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Unending Coups d’Etat and Dictatorial Democracy in Africa: Beyond the Case of Gabon

By Bola A. Akinterinwa

Africa has many problems of development. They range from infrastructure deficit and economic poverty to political instability and military insecurity. Of the various problems, the most critical is the nature of political will and incapacity of enforcement. Expression of political will is always well couched in the best of English or best of French and Portuguese languages. However, the translation of the political will into reality and manifest destiny has always been more problematic. African leaders like and love very good things but hardly do they do enough good things in terms of achievement of what they love. It is within this frame of thinking that we consider the need to look at the unending problems of coups d’état and dictatorial democracy in Africa with a particular reference to the case of Republic of Gabon.

The African Union has a zero tolerance for forceful change of government in Africa. Its non-negotiable policy on forceful change of government is as a result of the review of the 1963 Charter of the Organisation of African Unity. Explained differently, the OAU Charter provided for non-interference by any sovereign and independent State in the domestic affairs of other sovereign States. As a result, there was little monitoring and control of what transpired within the context of domestic politics.

In fact, international law says little about which type of government should be adopted by any State and on what should be the modalities of change of government in such a country. Efforts at the determination of which type of government is desired and should be encouraged can be traced to the La Baule Conference in France when development assistance was made conditional to the acceptance of democracy. In other words, it was when the global community began to frown at dictatorship. In the specific case of Africa, it was when the African Union was established that a more articulated policy on dictatorship and coups d’état was formulated.

In its Lomé Declaration of 2000 on the Framework for an OAU Response to Unconstitutional Changes of Government, the Assembly of Heads of State and Government gave many examples of what constituted a forceful change of government. The first is the organisation of a military coup d’état against a democratically-elected government. In this definition, many factors should be noted. If a military coup is organised against a military regime, it does not, stricto sensu, constitute a forceful change of government even if force was used in the change. The emphasis here is that the victim of the coup must be a democratically-elected government and since a military coup against a military regime does not involve an elected government, there is no good basis to consider such a situation as a forceful change of government.

Second, an intervention by mercenaries or armed dissident groups and rebel movements to replace a democratically-elected government also constitutes a forceful and unconstitutional change of government. This definition is more interesting than the first one. Emphasis is placed more on the status of the actors than on the victims of the coup. The forceful change must have been engineered by armed dissident groups or by rebel movements.

A third definition of a forceful and unconstitutional change of government arises when an incumbent
government refuses to relinquish power following defeat in a free and fair election. In this case, there may not be any expression of use of force. The main point here is simply the act of refusing the situational reality of loss of an election. Refusal to relinquish power can be forcefully done and it may not be done so. The mere fact that there should be handover of power at a given date and the handing over does not take place, it can be rightly submitted that there has been a refusal.

Apart from the Lomé Declaration, there are also the 2007 African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance, Manipulation of Constitutions and Legal Instruments for Prolongation of Tenure of Office by an incumbent regime, which also banned unconstitutional governments. And also more interestingly, Article 4 of the African Union Act, not only prohibits unconstitutional changes of government, but also, in its article 30, stipulates that ‘Governments that come to power through unconstitutional means shall not be allowed to participate in the activities of the Union.’

The main essence of this provision is that the prevention of any erring State from participating in the activities of the Union does not prevent the access to power through unconstitutional means of a Government. On the basis of the three definitions of forceful change of government noted above, there are surely more than 91 coups d’état often referred to in the literature. This is so because the more frequent coups to which most Africans are now used are the sit-tight coups d’état.

For instance, in 2005, Cameroon’s National Assembly passed a bill which amended the Law 961/06. The law enabled President Paul Biya to have immunity from prosecution and to have the right to unlimited re-election. The passing of such a law is an indirect way of refusing to hand over power to any opposition and to frustrate any aspiring presidential candidate that has the potential to win election. This is a coup without the use of force that falls under category 3 of AU definitions of unconstitutional change of government.

Another example of this is the case of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika of Algeria. He systematically manipulated his country’s National Parliament to adopt a change of Constitution aimed at serving a Third Term in power. Put differently, the Constitution provides for possibility of two terms. But President Bouteflika made amendments to the Constitution to ensure an extension of his tenure in government. Even though this might have been done non-forcefully, the critical purpose of the AU policy on unconstitutional change of government is to prevent those engaging in forceful change of government from governing. The use of force is considered unconstitutional in this regard. Manipulation of amendment processes of a Constitution in order to stay in power is another expression of illegality. This is why we agree with Solomon Dersso who differentiated on September 7, 2016 between unconstitutional changes in government and unconstitutional practices in Africa (vide sites.tufts.edu).

The point being made about the foregoing is that there is a legal prohibition in the Act of the African Union of all forms of unconstitutional change of government. However, in practice, different ways have consciously been found to also undermine the policy, meaning that there is a brand of democracy peculiar to Africa and that goes beyond the questions of freedom to vote, free and fair election and protection of human rights. True, intrinsic in Africa’s democracy is fraud, in conception and practice. This should not be so. An investigation into the two cases of coup d’état in the Republic of Gabon is quite relevant at this juncture.

The Gabonese Coups d’Etat

The people of Gabon have played host to two failed coups d’état. The first one took place in 1964 or about four years after independence in 1960. The coup can be rightly described as a coup that never was, because it took place on 17th and 18th of February and was stopped by the French on the 19th, meaning that there was never the opportunity to actualise any planned agenda.

It was a coup in which there were four main actors with different interests at stake: President Leon M’ba of Gabon against whom the coup was organised; the Vice President, Jean-Hilaire Aubame, who was never part of the coup making, but who was asked to become the President after the coup; France, the former colonial master; the coup plotters, comprising Second Lieutenant Daniel Mbene Valere, Lieutenant Daniel Nbo Edou and Lieutenant Monbo who led the plotters.

President Leon M’ba was very pro-France and wanted a democratic setting in which his own wish predominates. The coup plotters were opposed to whatever Léon M’ba stood for. In fact, the coup plotters constituted themselves into a Revolutionary Committee and formed a provisional government. Jean-Hilaire Aubame, M’ba’s Vice President, was installed the President. Aubame was an arch political rival of Léon M’ba. For example, Aubame was Gabon’s representative at the French National Assembly in the period from 1945 to 1959. He was the Head of Government in Gabon’s First National Assembly. So the experience was there.

This background contributed to the understanding between M’ba and Aubame that led to their accepting to form a coalition government in 1961, but this does not stop the political rivalry between them. And true enough, the M’ba administration was largely characterised by frequent Cabinet reshuffles. Besides, before the coup, M’ba dissolved the National Assembly on January 21, 1964 on the consideration that the National Assembly was too large, as well as expensive for Gabonese needs.

Political observers hold a different view. They argue that the main rationale for the dissolution of the National Assembly was because the Assembly did not give the President full support in his attempt to remove Aubame from the Presidency of the Supreme Court. Perhaps more noteworthy, M’ba was more favourably disposed than Aubame to France. France had a defense agreement done in 1961 with Gabon. It was on this basis that France accepted to engage in both political and military manoeuvres, not only to invite Aubame for discussions on how to ensure national security and safety of M’ba during the coup making, but also use same to arrest him, planned a counter-coup and reinstated the ousted Léon M’ba on the night of 19th February, 1964. This was in spite of the fact that Aubame made it clear that Gabonese pro-France foreign policy would remain and be further sustained.

What is particularly important to note about the first coup is not only that it failed, but that it failed because of France’s preparedness to protect her own national interests possibly to the detriment of those of Gabon. This was also so because Léon M’ba, who died of cancer on 28 November, 1967, was more French than Gabonese. He even wanted Gabon to become an overseas territory of France but to no avail. For the French, Gabon was presented as a second home and for the Gabonese, it was France. Additionally, the rivalry between M’ba and Aubame served as a catalytic agent of the coup. How can Gabon, which could only boast of one medical practitioner in 1960 in the whole country, develop when its leaders are disunited in the advancement of their country? Did the Gabonese learn from the coup? How do we explain the second coup?

The second coup took place on Monday, 7th January, 2019, in other words, about 45 years after the first one. The declared reason for the coup is to ‘Save Gabon’ from illegitimacy and illegality of the Bongo administration. In this regard, attempt was to be made to establish a ‘National Restoration Council’ as a first step to permanently put an end to the Bongo administration. The reasons for the coup are not the conventional ones, generally associated with bad governance, corruption and indiscipline at the level of political governance.

But from deductive methodological approach, two main reasons appear to be the dynamic of the coup. The first is the very controversial election result of the 2016 presidential election and the perception of how the opposition was mistreated thereafter. The coup was meant to avenge. Reasons of ill-health and prolonged absence of President Bongo are, at best, secondary. The other reason is the hostility of the opposition to the unending sit-tight Bongo dynasty. The general belief was that Jean Ping, the former Chairman of the African Union Commission and now the leader of opposition in Gabon, was the winner of the 2016 presidential election. M’ba won the election marginally with 2% difference. The opposition alleged fraud in the election but he was denied victory.

As explained by Laurence Ndong, the press Secretary to Jean Ping, in his interview with Radio France Internationale, ‘Gabon is not accustomed to military coups… Those in power today are covered in the blood and misery of the Gabonese people, who each time express their desire for a change because we’ve had 50 years with the same family in power.’ And true enough, President Omar Bongo took over power in 1967 and governed for 42 years thereafter. His son, Ali Bongo, succeeded him in 2009 when his father passed on. Before taking over, he was Foreign Minister of Gabon.

The qualms about the Bongo’s domination of the polity are heightened by the fact that the incumbent president, Ali Bongo, has been hospitalised since October 2018 in Morocco and the issue of who is actually in charge of government has been constantly raised. Government has not been functioning well as Ali Bongo is trying to govern from his sick bed. The question to ask here is why, in the long absence of Ali Bongo, government could not function well in Gabon? The answers may be found in some of the reasons so far proffered for the failure of the coup.

One school of thought has argued that the coup plotters were junior military officers, thus suggesting inexperience and possibility of poor handling. The deepening of democracy generally in Africa might have also frightened people from giving active support to the coupists. When the coup plotters called on the people to inform them of the new government in power and also tried to mobilise them against the Bongo government, public response was not generally forthcoming. This might have given the impression to the Bongo supporters of the need to quickly take advantage of the public position to take back power. There is still another important factor possibly explaining the failure of the coup, and that is the very warm relationship and closeness with the military hierarchy, a situation that raises other reasons explaining the failure of the coup. And true, the place and interest cannot be ignored.

And true again, even though the coup plotters, led by Lt. Kelly Ondo Obiang, were all junior officers, we do not believe that the factor of juniority and insinuated poor handling of the coup is a major reason in explaining the failure of the coup. This Column strongly believes that it is because the coup plotters did not carry along the senior military officers, and particularly because the senior military officers are very close to the President, thus making it difficult to ordinarily subscribe to the arguments of the coup plotters, that popular military support for the coup was not readily forthcoming.

Another important consideration is also the fact that the coup plotters did not actually want to seize power in order to govern. As we noted above, the coup is that of vengeance for the loss of the 2016 presidential election to Bongo and his mistreatment of the opposition and the aggrieved. Additionally and most importantly, the coup plotters made it clear that they simply wanted to restore democracy by putting a stop to the rule of one family in Gabon.

If we espy the nature of the coup, it is again not the conventional type in terms of purpose of coup. The truth of the matter is that new ways of coup planning, which do not involve the use of force, are in the making and cautiously make a nonsense of the AU’s policy of non-acceptability of unconstitutional change of government in Africa. The new ways, of course, do not fall under the typologies of unconstitutional change of government as defined by the African Union. They now essentially involve the use of nuclear family, in-laws and extended relations in political governance.

As explained by The Economist in amp.economist.com, ‘from 1980 to 2000, there were 38 successful coups in Africa. Since then there have only been 15. This is partly because presidents have grown more adept at coup-proofing their regimes. Many place relatives in key roles, keep the army weak and play factions off against each other.’
The Economist cannot be more correct in this regard, especially in light of the ongoing debate and controversy surrounding the Presidential election in Nigeria. The placement of relations in key offices by an elected president not only assists in perfecting his sit-tight policies but also seriously dissuades people from coup making. In other words, relations of a President occupying strategic positions in government are generally believed to seek to specially defend and protect their benefactor, the President. This is why and how the public calls on the Nigerian president, Muhammadu Buhari, not to accept the appointment of Mrs. Amina Zakari as the chairperson of the presidential election collation centre in Abuja should be understood.

In fact, as The Economist further noted, ‘political competition for the top spot is still constrained. Most African countries have presidential term limits. But since 2000, ten countries’ leaders have simply changed their constitutions to stay in power. The continent’s greying leaders are in no hurry to leave, a sentiment expressed funkily by Mr. Bongo in his 1977 song, “I wanna stay with you.” This observation raises the challenge of how to reconcile the general condemnation of coup making in Africa with the new ways of also scientifically undermining true democracy at the same time.

For instance, President Buhari of Nigeria observed that ‘the military officers in Gabon should understand that the era of military coups and governments in Africa and, indeed worldwide, is long gone. Democracy is supreme and the constitutional stipulations on the peaceful change of administration must be respected.’ Like The Economist, President Buhari’s observation is also quite correct.

However, we do not believe that there will soon be an end to coup-making in Africa simply because the dynamics of coup d’état are scientifically researched on regularly basis and this is done to consciously undermine the AU’s policy of non-acceptance of unconstitutional change of Government in Africa. As noted above, if African leaders adopt special measures to ensure sit-tight government, if they also appoint their relations in key position to ensure that no opposition is able to challenge the incumbent government, and if this practice is prohibited by the AU but the same AU is joyfully condoning the practice, there is no way more conflicts should not be expected in the future. There is anger in Gabon. Gabon is generally seen by the opposition as a terra cognita of dictatorial democracy. Gabonese want to put an end to the more than five decades of Bongo family reign. The 2016 election controversy has not been finally settled. The status of the Franco-Gabonese ties is another controversial issue. But which way forward for Gabon? What is the position of the African Union? There is the need to go beyond the limitations of the Gabonese situation and seek to address the case of leaders who stay in power for decades through democratic frauds.

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