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Gabon’s failed coup

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Gabonese gendarmes patrol on the Democracy square in Libreville on January 7, 2018 after a group of soldiers sought to take power in Gabon while the country’s ailing president was abroad. Soldiers burst into state radio offices at dawn and called on the public to “rise up”, an appeal made as President Ali Bongo remained in Morocco after suffering a stroke last year. The chief military rebel who led a thwarted coup has been arrested and two of his commandos killed after they stormed into a public radio station, the presidency said. Steve JORDAN / AFP


A couple of days ago, a fraction of the Gabonese military attempted to derail the democratic government of their country by a forceful seizure of the reins of power. Fortunately, the coup was aborted by forces loyal to the incumbent government amidst widespread condemnation of the coup attempt. The coup makers claimed that they wanted to break the governance gridlock and “restore democracy” because of the reported illness of the incumbent president Ali Bongo.

It would be recalled that Bongo was admitted into hospital last year after he suffered a stroke. First, he was in the sanatorium in distant Saudi Arabia and now he is in Morocco. The long duration under care has apparently caused worries back home. And in an apparent brinkmanship, the Constitutional Court had empowered his vice, Pierre-Claver Maganga Moussavou, to assume presidential responsibilities in the absence of the president to avoid a political vacuum. That is the acceptable constitutional order.

From the insight of the coup attempt, the move appeared not to have calmed restive social forces in the tiny country. The president in response to the paralysis of governance due to his absence sought to pacify the population in a new-year address when he said he was recuperating fast and would soon be with them. The coupists, who were not convinced, read it “as pitiful sight” and gimmick to remain in power with deleterious consequences for democracy and governance in the country.

Historically, the country had witnessed a major coup attempt in 1964 when the founding president Leon M’ba scrapped democratic institutions in favour of one-party state. The attempt was, however, thwarted by the intervention of French paratroopers who have been quartered in Gabon – to this day.

Nowadays, coups are no longer fashionable as means of control of state power by contending social forces in countries of Africa. Whenever it rears its ugly head, it has always been condemned in clears terms by the global democratic community. Ambitious individuals are expected to test their approvals in the court of the electorate. Little wonder that the continent was taken aback when elements of the Gabonese armed forces announced that they had seized power in the oil-rich central African country.

Expectedly, the coup was condemned for what it is – a democratic setback. Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari said, the military has no place for ambitious military officers. The AU condemned the coup in unambiguous terms. It re-affirmed AU’s “total rejection of all unconstitutional change of power.” Similarly, France, the country’s erstwhile colonial ruler condemned any undemocratic change of government. Specifically, it noted that, “stability of Gabon can only be assured by strict adherence to the provisions of the constitution.”

It has been a paradox of development that African countries for the most part had been governed by sit-tight autocrats since many of them gained autonomy from colonial subjugation in the late 1950s. However, there was a trend reversal since the advent of the third wave of democratisation, which began in the 1970s and made inroad into continent in the 1980s. Indeed, a whirlwind of diplomacy of democracy and internal agitations, have opened the floodgate of democratic institutions.

The growing norm today is that democratic values are being consolidated despite obvious constraints. The idea of coup against legitimate governments is no longer welcome in the comity of nations. Particularly, African governments under the auspices of the African Union (AU) have a zero-tolerance for unconstitutional change of government. The organisation frowns on and sanctions take-over of governments by force by any social group within the continent by non-recognition of such a government. There has been increasing realisation that democracy is germane to the rule of law, citizens liberty and development. So, the prevalent temperament among the populace discountenances seizure of power without the consent of the governed.

That is why this newspaper would like to join all lovers of democracy worldwide to condemn the coup attempt. It was undemocratic and counterproductive to the principles of democracy. We urge the Gabonese military and African militaries in general to always subjugate themselves to civil authority in the interest of peace and development. Besides, civil control over the military enhances military’s professionalism, which is why its incursion into politics is often qualified as an aberration. Instability in government is counterproductive to the objectives of peace and stability of the state.

However, it is to be noted that objective conditions in Africa underlined by mass poverty and irresponsible leadership provide ready rationale for would-be putschists. According to World Bank reports, one-third of the Gabonese population lives below poverty threshold. Ironically, the country is the third largest oil producer in sub-Saharan Africa. Importantly, leadership in Africa must deal with these realities in creative ways to avoid cycles of instability. So, a democratic resolution of the crisis of governance is to be preferred to undemocratic overthrow of government. As the history of coups d’état in Africa has shown, forceful take-over of government is a vicious-cycle that does no good to the wellbeing of society.

Today, due to military dictatorship and the counteracting new militarism involving non-state actors, many African states have become failed states. The state of Somalia exemplifies this phenomenon while countries like Sierra Leone and Liberia are undergoing post-war reconstruction due to the debilitating crises that military dictatorship inflicted on their respective societies. Enough is enough of these distractions!

It is pertinent to note that publication of this comment coincides with the anniversary of Nigeria’s tragic first military coup d’etat experience of January 15, 1966 when mutinous Nigerian soldiers led by Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu and Emmanuel Ifeajuna killed 22 people including the Prime Minister of Nigeria, Alhaji Tafawa Balewa, many senior politicians, army officers and sentinels on protective duty. Alas, 53 years on, Nigeria has not recovered from that tragedy as failure of leadership remains the country’s main challenge. What is worse, the country’s unifying factor and critical success factor, federalism the soldiers of fortune also overthrew, has remained elusive as the unitary system they arbitrarily imposed has since remained the country’s biggest challenge. It is tragic in the extreme.

No doubt, the continent needs peace and institutional stability if it must rise to the status of the developed world. And so, it’s an emphatic ‘No’ to coup d’etat anywhere in Africa.


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