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The image of African soldiers in military fatigues announcing a coup on state television has become an increasingly familiar sight since 2020. As we put the finishing touches on this newsletter, soldiers in Gabon became the latest to declare that they had seized control of their country. The officers appeared on Gabon 24 in the early hours of Wednesday, minutes after the Central African country’s electoral body announced that President Ali Bongo had won a contentious election, handing him a third term in power. It comes weeks after the military takeover in Niger, to the country’s north, which was West Africa’s seventh coup in the last three years.
There will be concerns that soldiers across West and Central Africa could be taking inspiration from coups in neighbors which have shown the relative ease with which regime change can be enforced — for example, Gabon’s putschists are holding Bongo under house arrest in much the same way that Niger’s military junta has held the elected president captive. However, the underlying frustrations are always local. In Gabon, the coup seems to be a reaction to the dynastic rule of the Bongo family — whose 56-year rule of the oil-rich nation hasn’t translated into wealth for most citizens. The opposition cried foul even before Bongo was announced as the winner of the election but the government blocked internet access in the wake of Saturday’s vote and provisionally banned three French broadcasters over their election coverage, which effectively stripped dissenters of a voice.
The situation in Gabon is a reminder that frustration grows when citizens feel unable to hold governments accountable for their policies and vote them out — a basic tenet of democracy. Bongo’s previous election victories were disputed as fraudulent by opponents and a change to voting papers just weeks before this year’s election prompted criticism.
Other African leaders should take note. In Zimbabwe — which, like Gabon, has been dominated by one ruling party for decades — Emmerson Mnangagwa was declared winner of the Aug. 23 presidential election after an electoral process that was widely criticized by international observers. But, as we’ve seen over the years, military regimes may talk about acting in the best interests of citizens but they tend to hold on to power rather than handing over to democratically elected figures with a mandate to rule.