrupt “pretend” democracy of the Bongo family. Gabon was so spectacularly corrupt it aspired to anocracy.
A coup attempt in 2018 (covered in an article by me here) was unsuccessful but with a recent election there widely reported as fraudulent, perhaps a coup was the only option? And “trendy”, a do-able alternative to another decade(s) of the hideous Bongo family business.
With nepotism approaching North Korean heights, Grandpa Bongo was all in the struggle for independence from France in the 1960s, Papa Omar Bongo grabbed power in a 1967 coup and ruled for 41 (!) years. He was almost a parody of the hopeless, big man dictator and a fixture in elite social circles in the West. He “bought” his protection from scrutiny partly with greenwashing and, of course, converting to Islam. Religion is often the last refuge of scoundrels.
In 2008 his son, Ali Bongo took power (nice gift, Dad) and kept it, despite one coup attempt (that we know of) until last month.
Gabon is typical of the larger locale which is not short of ghouls. Neighboring oil rich Equatorial Guinea was destroyed by a clinically insane monster, Marcias Nguema, from independence in 1969 until, in 1979 he was couped out and shot. This was after he went totally, murderously bonkers in the 1970s. He was ousted by his own nephew, dictator and grand thief-in-chief Teodoro Nguema who still rules today. Marcias was mentally ill, his nephew Teodoro is sane but probably a clinical psychopath.
To Gabon’s north lies the Republic of Cameroon, an equally badly, violently run disaster state of dictator Paul Biya’s ownership. Much of each year, for decades, he, his charismatic wife and her elaborate hairdo live together in a de-lux hotel in Geneva, Switzerland.
These three countries, all neighbors, have a total of over a century under terrible rule and not a day of real democracy as people in free countries know it. To Gabon’s East is the Republic of the Congo, long run by another tyrant, Denis Nguesso (almost since 1979). South of that is the D. R. Congo shaped hole in the map, an utterly failed state.
Niger, of the second latest coup, is poor, very poor. Two thirds of Gabonese live in poverty and in Equatorial Guinea a huge 25 year oil bonanza has been stolen to pay for snazzy white elephants, President Teodoro’s useless playboy son and much of Cameroon’s oil wealth seems to have gone on Biya’s wife’s hairdos.
Fake democracy, anocracy, (Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Cameroon) is worse than no democracy as the fraud damages the citizen’s faith in the real democracy they’ve actually never experienced. This has been the terrible result of the much heralded “Arab Spring” of over a decade ago, where faith in the idea of democracy, its rules, norms and culture, has been destroyed in many of its countries.
Perhaps the only thing worse than a multi-generational, rentier family dictatorship is a fake democracy, too corrupt and fragile to win over the people who become cynical and support the army, or worse (like Egypt) turn to Islam. Whether or not a coup is a “good” – or less bad – thing depends on what it replaces and what replaces it.
Sometimes the military is the only option from generations of family misrule and impoverishment of the population. We must see the bright line where change of government by force is a tragedy (Mali, Niger) and where it is the only possible option for change.