By Emma Emeozor
Fifty-four years after the first coup attempt in Gabon failed, the country has recorded the second coup attempt since the former French colony attained independence on August 17, 1960. Expectedly, the international community was taken aback because of the relative peace and economic stability in the country.
It is instructive that while former President Leon M’ba returned to power after the initial success of the 1964 coup through the assistance of the French government under President Charles de Gaulle, the January 7, 2019, coup was frustrated by proactive government forces within hours even though President Ali Bongo was not in the country.
It was a rare demonstration of commitment and loyalty to the ailing President, who is currently receiving treatment in Morocco. Jolted by the bad news, Bongo made an unexpected visit to the country. He has since returned to Morocco to continue his treatment.
In this report, Olusola Ojo, a professor of International Relations and dean, College of Humanities, McPherson University, Seriki Sotayo, Ogun State, examines the implications of the coup for Gabon and Africa.
Considering the fact that Africa’s history is replete with coups, was the recent coup attempt in Gabon really a surprise? Ojo answered logically, stating that whenever there is an announcement of a coup in a country, the first reaction is to “wait and see how it goes, whether it will turn out to be a coup attempt or a successful coup.”And that was what he did. “I wasn’t surprised that, a few hours later, it was announced that the coup did not succeed.”
He observed that the coup failed because it was staged by a small group of soldiers who did not have the support of the entire army and, more importantly, the reality on the ground. But what does Ojo mean by the “reality on ground?”
He said, as he analysed the political and economic situation in Gabon, he began to wonder at what was happening: “A coup attempt in Gabon will look like a big surprise because of the personality of the President and the entire Bongo dynasty. The family has a strong hold on the government and all public institutions, including the military and other security agencies. They handle these institutions with an iron fist. Besides, the United States and the United Kingdom have their troops in the country.”
Ojo was quick to draw attention to the 2016 presidential election in the country and how President Bongo won.
He said, “The result of the election was highly disputed. The main opposition candidate, Jing Ping, claimed victory. But the Constitutional Court ruled in favour of Bongo, saying he won with about two thousand votes. Of course, it was clear that the election was rigged. But it is an open secret that the court has very close ties to the Bongo family.”
The leader of the coup, Lieutenant Kelly Ondo Obiang, in his broadcast, said they wanted to “save Gabon.” He called for “a popular uprising” against the government, noting that President Bongo was “no longer capable of carrying out his duty to protect the Gabonese democracy and to ensure political stability.” He decried institutions he described as “illegitimate and illegal” and promised to constitute a “national council” as first step for a transition government.
Apparently, Obiang and his co-travellers were convinced that there was a vacuum in government. The President has been absent since October 2018 when he took ill while attending a conference in Saudi Arabia. After the initial treatment, he left for Morocco for more comprehensive treatment. He is reportedly suffering from stroke.
The political situation became compounded when in December he appeared in a New Year video address from Morocco. The video exposed the deplorable condition of the President as his speech was slurred and he could not raise his hands, among other observations the people made.
Though Ojo followed the argument of Obiang and indeed the plight of the Gabonese over the vacuum created by the long absence of their President, he was emphatic when he said Obiang’s reason did not amount to much as coups have become an unfashionable means of changing governments in Africa.
In his logical answer, he said: “Most African countries are in trouble, they are in crisis. Although, Gabon’s per capita is fairly high, the economy is fairly strong, but the vast majority of the people still wallow in poverty.
“So, at any time in any African country, there would always be (theoretically) justification for a coup. Coup-plotters can always point to the socio-economic ills in the country. And in the case of Gabon, the way the President got to power and the way he has clinged to power, in addition to his present illness, which has made him unable to function, raise a lot of concern.
“Ordinarily, the constitution would have declared the President incapacitated. But this has not been the case. Rather, the Constitutional Court quickly amended the constitution without any plebiscite or referendum and without reference to the country’s National Assembly to say, if the President is temporarily unavailable, some of his powers can be transferred to the vice president.
“Surprisingly, there was no time limit for the absence of the President in the new amendment. The original provisions of the constitution said if the President is incapacitated, power should be transferred to the Senate President. And there must be election between 30 and 60 days. As it is now, whether the President stays in Morocco for eternity, he remains in office. This points to the problem of African leadership.”
On the implication of the coup for Africa, Ojo observed that it reinforced the current belief or trend in the region that coup attempts or coup-plotting are no longer fashionable. They are not likely to succeed because “more and more Africans have become convinced about democratic norms and values.”
He stated emphatically that even the opposition in Gabon did not support the coup. Laurence Ndong, spokesperson for the opposition leader, Ping, reportedly said: “Gabon is not accustomed to military coups.”
For Ojo, the disappointing aspect was that “of all the coups that have occurred in Africa since 1960, nobody can point to one country where the people got better after a successful coup. This is one of the shames of Africa.”
Apparently feeling provoked by the “unfashionable”coup attempt in Gabon, the professor made an ‘excursion’ to South East Asia, where he said despite “the dictatorship . . . whatever form of dictatorship in that region, the leaders are highly nationalistic and patriotic.”
He said South East Asian leaders develop their countries, and, “Today, we will be deceiving ourselves if we describe South East Asian countries as developing countries because, in reality, they are already developed. Malaysia, Singapore, South Korea and China, these countries are run by dictators. But though dictators, they are committed to the advancement of their people.
“But in Africa, the narrative is the opposite. All the coups so far staged in the continent were done for the selfish end of the plotters. Apart from the so-called democratic norms and values to which we are now converted . . . even when coups were fashionable, Africans did not benefit from them.”
Nigeria is the most popular country in Africa, taking the position of the giant of the continent. Interestingly, it has had its share of sad experiences in the overthrow of governments through coups. It is for this reason it provided a good example for Ojo to drive home his sharp condemnation of military coups.
He said, “Let me give an example of Nigeria to explain the sordid case of coups in Africa. What did Nigerians benefit from military coups? Rather, the socio-political and economic situation of the country became worse, everything, our norms, values, institutions, indeed, everything got destroyed.”
He stressed that the appropriate means of changing government now in African countries is the through democratic process. This is even as he expressed worry about the standard of democracy in Africa.
“But are we talking about democracy? Are we practising democracy in Africa?” he rhetorically asked African political leaders.
“Let us not go to other African countries that some people here (Nigeria) may not be familiar with. Is it democracy we are practising in Nigeria? Can democracy be practised without political parties? Show me one single political party in Nigeria; we don’t have one. What we have is a political class.”
Ojo wants the African electorate to know that “political parties anywhere in the world must have values, manifestoes and principles based on ideologies.”
And they must not have one or the same ideology. He said “it is a spectrum. That is why you can have people on the right, centre and left of the party and they still share common values and stick together.
“But in Nigeria, a candidate is a member of Party A in the morning and when he fails to achieve his political agenda of becoming a governor or president, as the case may be, he defects to Party B the next day and, where he still fails to achieve his ambition, he moves on to Part C the following day. So, we don’t have political parties yet in Nigeria.”
According to the professor, real democracy cannot be realised in Africa except there are real political parties.
“Having said that, what is the alternative? When you look back, you will find that there is nothing to turn to, to say this is an alternative.
“The situation here in Africa is unlike that of South East Asia. They had dictators but those dictators consciously did everything humanly possible to develop their countries,” he said.
On what Africa should be doing now to stabilise the political process, Ojo said Africans should not abandon their faith in the electoral system, though the expected change may not come soon because the elite members of the current political groups are the same.
Ojo insisted that his position was within the context of African politics, power and development: “For example, in Gabon, almost 80 percent of the people opted for elections in spite of the shortcomings of their system. To them, election is the only process that can guarantee the expected change.”
On a prescription for a new order, Ojo said he had none that was unassailable because “our realities and theories no longer work. It is now a matter of hope. This why people continue to talk about prayer, they want God to do it for them. They cannot do it on their own. So, I would say, instead of giving up, people should remain optimistic and go and vote during elections.”