By Raphael Parens and Marcel Plichta
(FPRI) — The coup in Gabon is a stark reminder across Central Africa that no leader is safe. President Ali Bongo Ondimba, an aging and sick president, has been ousted by the military with a great deal of popular support. General Brice Oligui Nguema led a military junta that took power on August 31, 2023. President Ali Bongo reportedly left Gabon on September 6th after a period of house arrest.
Commentators are quick to connect events in Gabon with the rash of coups in Sahelian West Africa. In the past 2 years, governments in Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger have been overthrown by their militaries. However, West and Central Africa are remarkably different, and coups in the latter are a dangerous and new trend for regional and African stability.
Central Africa’s Francophone “dinosaur regimes” appear particularly vulnerable today. The age of many leaders in the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS) region is an immediate concern—Bongo was one of the region’s younger leaders at 64. Presidents Paul Biya of Cameroon (90), Denis Sassou-Nguesso of Congo (79), and Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo of Equatorial Guinea (80) have all served long terms in office. Each leader faces a different set of security challenges across the region, including terrorism, insurgencies, dangerous diseases, and refugee flows. Yet, the increasing rate of cross-border violence and frequent coups in their French-speaking, Sahelian neighbors, particularly Niger, Burkina Faso, Guinea, and Mali are likely worrying all.
Bongo’s overthrow could create cascading effects across Central Africa that exacerbate border insecurity, encourage competition among internal security services, and make room for new power brokers. While the increase in jihadism across West Africa is worrying to Central African leaders and militaries, this fear functions as more of an excuse for coup behavior than anything else. Instead, interstate rivalries, ethno-linguistic conflict, and family intrigue are the driving force behind such potential coups.
A coup in Gabon directly affects its neighbors. Gabon borders three “dinosaur regimes:” the Republic of Congo, Cameroon, and Equatorial Guinea. Their leaders—Presidents Sassou-Nguesso, Obiang, and Biya—are the three longest-ruling presidents in Africa. Sudden shocks can cause simmering tensions to boil over. Central Africa’s heavily forested borders are porous—creating refugee, pathogen, and potential military threats. External problems can exacerbate internal pressures in the form of coups, cross-border conflict, or new disease outbreaks.
With so much at stake, it’s little wonder that Central African leaders reacted quickly to Bongo’s ouster. Sassou-Nguesso and João Laurenço of Angola met in Oyo, Congo to condemn the seizure of power in Gabon, while also calling for a leadership summit of ECCAS.
This alliance comes despite a long history of up-and-down relations and palace intrigue amongst the royal families of Congo and Gabon. Sassou-Nguesso’s daughter, Édith Lucie Bongo Ondimba, was married to the elder President Omar Bongo and died in 2009. Their son, former President Ali Bongo’s half-brother, Omar Denis Junior Bongo, allegedly maintains close ties to his grandfather, Sassou-Nguesso. Many, including Bongo’s wife, believed him to be a potential rival of former President Ali Bongo, although relations appeared to be thawing this year. Nguesso’s willingness to support Bongo’s continued presidency speaks to a fear of instability in the region—leading the presidents of Congo and Angola to re-form a historical alliance.
Gen. Brice Oligui Nguema, Gabon’s junta leader, maintained close relations with the Bongo family, and his personal history must not be ignored within a greater discussion of Central African court politics. Allegedly a cousin of President Omar Bongo, Nguema faithfully served President Omar Bongo as an aide-de-camp until the latter’s death in 2009. He was then effectively sidelined for ten years under Ali Bongo with defense attaché deployments to Morocco and Senegal. After returning in 2018, he rose in the military to become the “keystone of Gabon’s security forces,” the commander of the elite Republican Guard. He has been referred to as a prudent commander, one concerned both with consensus and the livelihood of his troops.
Considering junta leader Nguema’s relationship to the Bongo family and the timing of the coup after dubious election results, Joseph Siegle of the Africa Center argues that the coup was planned in advance. Further, he argues that grievances with Bongo’s rule or the election procedures are no excuse for a military coup. Others argue that the coup was a power play by other members of the extended Bongo family to regain power from the Ali Bongo clan. Regardless, concerns surrounding jihadism are far removed from the elite politics and balancing acts of Congo, Gabon, and Equatorial Guinea.
West and Central Africa: Francophone Worlds Apart
Central African states are not in the same position as their neighbors to the north and west. Major regime changes in Guinea, Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger were motivated by a mix of military exasperation with civilian governance, parochial interests from key officers, and skepticism about France, the United Nations, and the European Union as competent security partners in the fight against terrorism. For Mali, discontent manifested in a breakdown in ties with France and a strong partnership with Russia. For others, the juntas are in the midst of re-evaluating their relationship with the international community and in the case of Niger, the United States.
Central Africa has a particular history of multipolarity and geopolitical balancing that is distinct from West Africa. Angola, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Cameroon, and Republic of Congo have a history of balancing in their infrastructure projects, military acquisitions, and international policy that stretches back to the Cold War and decolonization. All four hosted communist regimes or revolutionary movements at different times, including such notable figures as Che Guevara. Meanwhile, with notable exceptions such as Mali, West Africa has historically aligned more strongly with France, particularly on military policy, which may today be a cause of a reformation-style movement against France.
Jihadist threats are a concern to militaries in Central Africa, but their status as a threat to regional stability has been overexaggerated. West and East African security issues are conflated with Central Africa’s, despite Central Africa’s heavily Christian populations. With the exception of Cameroon and DRC, Central African states have very small Sunni Muslim populations and the likelihood of jihadist activity remains relatively low.
Incoming jihadist groups like Boko Haram, Islamic State, or al Qaeda would find little popular support and likely open hostility from populations south of Cameroon. While Cameroon sees a high level of instability and violence along religious and linguistic divides, these tensions have yet to affect Biya’s long-term hold on power. Instead, regional conflict or juntas in Gabon could spark unrest in Yaoundé.
While jihadist activity continues in eastern DRC and the Cabo Delgado region of Mozambique, these conflicts exist on the periphery of Central Africa. DRC’s Muslim population is small, and concentrated in the country’s far east. Ethnicity, rather than religion, is the primary driver of conflict in this region, particularly among Hutu and Tutsi populations. DRC’s ongoing proxy wars among armed groups backed by Uganda, Rwanda, and Burundi reflect this legacy of ethnic conflict, particularly the Rwandan genocide. These conflicts represent a much greater threat to regional stability, as they affect DRC’s upcoming December 2023 presidential elections, which could be exacerbated by tensions to the west of Kinshasa.
The Central African Republic’s (CAR) response to interethnic and political conflict has been harsh and reliant on external security forces, particularly the Wagner Group. Wagner Group has provided relative stability for President Faustin-Archange Touadera’s regime, albeit due to widespread human rights violations. In exchange, Wagner affiliates now control many of CAR’s key mining, forestry, and production industries. After the death of Wagner leader Yevgeny Prigozhin, Wagner Group’s regime protection guarantee in CAR is no longer assured. Now, combined with regional instability, Touadera may also have reason to worry for his own regime. This perhaps explains his decision to attempt to mediate the Gabonese leadership dispute.
Central Africa’s receptivity to Russian contractors like the Wagner Group is lower than West Africa. Contracting Wagner or another Russian security contractor could immediately backfire on the interim Gabonese government. Wagner Group is leaderless after the death of Yevgeny Prigozhin last week, and it’s unclear whether the Russian state will provide the airlift capabilities for Wagner to move so far away from its current bases in Mali, CAR, and Libya. The Niger junta government has already contacted Wagner for its support after the country’s recent coup, but Wagner has yet to send forces to Niamey.
However, Gabon does offer significant natural resources for Wagner to exploit, including manganese, diamonds, gold, and uranium. Yet, the introduction of Wagner Group in central Africa could precipitate a regional response. Sassou-Nguesso was highly critical of a recent news story that suggested Wagner Group might come to Congo, threatening to sue the writer of the story. Such a response suggests that there is a very real fear of Central African coups under Wagner Group influence, as well as concerns regarding Wagner’s domination of CAR’s economy.
Cascading Coups: A Legitimate Fear?
A coup in Central Africa is a new and worrying development for the African Union, ECCAS, the European Union, and the United Nations precisely because it looks so different from military juntas in West Africa. Aging presidents, shifting court politics, and re-building alliances could be particularly problematic in a region that has seen relative stability for several decades, yet one that saw frequent coups and widespread proxy combat during the Cold War.
American and French security policy planners must understand that aging presidents facing external security threats and internal crises of legitimacy can have huge ramifications for regional politics and overall African security. Conversely, these threats also create new avenues for prudent Western foreign policy, despite the overall pattern of French retrenchment in the Sahel. The United States, Germany, and others can reinforce their arguments that cronyism and democratic backsliding lead to popular support for coups and juntas. American and European diplomatic missions should engage with leaders on terrorism on the one hand, and encourage stable, non-military governance on the other. Luckily, in Central Africa, these oft-conflicting priorities are less connected than in West Africa.
This crisis also presents an opportunity to re-evaluate how to support partner security services without increasing the risk that they empower the next coup leader. The alternative—political violence, mounting insecurity, and a rash of jihadism—can be limited much more easily now than after future coups.
Threats to the Environment
Beyond traditional security concerns, leaders must consider Central Africa’s contribution to world health and environmental security. The Congo Rainforest, home to a key carbon sink, is already under threat and ongoing instability could only make this worse. This rainforest’s peat bogs and forest hold roughly 29 billion tons of carbon, the equivalent of three years of worldwide carbon production, and takes in an additional 1.5 billion tons every year.
Protecting these forests should be a critical international security priority across the world because irreversible harm is an insurgency, political crisis, or proxy conflict away. In CAR, Touadera traded sensitive forestry sites to Wagner shell company Wood International Group (W.IG., formerly Bois Rouge) in the country’s southern region in exchange for Wagner’s security assistance and regime security. WIG already appears to have committed environmental violations by allegedly overcuttingtrees and covertly shipping wood through Cameroon. A variety of international corporations, not just Wagner Group, would likely be interested in valuable forestry contracts in these countries, regardless of the threats to the environment. Alongside questions of political legitimacy and stability, African and Western policymakers need to prioritize the environmental effects that instability and violence might have on one of the “lungs” of the world.
Even if jihadism isn’t the prime concern of Central African governments, the consequences of sudden shocks could be severe. Despite the undemocratic nature of many elections in Central Africa, military coups present a far worse conundrum. Beyond their inherently illiberal nature, coups in Central Africa could lead to refugee crises, ethno-linguistic violence, and interstate conflicts amongst warring elites. With the international community and African Union focused on crises in West Africa and the Horn, Central Africa may be left in the lurch. The silver lining is that a small increase in investment—particularly in human capital and diplomatic planning devoted to the region—could have an outsized impact in this oft-overlooked region.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.
About the authors:
- Raphael Parens is a Fellow in the Foreign Policy Research Institute’s Eurasia Program and an international security researcher focused on Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. He specializes in small armed groups and NATO modernization processes.
- Marcel Plichta is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of St. Andrews and a former analyst at the US Department of Defense. He has written on Wagner and US-Africa policy for Foreign Policy, Newsweek, and Lawfare. All views are his own.
Source: This article was published by FPRI