Coup in Gabon

Karam Said, Tuesday 5 Sep 2023

Last week’s military coup in the West African state of Gabon is part of a series of anti-Western developments that opens the door further to the non-Western powers, writes Karam Said

Coup in Gabon
Gabonese soldiers gather ahead of a possible address by General Brice Oligui Nguema in Libreville on Saturday (photo: AFP)


The West African state of Gabon followed in the footsteps of neighbouring Mali and Niger last week when a group of army officers calling themselves the Committee for the Transition and Restoration of Institutions took control of key government buildings and media facilities in the country, dissolving state institutions and annulling the results of the 26 August elections that had re-elected President Ali Bongo Ondimba for a third term.

The latest coup, taking place on 30 August, and the accompanying demonstrations in the region have increased the anxiety of the Western countries, France above all, which have been jolted into realising the extent to which their image has deteriorated in the region.

While popular anger in Gabon, Mali, and Niger, all former French colonies, focuses on France, the resentment extends to the imperialist practices of other Western powers, especially the US.

The leaders of the recent military coups also seem to be closer to regional and international powers opposed to the West, such as Turkey, Iran, and Russia. Some Western commentators have accused Moscow of supporting the coups through the Wagner Group private military company (PMC).

Regardless of whether there is any substance to such claims, the coup in Gabon may now expand an environment favourable to anti-Western forces in Africa, which would further complicate the Western powers’ ability to respond to developments that affect their interests, especially given the declining chances that military force will be used to protect or restore pro-Western African regimes.

It is not just anti-colonialist sentiments that are propelling the new African leaders towards alternatives. Regional powers such as Ankara and Tehran and international powers such as Moscow and Beijing are following different strategies for expanding their influence in Africa, even as they capitalise on the declining Western and French influence.

Above all, these powers seem prepared to build more balanced, comprehensive, and solid partnerships based on military, technological, and economic cooperation coupled with a strong focus on development in healthcare, education, and culture.

Moscow hosted the Russian-African Summit in St Petersburg in July, for example, during which Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that his government would be providing more support and assistance to Africa.

He offered to provide large quantities of grain and other foodstuffs that Africa has been lacking since the war broke out in Ukraine and even more so after Moscow withdrew from the Black Sea Grain Deal designed to guarantee supplies of Ukrainian grain.

Turkey has also made considerable inroads in forging new ties in Africa during the past two years. It kicked off a drive towards this end in the Turkish-African Partnership Summit it hosted in Istanbul in November 2021, when, expressing the relationship he hoped to promote with Turkey’s African partners, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said his country hoped to develop, grow, and prosper with Africa and march hand-in-hand towards the future.

He added that Turkey has expanded its activities in the continent with the help of Turkish institutions such as the Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency (TIKA), the Disaster and Emergency Management Presidency (AFAD), the Yunus Emre Institute, the Turkish Maarif Foundation, the Turkish Religious Foundation, the Anadolu Agency, and Turkish Airlines.

Iran has been the most overt in its attempts to play on anti-Western sentiments in Africa with a view to promoting its own influence, as was apparent in Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi’s tour of Kenya, Uganda, and Zimbabwe in July.

The visit – the first by an Iranian president to Africa in 11 years – was part of a drive to expand Iranian relations in Africa, primarily to develop diplomatic assets and economic outlets with which to counter western sanctions against Iran and diplomatic pressures to isolate Tehran.

Iran has been a vocal supporter of the anti-French and anti-imperialist coups and protests in West Africa, and it has sympathised with the criticisms of Western responses to the security, political, and economic concerns of African nations.

China’s impressive efforts to broaden its cooperation with Africa also continue. From 20 August to 2 September, Beijing hosted the third China-Africa Peace and Security Forum, which was attended by 50 African countries and the African Union (AU) and aimed to promote communications between the defence ministries of China and the African nations.

The Chinese model for expanding relations with Africa has proved successful and is based on promoting opportunities for cooperation in development that Beijing helps to foster through aid and no- or low-interest loans.

China also pursues a policy of “care for the vulnerable” by offering educational and healthcare services to the needy. Iran has adopted a similar policy in its approach to expanding its presence in Africa.

Against the backdrop of the declining status and prestige of the Western powers and France in particular in Africa, anti-Western or rival powers have many incentives for investing in the newly arrived political classes in such countries as Mali, Chad, Niger, the Central African Republic (CAR), Burkina Faso and, most recently, Gabon.

Because of the security concerns of these nations, the subject of tensions between them and France and other Western powers, Turkey, Iran, Russia, and China see these as an opportunity to develop their military/security relations with the African countries. Not only is this an important avenue for strengthening relations, but these powers have also developed new and sophisticated defence equipment for which Africa is a promising market.

By expanding their military and economic influence in Africa and even overtaking the European countries in some parts of the continent, powers such as China, Russia, Iran, and Turkey can convey the message that they have ways to respond to Western encroachments against their interests.

These four countries have succeeded in forging strong alliances in traditional areas of Western influence in West Africa, taking over Western roles in military cooperation, economic relations, and the fight against terrorism.

They also have their eyes on other fields of activity. Discontent with the West and neo-colonial practices has opened up opportunities in areas rich in natural resources that were once monopolised by France, the US, and other Western powers.

Over the past three years, Turkey, China, and Russia have developed partnerships with West African nations in the extraction industries, energy production, and alternative energy development.

In the context of this larger picture, the recent coup in Gabon is a link in the chain of anti-Western developments in Africa and primarily in the traditional French sphere of influence. This may open the door to powers such as Turkey, Iran, China, and Russia that offer alternatives to the types of services that the Western powers have traditionally provided.

The four powers have already achieved significant breakthroughs in areas that were once the traditional preserve of the Western powers. It helps that some of the West’s rivals have quite a positive image among broad sectors of African society. This applies in particular to Russia, due to its long history of support for anti-colonial independence movements in Africa.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 7 September, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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