Men wearing body armor, berets, and fatigues are displayed in a special presentation on national television. Around the podium, they congregate. The announcement is brief: the military will be in charge. Today’s Gabon, last month’s Niger. Eight coups have occurred in Francophone Africa in the past three years.
In Britain, there is a perceptible attitude toward all of this, not just in the streets but also in the editorial offices. Who gives a damn? The coup wave that is sweeping West Africa and reshaping the continent is being overlooked; it is hardly covered or reported.
Gabon is significant because it is another grave marker for the previous global order. It is an indication of how times have changed when military personnel can jail a leader like Ali Bongo. The royal family of Gabon, which has ruled the nation for 56 years, believed that no one could overthrow them. The Bongos believed they had security over fossil fuels since they were in charge of an oil-rich nation that belonged to OPEC, a cartel that sets prices. They believed they had Western protection since they were in power with extremely tight links and had troops from the former colonial power, France, stationed there. And they believed they had financial stability because the nation boasts among of the highest wages in Africa, at least on paper.
However, they were no longer a part of that world. Bongo’s political gravestone has three lines concerning Western power written on it. First, a military disaster. Correctly anticipating the dangers in the rapidly degrading Sahel region and West Africa, Western nations, led by France, increased their efforts. Following were interventions, special missions, and equip-and-train programs. But the twenty-first century is neither the nineteenth or even the twentieth. Pinprick interventions typically don’t work. Insurgents with access to the Internet and IEDs typically prevail. Not only did the West fail to stop jihadist bloodshed, but its encouragement of the soldiers, who are now carrying out these coups, also gave them more power.
The Western partner, Ali Bongo, was a dynasty oil-rent-syphoning kleptocrat rather than a democratic leader.
The second was a failure in development. Despite decades of plans and pledges for Africa’s development, the funding has just not come in anything close to the required amount. Markets and governments in Africa must provide $272 billion in loans or aid annually by the end of the decade in order to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (the minimum requirements for a decent living). The Western powers have failed to reform the IMF to allow poorer countries to borrow more money, in addition to providing inadequate aid and financing. When viewed from a junta’s viewpoint, the Western system appears to be a bare-bones device rather than a path to transformation. Why not just shrug the coup off if you reside in a developing Western ally?
The character of the Bongos quoted the Western system in line three of the gravestone. The Western partner who was now being held inside the house was not a democratic leader, but a kleptocrat from the oil industry with vast international holdings and bank accounts. Paris and Washington not only glad-handed this family voluntarily, but they also ignored for decades the fact that kleptocrats were able to steal from their communities and the wealth of the West thanks to a parallel financial system made up of opaque shell firms, offshore accounts, and tax havens. Paris and its allies appear to be losers on the field of combat, failures in development, and sponsors of criminal activity. The fact that many of the new juntas are marketing these coups as a “second independence” is understandable.
The West has lost on the ground in addition to “losing the narrative”. The future of the globe can be seen in Africa. The traditional means of Western influence, such as bases and embassies, are becoming less and less effective. The previous perception of the West as believable and aspirational has vanished. There are now other options besides the West. Through its massive Belt and Road Initiative, China has invested heavily in the continent, laying kilometers of new infrastructure. Its development financing arrangements are now competitive with those of the previous development banks dominated by the West.
Along with Russia, other burgeoning nations like the monarchies of the Gulf are also interfering. Being a significant assistance contributor is no longer sufficient. You must appear futuristic.
Our loss of interest is a symptom of a larger problem. We continue to view Africa as a post-colonial afterthought that is not essential to the fight against climate change and for development. The 1960s, when the EU’s population was twice that of Africa, are long gone. The size of Africa now is approximately twice that of the EU. It might treble by the middle of the century. Even worse, we continue to believe that we are the Britain of 1997, when the UK last controlled a significant Chinese city and when our GDP was larger than that of the Chinese.
China’s GDP has grown by over six times since then. The world is now different. Instead of ignoring it, as we are doing with Gabon, we need to be aware of it.
The book This Is Europe: The Way We Live Now was written by Ben Judah.