the real world today

Dynasty, Democracy and Decolonization in Gabon

The Big Story of the Week is Gabon, but Why?

A military coup in Gabon removed a dynastic family that had ruled this small oil-producing state since the 1960s, when nominal independence from France was obtained. Gabon is on the Atlantic Coast of Central Africa, bordered by Equatorial Guinea and Cameroon to the north, the Republic of the Congo to the east and south. Nigeria is a little way to the North, where this large state in Africa considers whether to intervene in its neigbour, Niger, where another coup happened last month.

Gabon had held elections the previous weekend. The son, Ali Bongo, of the dynastic founder, Omar Bongo, who had ruled for 42 years, received an electoral mandate for his third seven-year term. But soldiers disputed the electoral process, and the supportive crowds appeared to confirm concerns about a corrupt family rule. Diplomats from the USA, that home of dynasts and oligarchs, muttered wishes to restore democracy. But, within days, images appeared of the loot acquired by the Bongo family over 56 rules of democratic rule in support of Western resource extraction. The CIA briefing books appears not to have explained that Gabon democracy appears to be rule by the Bongos, of the Bongos, and for the Bongos, with many side benefits for France and the USA.

There is an interesting discussion of the coup that quotes several African intellectuals here. Sanusha Naidu, senior research fellow at the South African think tank The Institute for Global Dialogue, observed that the coup was caused by “people being dissatisfied with corruption, legacy leaders, and mismanagement of their finances or mismanagement of resources that don’t lead to real development.”

But before we tut-tut about corrupt African elites and failures in decolonisation, there is a sting in the tail of her observations. Al Jazeera quoted here observing:

“It is a reaction not just to a broken system, and an undemocratic one. It’s also the fact that the democratic process in itself is raising a lot of contradictions in terms of people feeling as if they can’t trust the political process, the democratic process, and are basically looking towards the military as possibly being that institution that can actually turn things around. People are becoming increasingly intolerant of the fact that they are no longer being treated as citizens in their country. [When] elections become a means to an end, it becomes devalued.”

The coup is about democracy, its rather imperfect realisation in Gabon, and whether that worked for the people of Gabon. A simple insistence on democratic rhetoric and electoral verdict is not enough of a response. Surely, noone would claim that the path to restoring democracy is self-evident when it involves entrenching the only family ever to have ruled independent Gabon; when it ignores how they have enriched themselves selling oil to the West while leaving most of their citizens in poverty; and when the infrequently held elections provide such unconvincing results and accusations of malfeasance.

But it is not only in Gabon, and not only in Africa, that there are doubts about a broken democratic system; in which elections have become highly manipulated means to an end; and where people feel they are “no longer being treated as citizens in their own country”. These doubts and sentiments rumble loudly in the West, and in Russia, in China, and in other states of Eurasia. They have even been heard from time to time in the Great Southern Land in which I am an exile at home.

Western states too know of political dynasties and elites who cling to power well past their use-by date. The USA has known the Kennedeys, the Bushes, the Clintons and the Bidens. Mitch McConnell this week had another American Psycho-geriatric moment. That democracy that the Western world is marching to its grave, Ukraine, is notorious for its control by a small number of oligarchic clans.

Gabon exposes therefore not only the weakness of African democratic traditions. It exposes the shared fate of most of the world today. The citizens of the world live in mixed polities that contain democratic processes, pre-democratic institutions, such as the political dynasty and ‘Big Man’ politics, and post-democratic controls, such as the remorseless propaganda and manipulated information of modern mainstream media. Gabon then is a mirror to the world, and not only a state to be pitied and readied for American and French post-colonial intervention.

Gabon also may mark a wave of change for the better in Africa, and certainly in French Africa. It is another state where counter-elites have acted on decades of frustration with charades of democracy that continue Western resource extraction and neocolonialism, that enrich small pro-Western elites, and that fail to garner the wealth of their countries to the equitable development of most African citizens. In recent years, coups have overthrown defective regimes in Mali, Burkino Faso, Niger and now Gabon. There is a hope among some of the African media I have observed in recent weeks that these events will reboot African Decolonization 2.0.

I do not know enough to say whether this is false hope. But there is no reason to suppose that Africa should be trapped in poverty and Western patronising attitudes. We should recall that in the 56 years that the Bongo family ruled Gabon, China has lifted over a billion people out of poverty. In 15 years, since the younger dynast, Ali Bongo, has ruled like an African Hunter Biden, India has lifted over 400 million people out of poverty. Getting rid of kleptocrats might be good for people.

Could a new dawn be rising in Africa? I do hope so, and I will attempt over the next year to deepen my understanding of African history and contemporary affairs to reflect the emergence of yet more poles in the multipolar world.

If you know more about the realities on the ground in Africa today, feel free to leave a comment.


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