On Wednesday, a military coup in Gabon sent shockwaves through the international community and further highlighted the decline of democracy in Africa. The coup was triggered by allegations of massive rigging in the recent presidential election, which saw the incumbent, Ali Bongo, retain power after 14 years in office. Military officers seized control and installed General Brice Nguema, head of the Republican Guard responsible for presidential security and a relative of the deposed Bongo, as the new head of state. Bongo was placed under house arrest, while his son, Bongo Ondimba, was arrested on charges of treason.
This coup in Gabon is the latest in a series of alarming events that have raised concerns about the future of democracy in Africa. In July, there was a military coup in Niger Republic, and this latest development serves as a dire warning. The international community has swiftly condemned the coup in Libreville. Bola Tinubu, the Chairman of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and Nigeria’s President, called it a “contagious autocracy” that is spreading across the continent. The African Union, European Union, and United Nations all joined in demanding the reinstatement of Ali Bongo. The Commonwealth also expressed deep concern over the coup.
Military dictatorships are a deviation from the norm and often prove to be more corrupt than the civilian governments they overthrow. Unfortunately, this coup in Gabon is the seventh in Africa in the past three years, confirming the UN Secretary-General’s recent warning about an “epidemic” of coups on the continent. Since 2020, soldiers have successfully ousted democratic governments or other military juntas in countries such as Chad, Mali, Burkina Faso, Sudan, Guinea, Niger, and now Gabon.
This repeated disregard for democracy places Africa at a critical crossroads. However, democracy remains the best form of government that guarantees freedoms, inclusivity, and socio-economic growth, as evidenced by Western democracies and emerging economies like South Korea and Taiwan.
Gabon has been plagued with political instability for years. Ali Bongo’s father, Omar, assumed power in 1967 and ruled for nearly 42 years until his death in 2009. Ali succeeded him and faced allegations of corruption and electoral fraud. In 2017, he was investigated for owning multiple properties and luxury cars in France. Despite being an oil-rich country with a population of 2.3 million, corruption and bad governance continue to hinder progress, leading to an environment conducive to coups.
However, Gabon is not an isolated case. Sit-tight leaders across Africa are tarnishing the reputation of governance. Leaders like Theodore Mbasogo in Equatorial Guinea (44 years in power), Paul Biya in Cameroon (42 years), Dennis Sassou in the Republic of Congo (36 years), Yoweri Museveni in Uganda (35 years), Isaias Afwerki in Eritrea (30 years), and Paul Kagame in Rwanda (23 years) have overstayed their welcome. The late Robert Mugabe clung onto power in Zimbabwe for decades by rigging elections until he was eventually ousted by a coup. This pattern creates a breeding ground for violent regime changes across the continent.
Africa urgently needs a shift away from these dictatorial tendencies. Incumbent leaders must conduct credible elections, refrain from altering the constitution to extend their terms, and govern with integrity. Learning from mature democracies and embracing democratic principles is crucial for African countries to rid themselves of dictators and propel their development forward.