What prompted the coup in Gabon? Here’s why the military is taking over in many West African nations

coup supporters walking around a white truck in Gabon
This video grab shows coup supporters cheering police officers in Libreville, Gabon, Wednesday Aug. 30, 2023. Mutinous soldiers speaking on state television announced that they had seized power in and were overturning the results of a presidential election that had seen Gabon President Ali Bongo Ondimba extend his family’s 55-year hold on power. ( AP Photo/Betiness Mackosso)

Hours after election officials in Gabon declared that President Ali Bongo Ondimba had won a third term, military officers appeared on state TV and declared a takeover. The election results were invalidated. The borders would be closed. And Bongo would be placed under house arrest, while his son, along with six others, would be investigated for high treason. 

It’s a scene that’s played out again and again. Gabon is the ninth nation in West/Central Africa where a coup has taken place in the last few years, along with Mali, Guinea, Burkina Faso, Chad, Niger and Tunisia.

But what has led to this rash of military takeovers?

Northeastern professor of political science William Miles is an expert in West African politics and postcolonial idenetity. Photo by Alyssa Stone/Northeastern University

What these countries have in common is their origins, said William Miles, a professor of political science at Northeastern University whose areas of expertise include West African politics and postcolonial identity. They’re former French colonies that modeled their new government after France, but ultimately fell victim to favoritism and corruption.

This is the case in Gabon. The oil-rich nation’s recent election was plagued with complaints of corruption. Bongo was declared the winner with over two-thirds of the vote, extending his family’s power in Gabon. Bongo became president in 2009 off the back of his father who was elected in 1967. Meanwhile, Afrobarometer, a pan-African research network, found in 2021 that perception of corruption in the impoverished nation was more widespread there than in any of the other countries they evaluated.

The buildup of tension led to the military coups today, said Miles. He himself experienced a coup in late July while conducting research in Niger. While there, the military overthrew the government, prompting him to shelter in place before being evacuated back to the U.S. 

The images viewers are seeing on TV of the junta — the group taking over the country — huddling around a podium and declaring their intentions is reminiscent of what Miles saw in Niger. And already, like in Niger, a military leader was declared the transitional leader.

“Gabon is joining Niger and Mali and Burkina Faso and Guinea to say that we too have been taken advantage of by France and we’re no longer going to abide by the French/Western model of governance,” Miles said. “You know the expression of hopping on the bandwagon? This is more of a convoy — different military regimes of former French West Africa.”

These nations modeled their government after the fifth republic of France, Miles said, with an elected president and multi-party democracy. But while France has a liberal government that protects the rights of the people, many of its former colonies have fallen into what Miles describes as an illiberal or purely electoral democracy where the form of elections are held but not the substance of democracy.

“There are elections and you do have different parties, but often there’s one party that pays off the so-called opposition to be in their pocket,” Miles said. “Under those circumstances, there’s a grievance to exploit in the name of the people.”

This explains why Gabon locals were celebrating the takeover, as evident in videos posted to social media on Wednesday where residents are dancing in the streets and cheering in the aftermath of the takeover. 

“We in the West have generally benefited from the material prosperity that has accompanied liberal democracy,” Miles said. “In Africa, the fruits of democracy have not been enjoyed by the vast majority of people. If you don’t have development accompanying a particular political system, then people will not be happy and sooner or later there will be a revolt – not by the people but by some other institution in their name.” That means the armed forces.

But while the overthrow of the government may be positively received by Gabon citizens now, Miles said that military regimes often end up becoming oppressive in the long term and don’t bring the prosperity people expect.

Miles saw this firsthand when he went to Niger as a Peace Corps volunteer in the 1970s and the country was under what he described as a “benevolent dictatorship.” Niger had suffered drought and famine and government officials took for themselves food aid coming in from the West.

“Once the military has taken power, people are afraid to speak out against it,” he said. “I always take those expressions of ‘popular support’ with several grains of salt because people still do think it is they themselves who should choose their leaders. None of these military coups have been able to provide the kind of economic development the people  want and deserve. I don’t think that, be it Niger or Gabon, that those military leaders are going to make an appreciable difference in quality of life.”

 A new government means other bad actors can make inroads in these countries, accessing the natural resources for their own gain or engaging in terrorist activity while the new regime is distracted shoring up their power and defending themselves from foreign intervention.

“Niger is an important supplier of uranium,” Miles said. “Now imagine if the Russians had access to that uranium, what that would mean from a strategic military and international vantage. This can scramble the international checkerboard in West Africa, if more nations fall under Russian influence.”

These coups have implications on both a national and international level. The African Union, the United Nations, and other Western nations, including the United States, already condemned the takeover. But Miles urged others to monitor the situation.

“Africa has usually been the most overlooked area in regional studies,” he said. “We need to pay attention, not only because of the implications for U.S. foreign relations, but because it’s the African population at large who is most hurt.  And we should be sensitive to that population.” 

Erin Kayata is a Northeastern Global News reporter. Email her at e.kayata@northeastern.edu. Follow her on Twitter @erin_kayata.