What in the Africa is going on?
And what might the United States have to do with it?
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There’s been another coup in Africa: this one in Gabon, an oil-producing nation—an OPEC member—in the middle of the continent’s west coast. On Thursday, military officers announced they had put the dynastic president Ali Bongo, whose family has ruled the country since shortly after its 1960 independence from France, under arrest following a disputed re-election. The head of the presidential guard, Gen. Brice Oligui Nguema, has apparently emerged as transitional (or perhaps “transitional”) president. (Nugema is widely reported to be a cousin—sometimes styled as “distant cousin”—of the leader he deposed.)
Gabon’s is at least the ninth successful coup d’état in Sub-Saharan Africa since 2019. Previous editions were in Sudan, Mali, Mali (again), Guinea, Sudan (again), Burkina Faso, Burkina Faso (again), and—just over a month ago—in Niger. (There was also a failed coup in Guinea-Bissau and a self-coup north of the Sahara in Tunisia.) A previous coup attempt had rocked Gabon in 2019, following another shady election, when Ali Bongo was out of the country receiving medical treatment in the aftermath of a stroke.
If you plot the coup countries out on a map, a pattern emerges:
That big band of countries is centered on the Sahel—the sometimes-arid, sometimes-lush biome that acts as a sort of bedskirt to the Sahara desert to its north. The Sahel has several things all going on at once: a still-hot Islamist insurgency; imperial competition between U.S., Russia, and China (and to a lesser extent France); and a host of exploitable resources, from fresh-water aquifers to oil, coltan, lithium, and rare earth minerals; to uranium.1 It’s a combination ripe for instability and conflict.
Gabon, tucked to the south, is the geographic outlier. But it is in line with almost all of them on another front: all the successful recent coups, other than Sudan—including the recent ones in Niger and Gabon—took place in former French colonies, which gained their independence in the wave of postwar French decolonization that reached its peak in 1960. Gabon in particular has been regarded for decades as a stalwart ally of its former imperial master; Ali Bongo’s father, Omar, was installed in 1967 by French President Charles De Gaulle and his adviser-on-Africa, the Guadaloupean béké Jacques Foccart. Since succeeding him in a postmortem election in 2009, Ali had been known as the most senior and loyal leader of what France still insists on calling its Françafrique. Its currency is still the CFA franc, issued by the French-founded Banque des États de l'Afrique Centrale; Ali’s wife, Sylvia, was born in Paris.
The ties seemed to be fraying in recent years, as Chinese investment has started displacing the French. According to a recent article in The Diplomat, the People’s Republic is now by far Gabon’s largest trading partner, exporting billions of dollars worth of oil, manganese ore, and sawn wood. China is especially dependent on Gabon for manganese ore, an essential material in steel and battery production, as well as agriculture; about 22 percent of China’s maganese comes from Gabon. France is no longer a significant buyer of Gabonese oil. It used to import significant amounts of uranium from the country, but the country’s last known uranium mine was tapped out by 1999. (France still gets a lot of uranium from Niger, prompting concerns from French leaders about the implications for both its energy and nuclear weapons sectors in the wake of that country’s coup.)
But what about the most powerful empire of them all? Quietly—at least as far as the American public is concerned—as the wars in the Middle East and Central Asia have wound down, Africa
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