France faces a reckoning amid wave of West African coups


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In West Africa, the dominoes keep falling. Barely more than a month has passed since the presidential guard in Niger toppled the country’s democratically elected government, triggering a tense standoff between a usurping junta and the international community. Then, this week, the top brass in Gabon unseated the country’s long-ruling President Ali Bongo in the wake of a controversial election. The ouster of the Gabonese president, who is currently believed to be under house arrest, marked the seventh coup in the region in the space of three years — including putsches in Mali, Burkina Faso and Guinea. The wave of military coups has led to widespread hand-wringing that a form of political “contagion” risks destabilizing a whole swath of the African continent.

“My fear has been confirmed in Gabon that copycats will start doing the same thing until it is stopped,” Nigerian President Bola Ahmed Tinubu, who chairs ECOWAS, West Africa’s main regional body, said Thursday.

There are many contextual differences between the various putsches, but they share an apparent and inescapable common denominator: the prevalence of anti-French sentiment driving a rejection of the political status quo. In much of West Africa — and in all the countries in the region that experienced these recent anti-democratic takeovers — France is the old colonial power. The juntas that have swept aside the previous regimes have weaponized resentment of Paris’s deep and complicated imperial legacy, much to the opportunistic glee of Russia, which has offered both rhetorical and, in some instances, substantive support to the coup-plotting regimes.

That was the case in Burkina Faso and Mali, where French peacekeepers were compelled to withdraw after the juntas made it clear their presence was unwanted. And in Niger, long the centerpiece of France’s counterterrorism efforts in the restive Sahel, anti-French rhetoric abounds. On Thursday, the country’s junta ordered police to expel the French ambassador — a move officials in Paris, which only recognizes the authority of ousted President Mohamed Bazoum, said they did not consider legitimate.

Niger’s population struggles with daily life after coup

For French President Emmanuel Macron, the situation must be particularly vexing. Over multiple visits to Africa during his time in office, he has delivered speech after speech hailing the advent of a new relationship with the continent, one that would dispel the weighty baggage of the past. In 2017, in the capital of Burkina Faso, Macron called on a renewal of “partnerships” with the region, expressing hopes to invest in the education and aspirations of the continent’s youths. Half a year ago, during a trip that included a stop in Gabon, Macron declared that “the days of la Françafrique are well and truly over” — an implicit reference to a long history of France prioritizing its commercial interests and backing unsavory regimes in its former colonies.

Macron also pointed to a concrete shift in security strategy, laying out how French forces deployed in the region would now exclusively operate alongside local forces. “We have reached the end of a cycle of French history in which military questions held preeminence in Africa,” he said in the Gabonese capital, Libreville, another expression of his desire to change the atmosphere in relations with the African states.

On Monday, as tensions continued to mount over what to do about the Nigerien junta, Macron spoke to a gathering of French diplomats and lamented the “epidemic” of coups roiling the region. For that reason, he argued, his government had to defend Niger’s fledgling democracy. Less than 48 hours later, the coup in Gabon took place. The putschists justified their move as a response to a disputed election this past weekend that saw Bongo, whose family has been in power for more than half a century, claim a new mandate.

A British pollster working in Gabon told reporters that Bongo was on path to a clear, if modest, victory. But the firm also noted the prevalence of a strikingly anti-French attitude in Gabon across all age groups, with the exception of the country’s pro-Paris upper class.

The West saw Niger as a democratic bulwark. Then, a coup happened.

Gabon, in theory, has little in common with Niger. The latter is one of the poorest nations in the world; the former, buoyed by oil wealth, is among the richest per capita countries in Africa, though much of those riches are concentrated among a coterie of political and economic elites.

“The putsch in Gabon has further weakened France’s position in its old African stomping grounds, even if the situation is different in this Central African country, ruled for over five decades by the Bongo family,” reported Le Monde, a leading French daily. “Paris wants to believe that the soldiers behind the coup do not share the anti-French rhetoric of their Nigerien counterparts.”

But France is deeply associated with the entrenched status quo of the Bongo dynasty and the alleged corruption that underpinned its rule. This legacy of accommodation throughout West Africa, including support to earlier coup-plotters and juntas, undercuts Macron’s political convictions and advocacy of democratic order.

“France’s tight post-independence links to local elites, and its past willingness to act as a regional gendarme to prop up leaders, bound up its fortunes in theirs,” noted the Economist. For that reason, it added, “the failures of unpopular rulers today, to reduce poverty or curb violence, are readily blamed on their proximity to France.”

In some ways, France is an easy scapegoat for cynical army men. But, argued Michael Shurkin of the Atlantic Council, “whether this anti-French sentiment is fair or not is entirely beside the point. Ties with France have now become a kiss of death for African governments.”

Decades of Western-led development projects have also proved largely ineffectual. “The problem for France and its Western allies, including the US, is that their enormous aid programmes — some $2 billion a year in development assistance to Niger alone — have not made them any more popular,” the French Algerian journalist Nabila Ramdani wrote in an op-ed. “Massive youth unemployment and an illiteracy rate of 60 per cent are just some of the endemic problems that are blamed on former colonial masters and their associates.”

As Niger’s crisis drags on, its West African neighbors are tested

For some onlookers, the events of recent weeks offer a rude awakening. A clutch of center-right lawmakers in the French Parliament wrote a letter to Macron in August, urging him to reconsider France’s role in Africa as its clout wanes. “Today, the Françafrique of yesterday is replaced by military Russafrique, by economic Chinafrique or diplomatic Americafrique,” they said, lamenting how “Africa, a friendly continent, no longer seems to understand France, and is increasingly contesting its role and its presence.”

Some analysts wonder whether its worth it for France to maintain its footprint at all. It’s no longer the dominant economic player in the region — in Gabon, for example, China has supplanted it as the biggest trading partner — and is operating in a crowded geopolitical field that includes world powers such as the United States, Russia, China, Turkey and others. “Pulling out of Africa would, to some degree, diminish France’s global stature, but the reality is that France — much like Britain — has plenty of strengths and, frankly, other priorities that better reflect its interests,” Shurkin wrote.


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