Springtime in Africa?

A season of change, the domino effect of Niger, and now Gabon
Libreville. Photo: Ralph Messi on Unsplash

France is on the wrong side of history in Gabon but the United States is inching across to a more acceptable position on the little matter of democracy and dynasty.

Hours after a group of military officers seized power in the country’s capital Libreville, a French government spokesman condemned “the military coup that is under way in Gabon” and reiterated France’s “desire to see the results of the election respected”.

That reference to the disputed presidential elections of August 26 in the West African country will not go down well in Gabon. According to reports, the Gabonese have responded with joy – and literally, juice. One shopkeeper on the streets of Libreville is said to have offered juice to the soldiers, possibly hoping to help them keep up their strength. It was refused.

It’s worth remembering what the coup seeks to displace. That would be nearly 56 years of one family in power in a country that is part of the Opec oil cartel and has the world’s largest manganese mine, as well as one of the highest rates of youth joblessness. Nearly 40 per cent of Gabonese aged 15-24 were out of work in 2020, according to the World Bank. News reports record a young Gabonese man, Jordy Dikaba, and his friends declaring on the day of the coup: “Long live our army”.

In the circumstances, the US response has been more measured. While the White House said the US was deeply concerned by the situation in Gabon, it added “we will remain a supporter of people in the region and supporter of the people in Gabon”.

That makes a lot of sense. Consider reading this devastating rundown from africanews on the 10 key dates in Gabon’s history. Most of them revolve around the Bongo family!

In 1967, for instance, Omar Bongo,  father of the now-deposed President Ali Bongo Ondimba, assumed power for 41 years. On his death in 2009, Ali Bongo was sworn in as president. In 2019, his eldest son, Noureddin Bongo Valentin, was appointed “coordinator of presidential affairs”. The prospect of meaningful change for Gabon, so long as the Bongos (and their chief supporter, France) remained in charge, was very distant.

Unless, change came by force.

On the BBC on August 30, the day of Gabon’s coup, former UK Africa minister Rory Stewart suggested the domino effect of Niger, and now Gabon, should be read as an African spring. A season of change, one in which to blow away the cobwebs of the past.

There may be something in that. What anyone makes of disruptive change is another matter.