The rise of Gun-Barrel diplomacy and governance in Africa

Amidst a surge in coups across Africa, Gabon becomes the latest victim of “gun-barrel governance.” Surprisingly, many of these coups involve officers trained by the US Department of Defense, signaling a deeper power struggle between East and West for Africa’s resources. As regimes change hands, questions arise about democracy’s fate and the impact of foreign influences on the continent’s sovereignty. Will Africa’s future be shaped by neo-colonialism or neo-imperialism?

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By Chris Steyn

Yet another coup in Africa this week – this time in Gabon – is the latest example of a growing trend of “gun-barrel governance” on the Continent.

Ironically, according to military sources, a high number of these coups and coup attempts in Africa in recent years have been led – or involved – African officers trained by the United States Department of Defense.

Military observers view these coups as moves on a chess board in the longest influence and power struggle between East and West for Africa’s soul and especially its strategic resources.

“In the case of Gabon, the coup may well have been executed to prevent the next possible intervention of Russia. Gabon gets more than 50% of its revenue from oil. The West cannot allow that to fall into the East’s hands,” a military source says. “Given the US and French military presence there, it is unlikely they were unaware of a pending coup.”

The coup was led by the “enigmatic” Brice Oligui Nguema, the head of the Presidency’s Republican Guard, and apparently the president’s cousin. The coup ousted President Ali Bongo Ondimba who has been in power for 14 years and whose re-election had just been announced. His family had ruled the oil-rich African country for over 55 years.

Read more: Andreas Kluth: The stakes of the Niger coup – another step toward global conflict

This is a list of coups that have been led US-trained African officers since 2008: 

  • In August this year (2023) military officers in Niger overthrew President Mohamed Bazoum. One of the coup leaders, Brigadier General Moussa Salaou Barmou, was previously trained by the U.S. military.
  • In January last year (2022), Lieutenant-Colonel Paul-Henri Sandaogo Damiba staged a coup in Burkina Faso to depose the elected President Roch Marc Christian Kaboré. Before Lt. Col. Damiba ousted the president, he twice took part in an annual U.S. Special Operations training programme, the Flintlock exercise. He also underwent a State Department-funded Africa Contingency Operations Training and Assistance course; and twice attended the U.S.-sponsored Military Intelligence Basic Officer Course-Africa; and twice joined engagements with a U.S. Defense Department Civil Military Support Element.
  • In September the previous year (2021), Mamady Doumbouya, the leader of Guinea’s Special Forces – that had begun training with the US Green Berets – formed the Presidential Palace to oust President Alpha Condé. Just months earlier he had been photographed with a group of US Service memebrs outside the US Embassy. 
  • The year before that, in 2020, Colonel Assimi Goïta led the junta that overthrew Mali’s government. He had worked with U.S. Special Operations Forces for years and took part in both Flintlock exercises and a Joint Special Operations University seminar at MacDill Air Force Base. 
  • In 2012, Captain Amadou Sanogo overthrew Mali’s democratically elected government. He had studied English in Texas, undergone Infantry Officer Basic Training in Georgia, and Military Intelligence schooling in Arizona.
  • In 2008, General. Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz led a coup against Mauritania’s elected president. He too had “worked with” U.S. forces. 

“Having received US training in core values, democracy, civilian-led governments…soldiers would be made to realise how undemocratic their governments are…and might be silently urged to ensure democracy by overthrowing those governments,” a military source says.

At a US Congress hearing on 31 March 2023, General Michael Langley, the commander of US AFRICOM, was grilled over the millions of taxpayers’ dollars being spent on “training coup leaders” in Africa.

He confirmed that both Damiba and Doubouya had indeed been trained by the US Military. He initially said he didn’t know how many African troops the US had trained over the past decade, but finally – after being pressured – estimated “around 50 000”.  

He assured Congress that less than one per cent (less than 500) had taken part in attempted coups.  

Meanwhile, military observers also point out that not all coups are in carried out in favour of the West. In fact, some are carried out for exactly the opposite reason: by armies fed-up with how their governments have allowed the West to enrich itself from mineral resources with little to no benefit to the country.

Read more: Corruption fuels coups… – Prof Asamoah on the causes of coups

“Francophone countries want to get rid of CFA (currency) and excessive taxes they must pay to France. One way to do this is to overthrow their governments.”

One such example is the recent coup in Niger, once seen as a beacon of democratic progress and security in sub-Saharan Africa. This time it was Russia who was accused of involvement in the unseating of President Mohamed Bazoum – and Russian President Vladimiro Putin’s “Shadow Army” the Wagner Group was quick to step in an offer support to the military junta. The Wagner Group is already in several neighbouring West African states. 

“Some of these newly established coup-led African governments are looking to the East for recognition, support, and advice.  

“The payback to the East will be in the form of extractable resources. What seems apparent is that neo-colonialism is making way for neo-imperialism”

“Whereas the West aims to militarise societies and dispose of non-compliant governments, the East intends to buy whatever and whoever they can. This holds no good for Africa. To both parties, democracy and economic freedom are seemingly buzzwords to gain traction and support. 

“As has now become obvious, the Russian PMC Wagner Group has, despite the recent reported loss of it leader, continued to expand its footprint in Africa and has quickly offered its support. As the vanguard of Russian influence and interests, especially in areas rich in strategic resources, it is obvious that the East will condone coup-led governments in exchange for resources. 

“Governments, countries, and their people will increasingly become collateral damage between West and East. To prevent this from happening, African governments must seek a deeper understanding of the present power shifts and how it will or is likely to impact on the Continent and their independence and their futures. 

“The legitimacy of African states can only gain popular support by the implementation of inclusive governance, free from foreign interference. By governing for self and foreign interests, African governments will remain vulnerable and easy to manipulate to serve the interests of others. 

“With the rise in foreign military and PMC engagements on the continent, an escalation in gun barrel diplomacy and governance may become popular and result in a domino effect and plunge Africa into ever-deeper problems. “

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