By Owei Lakemfa
The scenario has various strands of familiarity. I mean the military coup of Wednesday, August 30, 2023 that removed Gabonese President Ali Bongo Ondimba. An elected African dictator in a well-fortified Presidential Palace finds his palace has become his prison. It is like the fish realising that the water it is swimming in is boiling.
The Praetorian Guards who swore an oath to defend him even if it means losing their lives, are the same arrow head of the coup. The coup leader is, of course, the Head of the Presidential Republican Guard who only yesterday saluted the President, and today, he is the Head of State with the President as his Prisoner-in-Chief.
The new Head of State, His Excellency, General Brice Clothaire Oligui Nguema, is of course the cousin of the deposed President. Former President Bongo and his late father, Omar Bongo, had ruled the country for 56 years, now his cousin takes over to continue the extended family line. Meanwhile, the masses who are impoverished in a country so rich, take to the streets in celebration of Bongo’s ouster. In fact, their newest boss is carried on the streets being tossed into the air. One dictator goes, another comes; heads of state come and go, but the Presidential Palace remains to welcome its latest tenant.
It is difficult at this time to say why the coup was executed, but suffice it to say, Bongo, who is now wailing in his presidential prison, is sick, has had at least a stroke which makes it difficult for him to even stand, has obviously over-stayed his welcome in office, and is a serial election rigger. It is inconceivable that a man who claims to have secured 64.27 per cent of the votes on the eve of the coup, has nobody to stand up for him. So rather than appeal to the two thirds of the nation’s voters who allegedly gave him a renewed seven-year presidential mandate, he appeals to his foreign friends to make loud “noise” on his behalf.
The succession from Bongo the President to Nguema, the cousin, reminds me of a similar situation in 1979 involving another set of Nguemas. That scenario was in Equatorial Guinea when on August 3, 1979, President Francisco Macias Nguema, in his eleventh year in power, was overthrown by his nephew, Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo. Unlike the Gabonese one we are witnessing, that in Equatorial Guinea was bloody as Macias Nguema put up a stiff resistance before he was captured trying to flee to Cameroun. He was sentenced to death and executed on September 29, 1979 by firing squad.
Macias Nguema had ruled the country without any challenge by declaring he is God. In 1993, Mbasogo also declared himself as God. Then in July 2003, about a quarter of a century after his coup, state radio informed the populace that President Mbasogo was now the “country’s God…with all power over men and things”. You will consider this lunacy, but there are many African leaders that are on the verge of lunacy otherwise, how can a man steal so much like Mobutu Seseseko did in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Bongo in Gabon, that people wonder who was richer, the President or the country?
The reaction of the international community was also predictable: condemnation of the coup. The European Union went further to say its foreign ministers meeting Spain would discuss the Gabonese coup and a similar one on July 26, in Niger to fashion out a response. What exactly is their business? This is the same club whose members colonised Africa, are exploiting it, making development virtually impossible, and coups on the continent, attractive.
The African Union, AU, which like most of Europe refused to condemn the coup in Chad, has condemned the one in Gabon. Perhaps what the AU and the Economic Community of West African States, ECOWAS, need to do is not so much to bemoan the spate of military coups in Africa which include those of Egypt, Sudan, Mali, Burkina Faso, Guinea, Chad, Niger and now, Gabon, but to take steps to stop new ones.
First, it will be wishful thinking that there would be no new coups on the continent, and it will be myopic not to see that some countries may be ripe for coups. Who would be surprised if a coup uproots Cameroun’s Paul Biya who has been in power for 41 years, is visibly sick, would not allow open elections, represses opposition, throws perceived enemies into prison and is grossly incompetent as a leader?
I will not be surprised if a coup removes Alassane Ouattara of Cote d’Ivoire who was imposed as President by the bayonets of French soldiers on December 4, 2010. After the constitutional two terms in office, he changed the constitution to give himself a third term, killed dozens of his countrymen who protested his coup against the country’s constitution, and awarded himself 94 per cent of the October 2020 votes.
I will not be shocked if Oatara’s side- kick, Macky Sall of Senegal who was forced to back down from attempts to impose himself as the unconstitutional third term President only after shedding the blood of the innocent, leads his country to the coup path. If this were to happen, a main regret I will have is that Senegal, the only country in West Africa that has never been ruled by the military, would have joined the coup circle.
We may shout against coups, but democracy would be unsustainable if it does not translate to dividends for the people and does not lead to development. It is only if it does, and the people can assert their sovereignty over all powers, that the citizenry would be willing to defend democracy if it comes under attack.
To me, the main challenge the AU has is to re-assess a system of democracy which emphasises elections that are almost always flawed, in which the winner takes all, the poor is repressed, minorities are grinded into the dust and the people have no power or sovereignty over those in government. Serious peoples have their own system of democracy that takes into consideration their culture and tradition, peculiarities and interests.
We need a democratic system in which the power of the state cannot subjugate the power of the people. We need to work out and build an African Democracy just as Europeans and their North American first cousins established Western Democracy and the Chinese conceptualised their democracy or socialism with “Chinese characteristics”.
We should not forget the 1962 admonition of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy that: “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.”