Earlier this week, soldiers from Gabon’s military took control of state radio and television headquarters in an attempt to overthrow the government and “restore democracy” to the country. They assumed the population would rise up against the government – not an entirely unreasonable assumption, given the country’s economic degradation in recent years – and so neglected to secure support from other military personnel and the political opposition. The coup failed spectacularly, and within a few hours, the Gabonese military had either arrested or killed the coup plotters, retaken control of state broadcasters, cut off the country’s internet access and deployed tanks in the capital, Libreville.
That there’s such deep-rooted dissatisfaction in the country may come as a surprise considering that, for decades, Gabon has had one of the highest per capita gross domestic products in sub-Saharan Africa (nearly 5 times the current average). That’s because it has reserves of a few key commodities: oil, manganese and uranium. But in more recent years, these commodities have failed to hold up the economy. Gabon’s uranium reserves have been depleted. Oil is still a key source of revenue, accounting for 63 percent of Gabon’s exports and nearly a quarter of its GDP in 2017, but production has declined precipitously since peaking at 370,000 barrels per day in 1997. According to OPEC, the country produced just 186,000 bpd last October and averaged 200,000 bpd in 2017. Manganese exports are still growing, accounting for roughly 20 percent of exports, but can hardly fill the gap alone.
Presiding over this deteriorating economic situation is President Ali Bongo, though lately he’s been doing so in absentia. In October, he was forced to seek medical treatment for an undisclosed condition during a trip to Saudi Arabia. He was later transferred to Morocco and hasn’t been seen in Gabon since. His absence was no doubt one of the major catalysts for the coup attempt.
To be fair, Bongo inherited an extremely difficult situation when he came to power in 2009: an export-driven economy running out of commodities and, with them, the economic incentives that held together a complex network of political patronage and tribal loyalties. His government has tried to implement reforms, but declining oil prices and popular opposition have stalled progress. Even the most legitimate of governments would struggle to guide a country through such a painful transition.
This, however, is not the most legitimate of governments. Since declaring independence from France in 1960, Gabon has had only three presidents. Its first, Leon M’Ba, was deposed in a military coup in 1964, only to be reinstated after a French military intervention. (France still maintains a permanent presence in the country, including some 350 troops.) M’Ba died of cancer while in office and was succeeded by Omar Bongo – the current president’s father. The elder Bongo presided over the country from 1967 until his death in 2009. His son won an election to take over as president in 2009 and, in 2016, was re-elected in a vote marred by allegations of fraud and corruption. Thousands protested the results in demonstrations that saw the parliament building set on fire. A European Union election observation mission also criticized the vote, pointing out “anomalies” in the results. Bongo, therefore, owes his power at least in part to a foreign military intervention, his father’s political position and the controversial 2016 election.
The country’s foreign relations are also in transition. In the past 10 years, Gabon’s trade patterns have changed drastically. In 2007, 53 percent of Gabon’s exports went to the United States, and 36 percent of its imports came from France. Just a decade later, the U.S. wasn’t even among Gabon’s top 10 export destinations – in part because of shale production in the U.S. that lessened its need for Gabonese oil. China, with its insatiable appetite for oil, has replaced the U.S. as Gabon’s top customer, accounting for 42 percent of Gabonese exports in 2017. France is still Gabon’s top provider of imports, but its share has declined to 21 percent. China has risen to a close second, with 20 percent. The shift was due to strategic, rather than economic concerns. Omar Bongo looked to trade with China as a way to balance Gabon’s historical dependence on France. Beginning in 2004, Gabon’s trade, foreign direct investment, infrastructure development and even bilateral military exchanges with China increased as a result.
The current president, however, has been more skeptical of Chinese intentions. That’s not to say that he has shied away from accepting Chinese funds when it suited his political purposes. In 2013, the China Road and Bridge Company was awarded a contract to build a road linking the capital with the country’s second-largest city, Port-Gentil, a bastion of opposition to the previous president. (The Port-Gentil-Libreville road project has predictably had some delays, though a government minister said last month that “considerable progress” had been made on the first phase of the project.) Dense jungle covers 85 percent of the country, complicating government efforts to move the economy away from oil and prevent dependence on Chinese money, which can be used to build the high-cost infrastructure necessary to connect disparate parts of the country.
Still, Ali Bongo has tried to diversify his country’s trade partners. He doesn’t want to rely exclusively on China any more than his father wanted to rely exclusively on France. So while France is still the dominant foreign power in the country, China has made some significant inroads, shifting the balance of power away somewhat from Gabon’s former colonial master.
But these slow-moving reorientations in Gabonese foreign policy are not why the country is attracting so much attention right now. It’s attracting attention because of the failed coup and because the United States said last week it had deployed 80 U.S. military personnel to Gabon to help contain potential violence in nearby Democratic Republic of Congo after a presidential election there. The party of longtime DRC leader Joseph Kabila has backed (read: handpicked) the former interior minister to be the next president, but the election has been plagued by accusations of voting irregularities. DRC is another African country rich in minerals (especially cobalt) that has become grounds for competition between China and the United States. It was an especially violent area of rivalry between the Soviet Union and the United States during the Cold War. When global powers compete on a global scale, attention often turns to far-flung corners of the world such as these.
That the U.S. announced it was sending troops to Gabon just days before an attempted coup is most likely a coincidence. And it’s exceedingly unlikely that the coup plotters had any outside support either from opposition groups in nearby countries or from more distant foreign powers interested in replacing a government that was becoming skeptical of their intentions. It’s not a coincidence, however, that regions that haven’t been relevant since the Cold War are now showing clear signs of political instability and foreign competition. It would be lackadaisical to label the current dynamic a new Cold War – it isn’t. But what is becoming clear is that the world’s only superpower is facing rising regional powers as well as a volatile and increasingly negative global economic outlook. That makes a bumbling coup attempt in Gabon not just another example of political instability in Africa, but a symptom of underlying problems and a sign of things to come, for both Gabon and the world.