In the Aftermath of the Gabon Coup d'État: A Brief Comparison to the Situation in the Sahel

A Familial Struggle

In the early morning of August 30, 2023 Gabon’s president Ali Bongo Ondimba was deposed in a military coup d'état. This was only days after announcing his victory in the August 26, 2023 general presidential election. This coup d'état was preceded by elections in 2009 and 2016 that were mired in increased state violence, speculation about vote rigging, and an attempted coup d'etat in 2019.

At 3:30 am on the state channel 24Gabon twelve military officers gave a live morning address at the presidential palace in Libreville. The officers proclaimed a military junta called the "Committee for the Transition and Restoration of Institutions.” The junta's spokesman cites "irresponsible, unpredictable governance" that had led to "a continuous degradation of social cohesion, risking pushing the country into chaos." The junta had also stated their commitment to restore open democratic elections.

The junta is presided by Brice Clotaire Oligui Nguema, the former head of the elite presidential guard and Ali Bongo Ondimba's cousin. The coup d'état ended the 56 year rule of the Bongo Ondimba family and the Gabonese Democratic Party.(1)

Ali Bongo Ondimba, his son Noureddin Bongo Valentin, and various government ministers and party officials were placed under arrest for the charges of treason and corruption. Since September 8th, 2023 Ali Bongo Ondimba has been allowed to leave to seek medical treatment and self-exile.

State television channels were showing a loop of images showing one of the sons of the deposed president, Noureddin Bongo Valentin, and other former young senior members of the presidential cabinet arrested on Thursday, the day of the putsch, in front of trunks, suitcases and bags filled with billions of CFA francs that had apparently been seized from their homes.

Africanews, Septemner 1, 2023

The family and their party's rule was maintained by a system of patronage through distributing petroleum and mineral profits alongside generous support from France and states in the region from skillfully intervening in various conflicts such as the Congolese Civil War. Gabon under the then-president Omar Ali Bongo would mediate in favor of his father-in-law Denis Sassou Nguesso. Gabon’s diplomacy came alongside Angola’s intervention, aid from France and Chad, armed groups such as the Former Rwandan Armed Forces, the Hutu ultra-nationalist Interahamwe militia, Mobutu loyalists, and Serbian military technicians.

The junta's president Brice Oligui Nguema has stated intentions to crack down corruption and on capitalists within the country, who have overcharged the state for their services. The decline in social conditions has led to the state to move towards making the state leaner and more authoritarian in order to maintain basic conditions for capital.

State Revenue Shortfalls

The state is rife with corruption, nepotism, and extreme poverty. Around 83% of the state's revenue comes from petroleum and manganese exploitation. The Bongo family used these industries as a slush fund in order to finance their luxurious tastes and a network of patronage. This all ensured their hand on national politics for decades. Gabon is a "middle income" petro-state and a member of OPEC. Upwards of 50% of the GDP comes from petroleum exports while wages make up less than 10% indicating the backwardness of Gabon’s export-based economy.

In the wake of Covid-19 and the War in Ukraine, OPEC quotas were tightened and oil firms were betting on high prices to persist. This has meant a sharp decline in revenues and higher prices of imported fuel. This might sound counterintuitive, but many other states in the region, such as Nigeria, who are also without domestic refineries are in the same position. However Nigeria is sort of an oddity in Africa as a state that has more direct control over oil exploitation. These are the same factors that have contributed to Nigerian president Tinubu’s inclination to intervene in the Sahel to offset the domestic situation. Tinubu had recently floated the naira and cut fuel subsidies to raise capital and decrease the ballooning inflation.

Over a third of Gabon’s population lives below the poverty line set at $5.50 a day. Gabon's unemployment is sky high with 32% of working class youths and students unemployed. 60% of workers and toilers are employed by the agricultural industry. Production in this industry remains backwards and is on the basis of the plantation system and sharecropping which utilizes tenant labor.

Now faced with what a panicked ECOWAS labeled as "contagion of autocracy", a faction within the Bongo family political elite has seized power through a coup d'état. States around the world are facing a deteriorating social situation caused by increasing imperialist tension from the ever multiplying crises. Workers and toilers have taken the brunt of these crises with declining living standards and increasing state repression. The Committee for the Transition and Restoration of Institutions annulled the August 26, 2023 election results, dissolved certain democratic institutions, instituted a curfew, cut internet access, and closed the state's international borders which had been reopened since September 2, 2022. Since January 2024 the committee has stated intentions to restore (reads: transform to increase effectiveness) democratic institutions and to have military missions with the USA.

The International Dimension Of Capitalist Crisis

The junta was condemned by the Nigerian-led regional imperialist grouping ECOWAS. In their public statement they initially raised the alarm on "contagious autocracy" citing the "coup belt" across the Sahel. The Economic Community of Central African States had also condemned the coup d'état in support for what they've qualified as restoring the constitutional order. The European Union's foreign policy chief Josep Borrell states that the coup will increase instability in Africa and be a "big issue for Europe." The French government's spokesman Oliver Véran condemned the coup and called for the annulled election results to be respected.

Since January 2024, Gabon's military junta has been trying to restore relations with the west. This has included military partnerships with the US, participating in the COP28 conference and so on. Gabon appears to be doing more of a balancing act of sorts and going on with the “multi-vector” current that many other states are applying to settling the deteriorating social situation. The military junta has also been winning over the west by exclaiming a commitment to democracy (reads: a better functioning state). Ali Bongo Ondimba has been in declining health and unpopular for some time and was beginning to be seen as more of a liability.

France had the most to lose in Gabon, which is a part of the CFA (African Financial Community) franc community, the value of which is fixed at 656 to the euro. The monetary system is an instrument for French imperialism to ensure repayment on loans from various African states. The state, however, won't drop the CFA franc, this hasn't even happened across the Sahel. True, it's a risk that France can cut them off but having the same currency as neighboring states is beneficial for importing commodities.

France is still Gabon's largest import partner and provides generous economic, military and political support for them. France maintains 400 troops stationed in Gabon to protect mines, including the French mining concern Eramet(2) which operates the world's largest manganese mine. The mineral is of strategic importance for the battery, steel, and fertilizer industry. Gabon, unlike the states in the Sahel, haven't called for France or other western imperialists to vacate, neither are they planning on pulling out of regional blocks. A key difference is that there are no major ethno-separatist conflicts in Gabon. In many of the Sahelian states such as Niger the generals grew tired of the government's strategy in fighting conflicts with Islamist and various separatist groups. They pulled out of regional groups to concentrate their forces to ward off interventions, but also to prepare for a bloodier offensive.

The End of History?

The region has long been torn apart by imperialist machinations that intensified with the collapse of the USSR and COMECON. US imperialism was able to bring states in Southern, Eastern and Central Africa that were formerly in Russia's orbit into their own orbit. This has also shaken French imperialism in the region for decades. The greatest example of this are the Rwandan Civil War, the two Congo Wars and the various conflicts in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) known as the Kivu conflict.

Commercial Wars Leading to Shooting Wars

China is Gabon's largest export partner, importing 22% of extracted manganese ore and managing half of Gabon's timber exports. Gabon's crude oil and timber exports to China represent only around 1 and 1.3% of China's timber and petroleum demand. China has Gabon on its radar as a place to export low-profit, basic industries in order to take advantage of the lower wages there. Gabon signed on to the Belt and Road Initiative in 2018, it has also been identified as a potential location for the construction of a Chinese military base. However, even with China’s allies in Southern Africa it'll be difficult to surpass the influence of the USA and other Western imperialists. It's a similar story with early speculations about Russia's Wagner Group’s involvement or support for the military junta. They had no influence in Gabon or really any way for Russian interest to be pursued there. This informed Russia's stance on supporting a quick and peaceful resolution.

The US has an expanding interest in the region due to the strategic importance of rare earth minerals used in the production of batteries and chips. The USA and Saudi Arabia have joined a venture to extract rare earth minerals in Gabon's Southern neighbor the DRC, along with a few other African states. The arrangement reserves much of the extracted lithium, cobalt and other rare earth minerals for US firms. China and the USA have been ramping up imperialist tension to prevent each other from access to strategic raw materials needed in batteries, chips, solar panels, etc.

Champagne Rivers For Capitalists, Poverty and Repression for Workers, or Communism?

Gabon boasts as being the African country with the highest per capita consumption of champagne. All while there's less miles of paved roads than oil pipelines. The working class and toilers in capital's periphery are facing an ever-increasing amount of crises brought on by the stagnation of the capitalist economy. The crisis of profitability has already caused multiple others such as the brutal effects of Covid-19, the War in Ukraine, and the still expanding conflict in the Middle East and Red Sea.

The ever-multiplying crises are what caused the factional conflict within the Bongo family. Politicians are trying to find ways to temporarily alleviate these conditions. In the period following the coup d'état, Cameroon's president Paul Biya, who's been in power for 40 years reshuffled the military leadership. Rwandan president Paul Kagame "accepted the resignation" of a dozen generals and more than 80 military officers and intensified border conflicts with the DRC. While Burundi’s president and former secretary of the CNDD-FDD(3) General Évariste Ndayishimiye has been cracking down on political dissidents, along with preparing against cross-border raids or invasions from rebel groups originating from the DRC, and even an invasion by Rwanda all while allegedly still supporting Hutu militias in the region.

The rule of the Gabonese Democratic Party was already brutal and received political support from France. It's likely that the social situation has caused changes in the requirements of the state. Imperialists have become more desperate to overcome the crisis using national solutions, driving the narrative towards military conflicts and generalized war.

The working class has no interest in either faction. There's only precarity and repression from either democratic rule or the military junta’s rule over Gabon, and the march towards imperialist conflict. What the working class requires is the subjective consciousness of the necessity to overthrow the capitalist state. This can only be developed through the class struggle and the development of a political organization to reflect on the lessons of the working class movement.

Internationalist Workers Group


Photo: Υπουργείο Εξωτερικών, CC BY-SA 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

(1) The Gabonese Democratic Party was the dominant political party in Gabonese politics from 1961 to 2023.

(2) Eramet is a French multinational mining and metallurgy company.

(3) The National Council for the Defense of Democracy (CNDD) is the political wing while the Forces for the Defense of Democracy (FDD) is the party’s paramilitary wing. They're a populist Hutu interest party and were the main anti-government faction in the Burundi civil war and they fought in both Congo Wars. Allegedly since gaining state power they've continued to support militias operating in the Kivu war such as most recently against the M23 Movement.

Sunday, April 7, 2024