A Tale of Two Coups

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“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way—”    Charles Dickens

Dignified desperation and hope coupled with mass unemployment and renewed anti-French sentiment has permeated the uneasy air of revolution that serves as the backdrop to many a francophone African nation today, reminiscent of the turbulent times and social upheaval central to Dicken’s novel set around the French Revolution of 1789. The two recent back-to-back coups in western Africa, while propped up by similar social issues, have less in common than meets the eye.

A seemingly similar staging of the Niger coup was followed a month later in copycat fashion by Gabon in so far as the guards in charge of the Presidents’ safety took centre stage, yet Presidents Bazoum and Bongo could not be more different. In character, priorities, policies, or power, in their stance since the coups, nor even in the elections that brought them to power, the two men and the two countries’ situations are drastically different.

No one in Niger, local or foreign, was expecting the coup of July 26th, nor expected it to last long, not least as President Mohamed Bazoum had only been in power for two years. Nigeriens hit the streets of Niamey in an initial show of support for Bazoum, only to have shots fired into the air to deter them. Most educated working Nigeriens returned to their offices and went about their business as if nothing was happening, refusing to dignify the coup with attention, expecting order to be restored and quickly.

In stark contrast, the Bongo dynasty that ruled Gabon for over five decades between father and son, was a coup waiting to happen, and was marked by immediate jubilation in Gabon’s capital Libreville on August 30th.

Over a month on, Bazoum has remained firm, keeping up a dignified appearance during the proof of life visits by ECOWAS and the President of Chad, although his weight loss was alarming. Despite deteriorating conditions under which the Bazoum family are being held, as reported by Human Rights Watch and the United Nations, and despite being denied electricity and water, and the release of his son, President Bazoum continues to defy coup leaders by not signing the resignation papers.

Yet over the weekend, news cycles showed hundreds of thousands of young Nigeriens surrounding the capital’s French military base, home to some 1500 foreign military, demanding French troops and the ambassador leave their country, just as their Western neighbours had done before them. Bizarrely, they are turning on their ECOWAS neighbours too.

Nigeriens today speak of a change in their people’s essence, brought about by the lack of dignity their former President Issoufou instilled, coming to the boil over the last month, prompted by the Presidential Guards’ need for public support. Issoufou is Bazoum’s Achilles’ heel.

The Mo Ibrahim Foundation awarded its annual five-million-dollar grant to Issoufou in 2022 for stepping down after his second term, as the constitution would require. But Nigeriens from every walk of life complain that he is omnipresent. Issoufou’s son is President Bazoum’s petroleum minister, and his father is said to have been intent on taking control of the oil that was due to come online in abundance at the year’s end. Leaked documents have spurred numerous articles in Jeune Afrique questioning whether this coup could be all about oil. Many believe it to be even more basic and unwarranted than that.

One thing the country seems to agree upon is that the best result of the coup for Niger would likely be Bazoum reinstated and Issoufou out of the way, in exile, although there are suspicions that the former President is behind the coup. ECOWAS, the African Union, the United Nations, France, Germany, the UK, and more, are demanding not only Bazoum’s release but his reinstatement.

Niger’s Ambassador to Washington, Kiari Liman-Tinguiri, tweeted at length about the differences between the coups, finalising “Anyone who fails to see that these are two radically different situations is either blind or blinded by hatred or, worse still, greed”.

When a video of deposed Ali Bongo appealing to “all our friends” to “make noise” was broadcast within hours of Bongo’s detention last week, the contrast of his appeal and the international response condemning the coup (but not demanding he be reinstated), was striking. Elections observers had openly criticised the opacity of the presidential elections that claimed Ali Bongo as the President causing public outrage, shortly after which he was swiftly taken hostage. Most observers noted that the coup to depose Gabon’s Bongo family was understandable, near inevitable.

Gabon’s coup marks the eighth such event in West and Central Africa since 2020. Military leaders have orchestrated takeovers in Mali, Guinea, Burkina Faso, and Chad as well, resulting in the undoing of democratic progress made since the 1990s. This series of events has sparked concerns among foreign nations with strategic interests in the region.

Uneducated, unemployed and increasingly impoverished young African men are understandably fed up with their decades-long power-hungry leaders and parties. Fuelled by a delayed reaction to “FrançAfrique”, anti-French sentiment has spread through social media in francophone Africa like wildfire, and for now, is contained to francophone Africa.

Preying on the despair in the Sahel region, terrorism groups recruit the disaffected youth appearing to offer them more than their nations do. The incapacity of this youth to tell the difference between a democratic dictator – as Bongo has been called, and their best bet – as Bazoum appears to be, might well be the lasting effect of colonisation followed by the catastrophic power grab characterised by the second generation of leaders after decolonisation.

The two most recent African coups might well contaminate and destabilise more than just the region, but an entire continent, and inevitably beyond. Regardless of the country’s individual leaders’ strengths or weaknesses, it seems few French-speaking African countries can control their people or their keepers, whether they have been tried and tested or not. Western leaders are asked to stay out of their business, and to keep their troops at bay. They are damned if they do, damned if they don’t. ECOWAS and the African Union are being tested yet again and are acutely aware that this summer marks two coups too many.

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