Unrest in Francophone Africa: The domino effect of military coups – Lionel Laurent

In Francophone Africa, a wave of coups d’Ă©tat is causing concern, reminiscent of the Arab Spring. Stable regimes are falling to ambitious military officers, fueled by disillusionment with unfulfilled democratic promises. President Ali Bongo’s ousting in Gabon signals a widening instability, reaching beyond the Sahel region. France and its allies grapple with responses and growing calls for change. The African continent faces a “Bonaparte” moment as military coups rise amidst political chaos. Amidst this uncertainty, Lionel Laurent argues that a delicate diplomatic approach is needed, balancing targeted sanctions and support for democratic transitions. Macron’s efforts to redefine France’s relationship with Africa face challenges in a changing geopolitical landscape.

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Domino Effect in Africa, Embarrassment in Paris

By Lionel Laurent

(Bloomberg Opinion) — What Emmanuel Macron calls an “epidemic” of coups d’etat in Francophone Africa is spreading. Not since the Arab Spring have Paris and other Western capitals seemed so overtaken by events, as a string of supposedly stable strongman regimes fall at the hands of ambitious military officers, often cheered on by a new generation disillusioned by unkept democratic promises. There’s no easy fix, but a new approach is overdue.

The significance of the latest domino to fall — President Ali Bongo in Gabon — is the fact that instability is spreading beyond the Sahel region, where a losing French-backed fight against jihadists has angered locals, emboldened the military toppling of regimes in countries like Mali and Niger, and given inroads to Russia’s Wagner Group. The inability of the West or African regional blocs to reverse these seizures of power probably fueled the urge to oust Bongo — whose family ruled Gabon for 55 years and for a long time was a key partner for Paris’s interests in Africa (more recently pivoting to the Anglosphere).

What makes Gabon a particularly awkward development for France and its European allies, who met on Thursday to examine responses to the July 30 Niger coup, including possible sanctions, is that some dominos are asking to be pushed.

The Bongos live in luxury, buoyed by Gabon’s oil wealth, while one-third of its people live on less than about $7 a day, according to the World Bank. The coup’s proximate cause wasn’t jihadism or French military engagement but the start of what would have been Bongo’s third term in power after a disputed general election — part of a growing wave of “third-termism” in a continent where the median age is 19 years old but that of its leaders is about 63.

Hence the celebration on Gabonese streets of a putsch that’s undemocratic by definition but is seen as a liberation from autocratic rule. As in France’s own history, generals are profiting from political and economic chaos to seize power, reckons Thierry Vircoulon, of think tank IFRI, calling it Africa’s “Bonaparte” moment. â€śMilitary coups d’etat aren’t the solution, but we can’t forget that just before this, Gabon held elections full of irregularities,” said the European Union’s top diplomat, Josep Borrell.

All of which explains the ambiguous response to Gabon after Niger â€” Paris is condemning the coup, while the Biden administration has asked the junta to preserve civilian rule — or the confusion about when the dominos will stop falling.

More African leaders are going to look nervously over their shoulder. Cameroon’s 90-year-old president, Paul Biya, who has been in power since 1982, on Thursday appointed new heads of departments. Senegal, whose president recently ruled out a third term, holds elections next year. “There is a real feeling of contagion,” Stephane Gompertz, the French foreign ministry’s former director of Africa, tells me. The combination of an emboldened military and exhausted regimes is hardly rare.

The response will require a deft diplomatic touch that’s been missing so far, as reactions to Niger range from fiery threats of military intervention to an unwillingness to call a coup a coup. The focus on the military buildup in the Sahel and a tendency toward â€śbusiness as usual” with autocratic leaders have seen France lose influence and credibility, while a bigger power struggle between the West and China and Russia plays out on a continent where natural resources are abundant. 

A better balance might be between targeted sanctions that don’t punish civilians — for example, in 2011, when Europe imposed restrictions on the Ivory Coast’s Gbagbo regime — and a more convincing push to promote a democratic transition toward pluralism and viable political opposition. Macron has gamely tried to brush away the cobwebs of old-school francafriquepaternalism, with a pledge to cut troop numbers and forge a more equal trading relationship — and more. Earlier this week, he told his diplomatic corps: “We still tend to speak only to (Africa’s) capitals and those in power…we need to re-engage with civil society, with those in opposition.” A fine sentiment, but it may be too late.

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