A special broadcast on national television shows men in berets, body armour and fatigues. They gather around the podium. The announcement is brief: the armed forces are taking over. Gabon today, Niger last month. It’s the eighth coup in Francophone Africa in three years.
There’s a discernible attitude in Britain to all this — not just in the streets, but in the editorial suites. Who cares? Barely covered, barely reported, the coup wave sweeping West Africa — that is remaking West Africa — is being ignored.
Gabon matters because it is another tombstone for the old world order. That military men can imprison a leader like Ali Bongo shows how times have changed. Gabon’s ruling family who have controlled the country for 56 years thought nothing could challenge them. Running a country so rich in oil it was a member of the OPEC price-setting cartel, the Bongos felt they had fossil fuel security. Ruling with exceptionally close ties and stationed troops from the former colonial power, France, they thought they had Western security. And they felt, given the country has — at least on paper — some of Africa’s highest incomes, they had economic security.
But they weren’t living in that world anymore. Written on Bongo’s political tombstone are three lines about Western power. The first, a military failure. Western powers, spearheaded by France, correctly foresaw the risks in the desertifying Sahel region and West Africa and redoubled their efforts. Interventions, special missions and train-and-equip programmes followed. But the 21st century is not the 19th nor even the 20th. Pinprick interventions mostly fail. Internet-connected and IED-armed insurgents usually win. Not only did the West fail to stem jihadist violence, its support empowered the people now executing these coups: the militaries themselves.
Ali Bongo, the Western partner, was no democrat but a dynastic oil-rent syphoning kleptocrat
The second was a developmental failure. Despite decades of programmes and promises for Africa’s development, the money has simply failed to arrive in anything near the quantity needed. To meet the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (the minimal standards of a decent life) by the end of the decade, markets and governments need to generate $272 billion a year in loans or aid in Africa as a whole. Not only is Western aid and lending insufficient, the Western powers have failed to reform the IMF to allow poorer countries to borrow more. The Western system, seen from a junta’s committee, looks like a bare minimum machine, not a ticket to transformation. Why not simply shrug at the coup if you live in an impoverished Western ally?
Line three on the tombstone was what the character of the Bongos said about the Western system. The Western partner now detained in the residence was not a democrat but a dynastic oil-rent syphoning kleptocrat with extensive properties and bank accounts abroad. Not only did Paris and Washington willingly glad-hand this family, they ignored for decades the fact that a parallel financial system of anonymous shell companies, off-shore accounts and tax havens has allowed kleptocrats to fleece their societies and embezzle their money in the West. Paris and its allies look like losers on the battlefield, failures in development and enablers of crooks. No wonder many of the new juntas are selling these coups as a “second independence”.
The West has not just “lost the narrative”, it has lost on the ground. Africa shows where the world is heading. The old tools of Western influence are less and less effective, from ambassadors to bases. The old sense that the West is credible and aspirational has gone. The West is no longer the only game in town. China’s gigantic Belt and Road Initiative Investment has poured huge sums and ploughed miles of new infrastructure across the continent. Its development financing structures now rival those of the old Western-led development banks. Not only is Russia muscling in but so are other rising powers such as the Gulf monarchies. Being a major aid donor is no longer enough. You need to look like the future.
Our lack of interest is part of a wider malaise. We still think of Africa like a post-colonial afterthought and not as central to climate and development struggles. It’s no longer the Sixties when the EU population was twice that of Africa. Today Africa is almost double the EU in size. By mid-century it could be quadruple. Worse, we still think we are the Britain of 1997 — the last year our economy was bigger than the Chinese and the last year the UK administered a major Chinese city.
Today, China’s economy is over six times larger. The world has changed. We need to know about it — not ignore it as we are doing with Gabon.
Ben Judah is the author of This Is Europe: The Way We Live Now