Africa’s Coups: Power Should Be Public, Not Military

Africa's Coups: Power Should Be Public, Not Military

In a moment of seismic political and social upheaval, Gabon has become the epicentre of a swirling controversy that pits democratic ideals against authoritarian tendencies. A military coup has unfolded under the banner of restoring democracy, even as it seeks to dismantle the pillars of governance in one form or another. At the heart of this paradox lies a recently concluded election, the results of which have been hotly disputed. The consequences of this coup resonate far beyond Gabon’s borders, Casting a sombre veil over the very concept of democracy in a continent beleaguered by historical and systemic governance failures.

The dawn of August 30, 2023, marked the dramatic commencement of a coup, unfolding with a poignant blend of irony and palpable desperation. As the military group known as the Patriotic Movement of the Gabonese Armed Forces (MPIGA) claimed to have seized the reins of power, the streets of the capital filled with the strains of a national anthem sung in collective defiance, rather than in support of the call by the ousted President Ali Bongo Ondimba for public noise in his favour. This contrasting response by the populace, a blend of quiet resistance and vocal dissatisfaction, not only underscores the depths of disillusionment but also highlights the quandary that confronts many nations grappling with fledgling or faltering democracies.

Unpacking this episode requires delving into its roots—widespread public distrust in governmental institutions, exacerbated by electoral results that, if upheld, would extend a single family’s rule over Gabon for an astounding 55 years. Such long-standing dynastic governance, along with allegations of corruption and electoral misconduct, have corroded the people’s faith in the very institutions designed to empower them. When foundational structures meant to ensure public participation and representation falter, they create a vacuum—an emptiness all too readily filled by authoritarian measures. The irony is manifest: the structures built to ensure a democratic voice can become the catalyst for its apparent overthrow.

The unfolding events in Gabon also underscore a broader, more troubling trend that plagues democratic efforts across Africa. In this continent marked by a history of colonialism, economic challenges, and governance issues, the Gabonese coup serves as a microcosm of the delicate state of democracy and the ease with which it can be subverted. The question that looms, unsettling yet unavoidable, is whether the act of upending a flawed democracy can ever pave the way for a more legitimate and robust one. In the tension between the ideal of governance, ‘of the people, by the people, for the people’ and the grim realities that often distort that ideal, Gabon stands as a case study that commands both our attention and our introspection.

Gabon’s Historical Legacy: Cycles of Governance and Discontent

As Gabon faces a political crisis that throws its governance into question, one can’t help but consider the historical forces that have shaped the current moment. Emerging from French colonial rule in 1960, Gabon’s journey towards self-governance has been far from smooth. Despite its abundant natural resources, particularly oil, the nation has long struggled with unequal wealth distribution, political corruption, and social unrest. The prolonged rule of the Bongo family, which began with Omar Bongo in 1967 and continued with his son Ali Bongo Ondimba, has been a focal point of public discontent. Under the reign of the Bongos, Gabon has teetered between showcasing itself as a bastion of stability and grappling with internal disillusionment.

Historically, the Bongo family has adeptly balanced maintaining international alliances, particularly with France, and navigating the murky waters of domestic politics. However, the recent events have laid bare the growing disillusionment of the Gabonese public, whose demands for greater political inclusivity have reached a boiling point. Accusations of electoral manipulation and corruption have become commonplace, and underneath the veneer of stability, a tide of public dissent has been rising.

It is essential to note that military interventions are not new to Gabon. Though previous coup attempts have not achieved their aims, they do signify deeply rooted public discontent. These interventions can be seen as symptoms of a much deeper societal malaise, including a youthful population hungry for change, economic disparities that persist in spite of the country’s wealth, and a civil society that is increasingly vocal against political repression and corruption.

The coup’s ripple effects have already started to be felt beyond Gabon’s borders. It stands as a symbol of the tenuous state of democracy across the African continent, which has struggled with issues of governance, economic disparity, and post-colonial identity. Global organisations like the African Union and the United Nations face a dilemma: how to respond to a crisis that challenges the core principles of democracy while also recognising the unique complexities of each member state.

The situation unfolding in Gabon is not just the story of a single nation caught in a moment of crisis. It represents the broader challenges facing Africa in its quest for governance that is both effective and truly representative of its diverse populace. As Gabon navigates its way through this tumultuous period, its experiences may serve as lessons, cautions, or even inspirations for other nations grappling with the complexities of governance in the 21st century. In this sense, Gabon is both a case study and a cautionary tale, its current crisis a chapter in a much larger story that encapsulates the struggles and aspirations of a continent.

The Poisonous Cycle of Military Rule

The scenario playing out in Gabon is neither new nor unique within the African context; it’s a disquieting chapter in a long narrative of military interventions across the continent. The all-too-common cycle tends to unfold in the same way: public disillusionment with corrupt or ineffective leaders reaches a tipping point, the military intervenes with promises of rectification, and yet, what often follows is either a slide into authoritarianism or a return to the very corruption the coup purported to eradicate. These interventions are seldom the solutions they claim to be. Instead, they often exacerbate existing problems and create new ones, plunging nations into economic and social turmoil.

Read Also: Africa’s Growth: Intellectual Revolution, Not Military Coups

World Bank data paints a grim picture of the economic aftermath of coups. Countries that experience military interventions frequently see a significant decline in GDP growth rates, not to mention the sociopolitical costs that are harder to quantify but no less devastating. And it doesn’t stop at economic downturns. Coups often trigger international sanctions, a move that compounds the problems by significantly reducing foreign direct investment, thereby worsening poverty and inequality. The ripple effect is palpable: lower investment means fewer job opportunities, diminished social services, and a general decline in living standards.

The true cost of military rule, however, isn’t just economic; it’s deeply social and psychological. The usurpation of civilian governance structures erodes the very social contract that binds a nation. When tanks roll into the capital and soldiers take over TV stations, announcing the suspension of a country’s constitution, the message sent to the citizenry is that their voices, expressed through the ballot or civil dialogue, don’t matter. That despite the promises of democracy, power can be seized at gunpoint, negating the people’s will. The resultant erosion of trust in public institutions is hard to quantify but constitutes perhaps the most corrosive aspect of military interventions. It is a betrayal of the public trust, the effects of which reverberate through generations.

It’s a self-perpetuating cycle: authoritarian regimes and military coups create environments ripe for more of the same. The promise of stability and quick solutions to deeply ingrained problems may make military interventions appealing in the short term, but history shows that such regimes are more likely to perpetuate cycles of violence, corruption, and poverty. The aspiration for change becomes mired in a quagmire of authoritarian governance, creating disillusionment and apathy, further undermining the democratic process.

So, what is the alternative? The answer is not straightforward but starts with building strong, transparent, and accountable civilian institutions that truly represent the will of the people. It involves reinvigorating the public discourse and civic participation, strengthening judicial systems, and ensuring that governance is both decentralised and representative. It’s a tall order, but anything less perpetuates a cycle that Africa can ill afford to continue.

Gabon’s situation thus serves as both a warning and a call to action, a real-time unfolding of challenges that countless other African nations face. To interrupt this poisonous cycle of military rule, power must not reside in the hands of a few generals but should be public, participatory, and accountable. If the goal is a governance model that serves its citizens rather than subjugates them, then power must be returned to where it truly belongs: with the people.

Lambasting the Roots: Corrupt Politicians and Poor Governance

As Gabon grapples with its political upheaval, it’s worth emphasizing that while military coups are symptomatic of dysfunctional governance, they’re not the root cause. The real culprits often sit in well-furnished offices, donning business suits rather than military uniforms. The corruption and poor governance that serve as fertile grounds for military interventions are in large part the work of politicians who exploit their positions for personal gain at the expense of public trust and welfare.

According to Transparency International, the majority of African countries score below 50% on corruption indices. This alarming statistic points to a pervasive issue that transcends national boundaries, seeping into the very fabric of governance across the continent. And corruption is not a victimless crime; its consequences are tangible and devastating. It exacerbates inequality, deepens poverty, and leads to social unrest. When politicians misappropriate public funds, manipulate electoral processes, and govern without transparency or accountability, they set the stage for the kind of instability that makes military interventions seem like a lesser evil to a desperate populace.

In this context, corrupt politicians are not just passive contributors but active instigators of political instability. They create an environment in which the frustrations of the masses become so intense that the drastic measures of a coup may even attract public support or at least, resignation to the idea that, ‘it can’t get any worse.’ Such politicians perpetuate a form of governance that is antithetical to the principles of democracy, setting the stage for a cycle of instability that is difficult to break.

But let’s be unequivocally clear: while poor governance creates an environment ripe for military intervention, replacing one form of flawed rule with another is not the solution. Military coups offer the illusion of swift justice and stability, but they fail to address the root causes of a nation’s problems. In many cases, they only serve to perpetuate them.

So where do we go from here? The long-term antidote to the vulnerability of democratic systems to both corruption and military interventions is, quite simply, better governance. This involves establishing robust, transparent institutions that truly represent the people and are accountable to them. It means building a culture of political integrity where corruption is not merely punished but is socially and morally unacceptable. It requires a shift in political culture from one that sees public office as a route to personal enrichment to one that views it as a sacred trust.

If the ultimate goal is to preclude the need for military interventions altogether, the solution must start with tackling the endemic corruption and poor governance that make such drastic measures appear necessary in the first place. The true power for change does not lie in the barrel of a gun but in the will of the people, exercised through democratic institutions that are both participatory and accountable. Only then can the cycle of coups and poor governance be broken, allowing for a future where the stability and well-being of nations are secured through the ballot box, not the bullet.

The Rightful Owners of Power: The Masses

In any authentic democratic setting, the true owners of power should not be a handful of political elites, military generals, or influential oligarchs; it should be the masses. The foundation of a functioning democracy rests on the principle that power emanates from the people, who should exercise it freely through transparent and fair elections. It’s a simple concept, but one that has been conspicuously absent in countries where power struggles and military coups, such as the one in Gabon, steal headlines and thwart progress.

In a landscape often marred by corruption, lack of accountability, and autocratic tendencies, the question is: how can the people reclaim their rightful role as the bearers of political power? The answer is multifaceted, involving both institutional reforms and cultural shifts, but it undeniably starts and ends with participatory governance. Transparent elections aren’t just a democratic ideal; they are a democratic necessity. Without them, citizens are stripped of their fundamental right to choose their leaders and, by extension, their future. Rigged electoral systems that perpetuate the reign of corrupt leaders are an affront to this right and serve as breeding grounds for the instability that often culminates in military interventions.

Accountability is another pillar of governance that needs to be fortified. Leaders should be held to their promises, scrutinised for their actions, and subjected to the rule of law like any other citizen. Without accountability mechanisms, the democratic process turns into an empty ritual rather than an effective tool for change. This requires an empowered civil society, robust media institutions, and independent judicial systems that can serve as checks and balances against the misuse of power.


Conclusion: A Wake-Up Call for Democratic Governance in Africa

The attempted coup in Gabon serves not just as a chilling reminder of the fragile state of democracy on the continent, but also as a definitive wake-up call. It underscores the urgent need to confront and decisively deal with the issues that plague many African nations—rampant corruption, pervasive poor governance, and enduring economic instability. While the allure of quick fixes like military coups may be tempting, the reality is that the problems Africa faces cannot—and should not—be resolved through the barrel of a gun.

As we engage in this necessary and overdue scrutiny of our political systems, we must remember to direct our most strident criticisms not only at the military officers who execute these coups, but also at the politicians whose mismanagement and corruption create the breeding ground for such actions. Their misconduct and failure in governance pave the way for the very instability that they then claim to combat.

It’s easy to place blame solely on these actors, but we must take the narrative a step further by looking at what the solution should be. The answer lies not in replacing one form of flawed governance with another, but in a transformative approach to how we view power and governance. The remedy is multi-dimensional and centres on transparency, accountability, and an empowered, active citizenry that can demand more and better from those who govern them.

The onus isn’t just on political leaders but also on the general populace to actively engage in democratic processes. A populace that is educated about its rights and responsibilities is the bedrock of any thriving democracy. Equally, institutions—be it civil society organisations, the judiciary, or the media—must be strengthened and given the independence they need to effectively check the excesses of government.

Moreover, the international community also plays an integral role. Its mandate shouldn’t just be to intervene when the damage has been done but to also help in creating sustainable systems that prevent the inception of such disasters in the first place. International bodies can offer frameworks, provide oversight, and even impose sanctions to ensure that the democratic process is respected and upheld.

Finally, it is prudent to remember the timeless words of Nelson Mandela: ‘The people must lead, and the government must follow.’ For Africa to realise its full potential and break free from the vicious cycle of military interventions, coups, and political instability, it must heed these words and return power to its rightful owners: the masses. Only by doing this can we hope to tread a path towards sustainable development, economic prosperity, and the kind of democracy that not only uplifts nations but dignifies its people.

Africa Digital News, New York