Gabon is the latest country in francophone Africa to experience a coup d’état after Niger. This military coup was unexpected although political troubles were expected following the electoral context.
A group of military officers in Gabon announced on Wednesday, August 30, 2023, that they had seized power in the oil-rich Central African nation. The officers said they were annulling the result of the disputed election that returned the incumbent, President Ali Bongo Ondimba, for a third term in office.
The coup leaders, who identified themselves as the Committee of Transition for the Restoration of Institutions, said they were taking over to "defend the peace by putting an end to the current regime." They also said they were suspending the government and closing Gabon's borders until further notice.
In a video apparently from detention in his residence, President Ali Bongo Ondimba called on people to “make noise” to support him. But crowds instead took to the streets of the capital and sang the national anthem to celebrate the coup against a dynasty accused of getting rich on the country’s resource wealth while many of its citizens struggle to scrape by, according to AP News.
What is more surprising is the French reaction to the coup. Indeed, the French government has been astonishingly silent on the overthrow of Ali Bongo yet it has been very vocal on the overthrow of President Mohamed Bazoum in Niger. This silence shows the double standard and the hypocrisy of French policy in French-speaking Africa.
Gabon has had privileged relations with France for more than fifty years, and the Bongo family has always occupied a strategic position in France’s African policy. The Gabonese government under the Bongo regime gave huge market shares to French multinationals for several decades. Corporations like Bollore or Total had almost a monopolistic control over the oil production in Gabon. The Bongo family was among the most preferred political leaders of the French government and the French elite. Then why is France silent when its foal has just been overthrown by a military junta?
The most logical explanation is, of course, in a geopolitical context. France remains silent because President Ali Bongo no longer serves their interests. Indeed, Ali Bongo developed a closer economic relationship with China. China is Gabon's largest trading partner, and Gabon is China's largest supplier of manganese ore. In 2022, the trade volume between the two countries reached $4.55 billion U.S. dollars, up over 50% year on year. China's exports to Gabon mainly consist of machinery, electronics, and textiles. Gabon's exports to China mainly consist of crude oil, manganese ore, and timber.
Moreover, Chinese investment has been a major source of support for Gabon's economy. In 2018, Gabon and China signed a Memorandum of Understanding on cooperation within the framework of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which is expected to bring further investment and trade between the two countries.
Thus, the fact that Gabon had started to give market shares to China became a serious conundrum for France because it threatened their control over Gabon’s natural resources, especially oil.
The French government has not yet issued a statement condemning the coup. But one sure thing is that the coup has raised concerns about France’s influence in Africa, and maybe this marks the end of French domination in African politics.