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Military Coup in Gabon Seen as Part of Broader Revolt Against France & Neo-Colonialism in Africa

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Military leaders in Gabon seized power on Wednesday shortly after reigning President Ali Bongo had been named the winner of last week’s contested election. Bongo and his family have led the country for close to 60 years, during which they have been accused of enriching themselves at the expense of the country. The military junta announced General Brice Oligui Nguema would serve as transitional leader in what is the latest military coup in a former French colony, joining recent power shifts in Niger, Mali, Guinea, Burkina Faso and Chad. “The independence of Gabon has never been real,” says Thomas Deltombe, French journalist and expert on the French African empire. “I think we might be witnessing a second independence, a new decolonization process.” We also speak with Daniel Mengara, a professor of French and Francophone studies and founder of the exiled opposition movement Bongo Must Leave, which he continues to head. “This is a rare opportunity for the Gabonese people to engage in national dialogue,” says Mengara, who warns that the intentions of the coup leaders are still unclear.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: We begin today’s show in the Central African country of Gabon, where military leaders seized power on Wednesday from President Ali Bongo, whose family had ruled the oil-rich former French colony for more than 50 years. The coup occurred shortly after Bongo had been named the winner of Saturday’s contested election. The military junta has announced General Brice Oligui Nguema would serve as transitional leader.

COL. ULRICH MANFOUMBI MANFOUMBI: [translated] All of the commanders-in-chief and chiefs of staff, as well as the generals in the second section of the Gabonese Republic, were present for the meeting. General Brice Oligui Nguema was unanimously appointed chairman of the committee for the transition and restoration of institutions, president of the transition.

AMY GOODMAN: President Ali Bongo remains under house arrest. He pleaded for help in a video that aired Wednesday.

ALI BONGO ONDIMBA: I’m Ali Bongo Ondimba, president of Gabon. And I am to send a message to all the friends that we have all over the world to tell them to make noise, to make noise, for the people here have arrested me and my family. My son is somewhere, my wife is another place, and I’m at the residence. Right now I’m in the residence and nothing happening. Nothing is happening. I don’t know what’s — what’s going on. So, I’m calling you to make noise, to make noise, to make noise, really.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Ali Bongo and his family have long been accused of enriching themselves at the expense of the country. The ousted president’s father, Omar Bongo, ruled Gabon from 1967 to his death in 2009, when Ali Bongo was elected to his first term. In 2007, a probe by French police revealed the Bongo family had 39 properties in France and 70 bank accounts. Both Omar and Ali Bongo were close allies to France and the United States. Ali Bongo met with President Biden at the White House last year.

The coup in Gabon comes just weeks after a military coup in Niger, another former French colony. In recent years, there have also been coups in Mali, Guinea, Burkina Faso and Chad. On Wednesday, the United Nations and the African Union condemned the coup.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re joined now by two guests. Joining us from France is Thomas Deltombe. He’s a French journalist and essayist. He edited a book titled A History of Françafrique: The Empire That Does Not Want to Die. That’s the title translated from French. In New York, Daniel Mengara joins us, professor of French and Francophone studies in the Department of World Languages and Cultures at Montclair State University. He’s the author of Gabon in Danger, the title translated from the French. In 1998, Mengara created the exiled opposition movement Bongo Must Leave, which he continues to lead.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Daniel Mengara, we thank you so much for being with us. We’re going to begin with you. Can you explain what has just taken place in your country?

DANIEL MENGARA: Well, first of all, thank you for having me.

Now, I think that I heard in your segments that the international community was condemning what was going on in Gabon, especially the U.N. and the African Union. I’m actually surprised, because I believe these are the types of coups that actually must be supported, because they’re undoing what I might call the rape of a nation.

Gabon has been ruled for 56 years by the same family and the same regime. I don’t know if people can imagine the scope of what we’re talking about here. Omar Bongo came to power in 1967. He ruled for 42 years. And when he died in 2009, his son took over and has now ruled for 14 years. What that means is that Gabon is today one of only two republics — and I mean non-monarchical republics — to have been ruled for 56 years by the same family and the same regime. And for Americans who are listening here today, 56 years is equal to nine American presidents under Omar Bongo from 1963, Lyndon Johnson, to Barack Obama.

And so, the Bongo family has ruled without regard for democracy. All the elections in Gabon have been stolen. And I think that the coup is actually a restitutive coup, in a sense that it’s actually restituting today Gabonese nation a voice, a voice that will allow them now, perhaps, through dialogue, to rebuild, after 56 years of what I might call a disaster.

And so, I tend to believe that we should support the coup leaders in Gabon. This is the type of coup that we should support, because it is the result of — it is, in fact, a reaction to the fact that, once more, Ali Bongo, the Bongo family, tried to steal an election. And for once in Gabonese history, well, the military stepped in and have now allowed for the possibility of democratic change in Gabon, if we’re able to negotiate a peaceful resolution to the crisis.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, Daniel Mengara, you’ve said that the coup should be supported by the international community, and we’ve seen some footage of people in Libreville, the capital, celebrating the coup. But if you could explain, you know, who is behind the coup, what kind of relationship did the Gabonese military have with Bongo, and the fact that there was already an attempted coup in 2019? What happened then?

DANIEL MENGARA: Well, we know that there has been general discontent in Gabon, you know, by the Bongo family. Now, Commander Brice Oligui Nguema, who took over as interim president now, certainly is part of what we call the presidential guard. Traditionally, this is the guard that has been protective of the president. That’s like — in Gabon, at least historically, that’s been more like a personal guard to protect a dictator. So, the regular Army in Gabon has no power, no armament that would actually allow it to serve, you know, as a republican army. And in this sense, the guard of Bongo has been usually perceived as complicit, you know, protective of the regime. And so, even Commander Oligui himself, you know, has been accused by the Gabonese people of having been behind some of the repressions that have gone on over the Bongo regime.

But today we do believe that despite all that, their ability to now question the Bongo regime themselves and to decide to take over opens up new possibilities for Gabon. Now, the reaction of the people has been that — you know, in general, positive, because they are very happy that, for once, the Bongo family has been at least — at least — disabled to the point of opening up the possibility of, perhaps later on, democracy for Gabon. And I would say that, you know, if we have to lead to a simple conclusion, we do have to believe that this is a rare opportunity for the Gabonese people to engage in national dialogue that would allow for, perhaps in two years, you know, after the transition, to go into democratic rule. And that’s why I think that the international community must look at this as an opportunity for Gabon to actually enter a new era of democratic change.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, I’d like to bring in Thomas Deltombe into the conversation. Your book, the book you edited, is titled A History of Françafrique: The Empire That Does Not Want to Die. So, Thomas, if you could respond to what Daniel Mengara has said, in particular about the military in Gabon and the relationship of its military to France? France has, reportedly, a series of agreements with the militaries of many of its former colonies. It’s been 60 years — over 60 years since most of France’s African colonies have gained independence, most of which were in 1960, including Gabon. But since then, France has intervened militarily more than 50 times on the continent. So, if you could begin first by just talking about the relationship between the military and France, the Gabonese military and France?

THOMAS DELTOMBE: Yes. Thank you very much to having me on your show.

I think it’s very important to go back and to know history to understand what’s happening right now in Gabon, in particular, but in French-speaking Africa, in general. I think it’s important to know the history of what we call this Françafrique, in one word. This term, one word, sums up the extremely close relationship, the fusional relationship, that France managed to maintain with its former colony in Africa, despite or thanks to the fake independence it granted to its former colonies in 1960.

And Gabon is the extreme example of this fake independence. Maybe you know that the first head of state of Gabon was not Omar Bongo, but Léon M’ba. Léon M’ba was a guy who was nominated by the French and who refused independence. He didn’t want to have his country independent. It’s the French who forced him to accept independence. And they said to him explicitly, “Don’t worry. It’s not a true independence. We’ll give you independence. But at the same time, you will have to sign what we call cooperation agreements. So, in fact, we give you independence, freedom, with the left hand, but we’re taking it back with the right hand with these cooperation agreements.”

And these cooperation agreements are at the heart of what we see today. These cooperation agreements allowed France to maintain its military apparatus in their former colonies, to maintain the monetary — colonial monetary system beyond the independence, and to intervene militarily wherever it pleased. And, you know, there had been a first coup in Gabon in 1964, and the French intervened militarily to put Léon M’ba, this guy, Léon M’ba, back on his presidential chair. And then, immediately, they immediately began to prepare the accession to power of his vice president, Albert Bongo at this time, the future Omar Bongo, who was installed in 1967. And the presidential guard itself was trained and formed by the French militaries back in the 1960s.

So, it’s like the independence of Gabon has never been real. And we have to bear that in mind; otherwise, we can’t understand what’s happening right now.

AMY GOODMAN: And just to elaborate further on that term that’s in your title, “Françafrique,” that is a term, it also — ”fric” means sort of “money,” and so it’s like France’s piggybank, that that’s what Africa is. Is that fair to say? In addition to being one word, you know, France’s Africa, said here now with irony.

THOMAS DELTOMBE: Yeah. This Françafrique was permitted, had the goal to secure access to strategic raw materials — oil, of course, gas, uranium, manganese, gold, etc., etc. So, France could maintain its grip on its former colonies, and Gabon in particular. And because the Gabonese elite became very, very rich thanks to that Françafrican system, it could send back money to the ex-metropole, France, and to secretly finance the political scene — people from the left and people from the right — and try to influence the political life in France. And Omar Bongo was, like, very, very good at this game. And one day on the French radio, he said, “You know, France can’t do anything — can’t do harm to me, because I know so many secrets.” And among these secrets was the question of the financing of the French political scene.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Daniel Mengara, if you could talk about — respond to what Thomas said, in particular the economic conditions in Gabon, the fact that the country is extremely rich in natural resources and is one of Africa’s richest countries on a per capita basis, but most of the population is extremely poor? So, if you could talk about this fact, the Bongo family enriching itself, along with other members of the elite, and the concept of biens mal acquis? What exactly does that mean, and how does it apply in this case?

DANIEL MENGARA: Yes. So, what we’re talking really about here is the pillaging of the Gabonese economy by the Bongo family. There was, a decade ago, a documentary that was published by France 2, which is a French national — one of the French TV stations, that published a report that under Elf Gabon, which was this French company exploiting Gabonese oil, the Bongo family reserved itself 18% — 18% — of Gabonese income. Compare that to what they allocated to the Gabonese nation itself, which was just 25%. So the Bongo family took 18% and giving to Gabon only 25% of Gabonese oil income under Elf. And so, that gives you the magnitude of what we’re talking about.

I do want to go back a little bit, and I’ll come back to the economic elements in a moment, but I want to go back to the idea of the Françafrique, because when we — to understand actually why the Gabonese are very unhappy with the way the Bongos managed the economy, we have to go back to that Françafrique notion and understand that General de Gaulle, you know, with Jacques Foccart, had actually arranged for Omar Bongo to come to power in 1967, because Léon M’ba was sick in France at the time, where he actually died. But before he died, they organized an election in Gabon after modifying the Gabonese Constitution to make it look like the American style of constitution, where you have a vice president who would automatically succeed the president upon the president’s death. And that’s what happened. So Bongo came to power based on an arrangement that France actually put together to ensure that as soon as President M’ba died, Omar Bongo would succeed him.

And so, that relationship has been ongoing forever, to the point when the Gabonese, when they look at their country — and it is indeed today, you know, one of the two highest per capita incomes in Africa. You know, Equatorial Guinea and Gabon actually have the highest per capita income in continental Africa today. And so, the Bongo family have basically, through corrupt means, ransacked the Gabonese economy, to the point that the Gabonese are not seeing, really, where that money is going. Recently, in fact, during the coup, the coup leaders actually arrested some of the members of the Bongo government. And, in fact, we were surprised to find that in their own houses, they were keeping amounts such as like $7 million, the equivalent of $7 million in their houses. You know, that gives you the magnitude of the corruption in Gabon. The way the Bongo family have basically been acquiring properties around the world, expensive cars, but not much of that has been trickling down into the Gabonese people’s pockets. And I think that one of the grievances of the Gabonese lies right there in the relationship between France and the Bongo family.

AMY GOODMAN: And so, Professor Mengara, your movement is called Bongos Must Leave. Would you add to that “France must leave”? And do you think General Brice Oligui Nguema will represent something different? How do you think a transition away from the Bongos can take place?

DANIEL MENGARA: Well, that’s still a difficult question to answer right now, in the sense that you will find that some of the Gabonese today are kind of suspicious, because some of them actually think that it may be a plot by France and the Bongo regime to arrange for a fake coup that will just allow for continuity, even when the Bongos are no longer there. And so, that suspicion is there.

Now, how is that possible that we could see something evolving in a way that would make the people trust the coup leaders and at the same time imagine a reconsideration of the relationship between France and Gabon? That’s still an unknown, a question that cannot yet be answered. But I can say this: We are seeing all over Africa today discontent, especially in the French-speaking countries that were colonized by France, general discontent, where people have been linking the poverty levels in their nations, the dictatorships that have been suppressing their freedoms — they’ve been linking that to French control. And now you see, when there are demonstrations all over Africa, in at least Francophone Africa, you know, the people demonstrating with Russian flags and so on. That’s a sign that people are thinking that France is behind whatever is not going well in their nations. And so, I think that that’s still something that the Gabonese are going to have to grapple with in trying to find out if the coup leaders are indeed genuine and will try to work with the Gabonese people to allow for true democracy to, you know, settle in the country in a way that also shows them that they are totally independent from French influence.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: So, Daniel Mengara, before — sorry, before we forget, sorry, I’m going to go to Thomas Deltombe. Thomas, before we end, if you could also place this coup in the context of the ones that immediately preceded it, and in Niger, in particular, and whether you feel that things will change now in Gabon with respect to its relationship to France?

THOMAS DELTOMBE: Well, I think there’s a difference between the coup in Gabon and the coup in the Sahel, because the coup leaders in Gabon do not seem to want to exploit the so-called anti-French sentiment. They were insiders in the Bongo system. Apparently, General Oligui Nguema quite worked with both Omar Bongo and Ali Bongo and benefited financially from his position. One hypothesis is that they knew that the election that took place last Saturday made them — put them in a great danger, and they wanted to intervene before the people, before a popular revolt, to be able to save what could be saved. I don’t know what Daniel thinks about this hypothesis, but I think it is possible that they want to keep a part of the system to continue to enjoy it.

On the part of the French, and particularly the French commentators, they tend to play dumb, because they ask questions — if you watch French television, they ask questions like “How come Africans love men in uniforms so much, like in Niger and Gabon? How come they wave Russian flags? Do they like Vladimir Putin so much?” I think this paternalistic state of mind is quite ill-advised, actually, on the part of the French, because their government and their own indifference for so many years bears a heavy responsibility in what we see now.

I think we might be witnessing a second independence, a new decolonization process. And all this pro-Russian feeling in Africa might be more pragmatic than what the French commentators say. And the fact that they — I think many Africans see the military and the Russians as tools, like pragmatic tools, to get rid of long, like, autocrats and the French tutelage. And this is not incompatible with the desire to establish at last a real independence and a real democracy.

AMY GOODMAN: I’m going to have Daniel Mengara respond. And also, in the last 60 seconds that we have, where Total, the French oil company, fits into this picture?

DANIEL MENGARA: Well, the thing is that, you know, what is interesting is that we’ve actually seen some type of disengagement of, you know, at least French oil companies from Gabon. To date, it’s mostly Perenco, which is owned by a French family rather than the French government. And so, that’s the — because we actually have a penetration of the Chinese interest in Gabon now, there is also. And that makes it less of a problem in terms of where the relationships, at least the economic relationships, are going, because France is actually now not the main economic partner of Gabon. And that’s been a good thing.

And I kind of want to echo the idea that, you know, we are now at the, you might say, crossroads, yeah. That is going to open the possibility that if the coup leaders are genuine about their intent, they’re going to have to open up dialogue with the Gabonese civil society and the political class in a way that would allow for the pressures of the Gabonese population, because — and I think that’s the key. When we’re talking about French influence, it’s really about how the people react to the coup leaders and how they can pressure the coup leaders into doing the will of the people, as opposed to the will of France. And I think that, you know, the idea of a new independence for Gabon is true, in the sense that the potential is there. And I believe we could see something positive coming out of this. I believe that despite the fact that the coup leaders are part of the presidential guard, mostly, the Gabonese will be mature enough to pressurize them — to pressure them in a way that will allow for a national dialogue to occur that could actually open up the possibility of democratic change in Gabon in the near future.

AMY GOODMAN: We want to thank you both for being with us. We’re going to continue to cover this story, of course. Professor Daniel Mengara teaches French and Francophone studies at Montclair State University in New Jersey, author of Gabon in Danger, the title translated from the French. In 1998, Mengara created the exiled opposition movement Bongo Must Leave, which he continues to head. And joining us from Lille, France, thank you so much to Thomas Deltombe, French journalist and essayist, his edited book called A History of Françafrique: The Empire That Does Not Want to Die.

Coming up, Hurricane Idalia has left a trail of flooding and destruction from Florida to the Carolinas. We’ll look at the climate emergency with climate scientist Peter Kalmus, the NASA scientist who’s been arrested demanding more action on climate change. Stay with us.

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