/ 6 September 2023

A second wave of independence for former French colonies?

General Nguema Sworn In As Gabon's Transitional President
General Brice Oligui Nguema, the head of the Committee for the Transition and the Restoration of Institutions (CTRI), a formation formed after the coup, swears in on Gabon's transitional president during inauguration ceremony in Libreville, Gabon on September 04, 2023. (Photo by Mabondo/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

The Gabonese did not anticipate it. How could they have? 

Rigging elections in Gabon had been a Bongo family enterprise since the early days of multiparty politics in 1990. The father was handpicked by French neo-colonialist architect Jacques Focard in 1967, ruled first with a one-party state, then reluctantly entered multiparty politics until he passed the reins of power to his son, Ali when he died in 2009. 

The father meticulously safeguarded French petroleum interests, while the son opened its economy to new global powers (China and the United States). In the 1960s to 1970s Gabon transformed into a strategic deployment base for various French neo-colonial military interventions, such as the Gendarme Katangais in Zaire, Biafra rébellions support in the Nigeria civil war, or FNLA or Unita support during the Angolan civil war.

Last weekend, Ali was vying for a perilous third term. Many in Libreville questioned his abilities. During his second term, a stroke kept him away from office for 10 months, and many believe he never truly recovered. But the man was well-versed in Gabonese politics. His father avoided several coups, played factions against each other, and was even once reinstated in office by the French army itself. 

In the 2016 presidential elections, candidate Ali Bongo, was short of votes and could lose power to his father’s old friend Jean Ping. He ordered the ballot boxes in his father’s native province to be stuffed. Official participation surged in Haut-Ogooué to a record 99%, while the country’s overall participation was officially inflated to 54%. 

Ultimately, he won the election with about 5 000 more votes than his opponent. The international community, once again, endorsed the fraudulent election, and Ali was received with open arms worldwide as the legitimate ruler of the Gabonese people while the opposition party and angry youth suffered repression at home.

A second wave of independence for French ex-colonies ?

A new generation of leadership is emerging in Francophone Africa, amid the collapse of what historian Achille Mbembe termed “multiparty politics without democracy” — simply labelled as a mafia on the streets. 

In Gabon, like many countries on the continent, youth are witnessing the same politicians getting elected and re-elected, repeatedly imposing who comes next during embarrassing electoral events — now largely shared on social media. 

The youth of Mali, Niger and Gabon were tired of seeing credible opposition leaders being excluded from the electoral process, or polling stations in opposition neighbourhoods that close their doors three hours after they open, as was observed with President Mohamed Bazoum or President Ali Bongo’s recent “elections”. 

The wheels of history may have propelled militaries into power, but many believed that this was facilitated and endorsed by a significant generational demand for greater sovereignty. They realised that leaders elected through questionable democratic processes were often too feeble when faced with multinational or foreign state interests. 

They lacked the capacity to advocate for “independent politics” or bring about radical changes in key national legislation. They called for a second wave of independence, a fresh start for the former French colonies that remained trapped in cycles of poverty, underdevelopment and dependency — despite being gold or petroleum exporters, cotton producers, or having sold uranium to France for more than 40 years. 

But Will Colonel Mamady Doumbouya, General Dany N’guessan, or General Abdourahamane Tchiani do better? 

Will they bring forth original ideas, innovative solutions and radical proposals to bring sovereignty back and learn from the ashes of “France-Afrique” what went wrong? Will they find a solution to end the “rent-seeking” political structure ? Will they find an original form of wealth redistribution, adapted to their demographic realities? It is these aspects that the younger generations will use to evaluate their elders. 

The emergence of this new military leadership signals an ending chapter of African history. It’s a revenge from the 1990s. The simple fact that populations mostly born after 1990 from Ouagadougou, Bamako or Libreville are largely supporting putsch rather than calling for democratic reforms is revealing. 

This ending chapter has been characterised by the failure of structural adjustment programs in the late 1980s, by state reforms that damaged public institutions like schools, and put thousands of civil servants unemployed in the 1990s. And by the emergence of a kleptocratic elite that recycled itself through flawed electoral processes within formal multi-party politics. 

From the ashes of those rent-seeking regimes, a new chapter is being written under our eyes, with neo-sovereignty at the core of its narrative and construction — a second wave of independence.  

Will Cameroon and Congo-Brazzaville be next ?

How far can this wave go? Thus far, new military leaders may bring significant energy to challenge mining contracts (Doumbouya) or renegotiate military agreements (Colonel Asimi Goita) but they often lack expertise, falling into the same “neo-liberal” traps as their predecessors in office (such as debt, inflation, macroeconomic equilibrium). As observed in Guinea, the task is not easy, and positive results for the population have yet to be seen — not only in Guinea but also in Mali and Burkina Faso.

That reality might not halt the historical dynamics at play. 

Many now speculate that the domino effect of the military coup — or second wave of independence — will soon reach Brazzaville or Yaoundé. President Denis Sassou Nguesso’s daughter was once married to Ali’s father, Omar Bongo, and the two families/clans share similar political history and economic interest. Will the wave reach the presidential palace in Cameroon, where Paul Biya has held power since 1981? 

Cameroonians and Congolese are also clamouring to reclaim their sovereignty. They too have experienced flawed democracy since the emergence of multi-party politics in the 1990s. 

The powerhouses of the Central African region, also backed by French interests, are being shaken. While their personal trajectories remain uncertain, many parallels can be drawn. It is certain that Nguesso and Biya must be very concerned. 

Thomas Lesaffre is an independent researcher and a freelance journalist.