The dominoes continue to fall in West Africa. This week it was Gabon, a small country very rich in oil. Just a month ago it had been Niger. There are now seven former French colonies where coups have taken place in the last three years. And all the military juntas that were imposed expressed their clear anti-French sentiments. In some of these nations, even during the demonstrations in support of the coups, they saw flags of Russia and China who appear as the “liberators”. Africans rise up definitively against the hindrances of European colonialism particularly undermining the pride of France and politically weakening President Emmanuel Macronwhile giving themselves into the arms of the emerging powers in the region.
This week, the high command of Gabon they ousted the president ali bongo, heir to a dynasty that has ruled the country since 1967, after controversial elections. The removal of the Gabonese president, who is believed to be currently under house arrest, was led by his cousin, General Brice Oligui Nguema, who will assume power on Monday. Other leaders in the region, fearing they might be next, took precautions. in the neighbor Cameroon, Paul Biya, who has held office for four decades and at 90 is the world’s oldest president, announced a sudden reshuffle of his country’s military leadership. did the same Rwandawhich is governed by paul kagame since 2000.
“With what happened in Gabon, my fear is confirmed that this will become a succession of copycats, military men who think they can run their countries better than civilians and that they appear with the stamp of being anti-French. Let’s hope this stops here,” the president of Nigeria, Ball Ahmed Tinubuwho is considered one of the few who respects the democratic system and who chairs ECOWAS, the main regional body in West Africa.
There are many differences between the countries involved in the various coups –Mali, Chad, Guinea, Sudan, Burkina Faso, Niger, Gabon-, but they share the common denominator of anti-French sentiment that drives the rejection of the political status quo whatever it may be. In all the countries in the region that have experienced these recent undemocratic takeovers, France has been the former colonial power. The juntas that toppled previous regimes are weaponizing resentment of Paris’s deep and complicated imperial legacy to opportunistic glee of Russia and China, that offer rhetorical and, in some cases, substantive support to coup regimes.
This happened in Burkina Faso and mali, where French peacekeepers were forced to withdraw after the juntas made it clear that their presence was unwanted. And in Niger, long the centerpiece of France’s counterterrorism efforts in the Sahel, the area south of the Sahara desert, has erupted in anti-French rhetoric. On Thursday, the junta that now rules in the Nigerian capital of Niamey ordered the police to expel the French ambassadora measure that the Macron government, which only recognizes the authority of the ousted president Mohamed Bazoumdoes not consider legitimate.
All of this is especially painful for President Emmanuel Macron, who on his many visits to Africa during his tenure, delivered speech after speech proclaiming the advent of a new relationship with the continent, which “would dispel the heavy baggage of the past.” In 2017, in the Burkina Faso capital, Macron called for renewed “partnerships” with the region, expressing his hope to invest in the education and aspirations of the continent’s youth. Six months ago, during a trip that included a stop in Gabon, Macron declared that “the days of the Françafrique are truly over”an implicit reference to France’s long history of prioritizing its commercial interests and endorsing dictatorial regimes in its former colonies.
On that same tour, Macron also marked a substantial change in security strategy. He ordered the French forces deployed in the region to operate in conjunction with local forces and not individually. “We have reached the end of a cycle in French history in which military questions had pre-eminence in Africa”, he said in the Gabonese capital, Libreville, another expression of his desire to change the atmosphere in relations with African states.
On Monday, as tensions continued to mount over what to do with the Nigerian junta, Macron spoke at a meeting with French diplomats and lamented the “epidemic” of coups that is shaking the region and said his government had to defend Niger’s fledgling democracy by confronting the coup plotters. Less than 48 hours later, the coup took place in Gabon. The military in that country justified their action as a response to a controversial election held a week earlier, in which Bongo claimed victory. An independent British pollster who was working on this election process said that, although the election had been close, Bongo had won. But the polls too they showed the growing anti-French sentiment in all groups and ages, with the exception of the upper class of the countryfavorable to Paris. ibrahima kaneSenegalese human rights lawyer at the Open Society Foundationhe said in an interview with D.W. that the desire to be free from French influence is real. “The perception that the French have of us has never changed. We were always considered second class citizens. And West Africa, particularly French-speaking Africa, wants that situation to change.“, he claimed.
The French ambiguity is palpable in the Gabonese situation. In many ways, Gabon has more in common with some Persian Gulf states than with its African neighbors. Has a small population of 2.3 million inhabitants, enormous oil wealth and a sparsely inhabited country; 88% of the territory is jungle. The Bongos were consolidated as a monarchical dynasty thanks to the increase in the price of oil. Omar Bongo seized power in 1967 and became a close ally of France, granting the concessions for the exploitation of crude oil wells to companies from that country. That left him with a free hand for the rest. It is estimated that fathered at least 53 children with different women. After Omar’s death in 2009, power passed to Ali, one of his seven “official” sons, who “won” the presidential elections that year. While the super-rich life of all family members continued with their Bentleys, the Parisian villas, the vacations on the Côte d’Azur as they cruised around Libreville in different Rolls-Royce convertibles. In Paris they said that, although the Bongos stole, they did so discreetly and allowed a part of the wealth to reach the rest of the population, unlike other oil kleptocracies like the one in Equatorial Guinea.
“The coup in Gabon further weakened France’s position in its former African strongholds, although the situation is different in this Central African country, ruled for more than five decades by the Bongo family,” it says in an editorial. the world this week. “Paris wants to believe that the military coup leaders do not share the anti-French rhetoric of their Nigerian counterparts”. the british The Economist accompanied the position of the traditional French daily: “France’s close ties with local elites after independence, and its willingness in the past to act as a regional gendarme to prop up the leaders, tied its fate to theirs.” For that reason, he added, “The failures of today’s unpopular rulers to reduce poverty or curb violence are easily blamed on their proximity to France”. Michael Shurkin of the Atlantic Council summed it up like this: “Ties with France have become a kiss of death for African governments.”
The forced departure of French and United States troops from the region strengthened insurgent Islamist groups such as affiliates of the ISIS and Al Qaeda as well as the mighty boko haram from Nigeria. They dominate a good part of the desert areas of the Sahel and the routes of migrants who want to reach the Mediterranean coast through Libya to cross into Europe. The armed forces of Mali and Burkina Faso do not have control over vast areas of their territories and they depend on regional self-defense paramilitary forces. The Chadian army, which although it is considered one of the strongest on the continent, is unable to stop attacks by Boko Haram and its affiliated group such as the West African Province of the Islamic State. The country’s then president, Idriss Deby, a retired general, he died in 2021 on the battlefield when rebels tried to overthrow his government. In Burkina Fasothe coup came as a reaction to a massacre of 49 military policemen and four civilians in the north of the country, after they could not defend themselves against a rebel attack due to lack of equipment.
In Paris, they wonder if, given this complex situation, it is worth continuing with a policy so close to their former African colonies. He is no longer the dominant economic player in the region-in Gabon, for example, China has supplanted it as its largest trading partner– and operates in a geopolitical field where the United States, Russia, China and Turkey, among other powers, also play. Withdrawing from Africa would, to some extent, diminish France’s global stature, but the reality is that France – like Britain – has many strengths and, frankly, other priorities that better reflect your interests“, wrote michael shurkin of the Atlantic Council in a column he published in Political.
A position that is shared by many in the corridors of power in Paris. A group of center-right lawmakers in the French parliament wrote a letter to Macron in August urging him to reconsider France’s role in Africa. “Today, the Françafrique of yesterday is replaced by the military Russafrique, by the economic Chinafrique or by the diplomatic Americafrique”, they said, lamenting how “Africa, a friendly continent, no longer seems to understand France, and increasingly contests its role and its presence.”
Perhaps, the African military, they are inadvertently doing a job for their former colonial masters. And the coups d’état shielded by anti-French sentiment end up agreeing to the current interests of the European power even if it now shows a weakened Macron.