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Political Turpitude in West Africa: A Wave of Military Coups

Military coups have been a recurring nightmare for several West African countries, upsetting the political landscape across the continent. Gabon has just joined the ranks of Chad, Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger in this terrible list. Nine West and Central African countries have experienced military coups or attempted coups in the last three years.

Gabon's Unprecedented Crisis

The latest upheaval struck Gabon, a Central African nation renowned for its oil wealth, on August 30th. Just a month after a military coup rocked western Niger, General Brice Oligui Nguema, the head of the country's Republican Guard, declared himself the provisional president. This bold move was accompanied by the dismissal of President Ali Bongo, who had been certified as the winner of the recent disputed elections by the Election Commission.
Gabon's history had never witnessed a military coup before this shocking incident. For 56 years, the country had been under the rule of a single family dynasty. The Gabonese military claims it acted to protect democracy, blaming election rigging as the fundamental cause of the conflict.

A Regional Crisis

Gabon is still experiencing volatility. Burkina Faso experienced two coups in 2022, followed by the demise of Mohamed Bazoum in Niger and Ali Bongo in Gabon. During this turbulent period, coup attempts failed in Guinea Bissau, Gambia, and the island nation of Sao Tome and Principe.

This new wave of coups recalls the turbulent period in which most African nations earned independence in the 1960s and 1970s. Back then, approximately 200 coups rocked the region, some short-lived, others enduring.

European Interference: A Root Cause?

Many analysts point to the interference of numerous European countries as a root cause of Africa's enduring political and economic struggles. The familiar pattern of coups seems to be a consequence of this interference. François Guillem, a researcher at the Africa Center of the France Institute, notes that the coup style in Niger and Gabon bears striking similarities, often involving forces responsible for the President's protection.

France maintains substantial influence in African countries such as Niger, Mali, and Burkina Faso, according to political researcher Thomas Borrell. Instability is made worse by the populace's and political parties' distrust of French meddling. One significant instance is Gabon, where a long-standing family supports corruption that mostly involves French institutions.

The Paradox of Democracy Promotion

Critics argue that while Western governments, including France, condemn these coups for disturbing the democratic process, they have often turned a blind eye to rigged elections that kept these governments in power for years. Many African politicians and governments are plagued by corruption and incompetence, providing Western powers with an opportunity to legitimize their interference, as seen in Libya's devastating case.

This raises a pertinent question: Why do Western democracy promoters believe Africa's democratization requires the assistance of external superpowers when countries like the United States, France, the United Kingdom, and Italy established democracy without foreign intervention? African governments largely operate on traditional systems rooted in the norms, values, and beliefs of their people. Western interference, unsuccessful as it may be, seeks to exert control over these nations.

The Return of Coups

From 1960 to 2000, Africa witnessed an average of four coups each year. While coups became less frequent after 2000, recent years have seen a resurgence in military takeovers. Mali experienced a coup in 2020, followed by coups in Chad, Mali, Guinea, Sudan, and Niger in 2021. 2022 saw five coup attempts, with two succeeding in Burkina Faso. Out of the nine coups so far, only one has failed.

Sudan leads the unfortunate tally with the most coup attempts, at 17, six of which succeeded. President Omar al-Bashir's ousting in 2019, amid mass protests, was one of these successful coups. Notably, Africa's most populous country, Nigeria, with its oil riches, has a history of military takeovers dating from 1966 to 1993, culminating in General Sani Abacha's military dictatorship until 1999. However, the country has remained coup-free since.

A Vicious Cycle

The region now finds itself trapped in a vicious cycle of coups, driven by economic instability, public suffering, disproportionate foreign influence, corruption among the ruling elite, and a lack of good governance. Ironically, the military rulers who seize power often struggle to address these issues effectively, potentially inviting foreign intervention.

Popular uprisings against long-standing dictators, according to Ndubuisi Christian, a researcher at South Africa's University of KwaZulu-Natal, frequently lead to coups, aggravating the cycle of instability.

A Persistent Dilemma

Even after years of independence, West African countries in the Sahel and Sub-Saharan regions have struggled to develop their economic foundations. Their reliance on foreign aid remains pronounced, with the United States and European nations funneling aid through ECOAS and the African Union. Following coups, these alliances often suspend the country's membership, as seen with Niger. The military junta, despite the possibility of suffering if the economic crisis intensifies, seems unconcerned, believing they have the backing of ordinary people. Whether the masses will rally behind the junta or turn against foreign powers remains uncertain, but the junta holds steadfast in their belief of popular support.

In this complex and troubling situation, the United Nations emphasizes that there is no alternative to the democratic process for resolving the continent's intricate crisis. As West Africa grapples with political turbulence, the path to stability and true democracy remains elusive.

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