Mali, Chad, Guinea, Burkina Faso, then Niger and finally Gabon. The overthrow of governments in the former French colonies in Africa by military groups now appears to have become an unstoppable process that began in 2020 and has not stopped since. A series of coups that, along with Sudan’s civil war, illustrate the growing political and economic instability of the sub-Saharan region. Until the last century, the Colonies of Paris, the ties of many countries to France never really broke even after gaining independence. In fact, the former motherland’s political, economic, diplomatic and military influence in Francafrique has endured to this day, after gentler but nonetheless enduring neo-colonial processes. The most recent coup in chronological order is proof of that.
Ali Bongo, Gabon’s ousted president this week, visited the Elysée just two months ago. His father and predecessor Omar, from whom Ali took over the reins of government after 41 years of uninterrupted power and elections constantly disputed by the opposition, was in some ways the symbol of France’s post-colonial power and influence in Africa. He was already a friend of Charles De Gaulle and at his funeral in 2009, Nicolas Sarkozy and Jacques Chirac were the only Western leaders to arrive in a limousine, although not without being greeted by various protests. The coup in Gabon so far looks different than the five previous coups. First, Gabon, once the golden haven of French officials, is not part of the Sahel but lies several kilometers to the south. But above all because – so far – it does not appear to be motivated by the military’s resentment towards Paris.
The army, which deposed the leader in his third term, has announced that General Brice Oligui Nguema will be sworn in on Monday as “president of transition”: the head of the Praetorians of Bongo, already very loyal to former President Omar, is running be the strongman who will accomplish “the gradual construction of the institutions of transition.” And at least in words, the military appears to have no intention of cutting ties with the former French ruler, as Niger eventually did, which ordered the expulsion of the Paris ambassador. In fact, they have promised that Gabon “will honor all of its internal and external commitments”.
Coup supporters in front of the French embassy in Niger: “Long live Putin”
After the small, oil-rich country achieved political independence, at least on paper, in 1960, it never broke off relations with Paris, on the contrary. In the early 1980s, the then state-owned French oil company Elf took full control of oil production. However, towards the end of the last century, the underlying corruption and the Paris company’s lavish bribes to African politicians came to light. Eleven was later taken over by Total, the scandals were hushed up, but they certainly helped fuel resentment towards Paris over the country’s continued mining exploitation. Many thanks, of course, to the governments of the Bongo dynasty.
Human rights groups say the ruling family has turned Gabon into a “kleptocratic regime” and plundered its natural resources, oil deposits and rainforests. Members of the political opposition have long accused members of the Bongo family of embezzling public funds and managing the land as their private property. A seven-year French police corruption investigation into the Bongo family, which uncovered assets including 39 properties in France and nine luxury cars, was closed in 2017.
Oil is the pillar on which Gabon’s economy has always been based. Total Energies operates seven oil production sites in the country as well as a network of several dozen gas stations and invested in Gabon’s forestry sector last year. The Anglo-French oil company Perenco is also active in Gabon, the fourth largest oil producer in sub-Saharan Africa and a member of the OPEC cartel.
But for a long time after independence, Paris continued to exploit the country’s other wealth in addition to crude oil. Like water. In return for financial aid from the IMF, the government liberalized public services in the late 1990s. The French company Veolia took over 51% of Seeg, the Gabonese company that manages water and energy. Other shares went to other French companies such as Gdf Suez (now Engie), while a remaining share was initially left to the national government. After several steps, the state of Gabon decided to confiscate Seeg in 2018, opening a dispute with Veolia. Then it was decided to exit the French company and put 100% control of the company in public hands under a settlement agreement, the details of which were never disclosed.
Gabon is not only rich in oil, but also an important supplier of other raw materials. According to Coface (Compagnie Française d’Assurance pour le Commerce Extérieur), an export credit agency that provides trade credit insurance to private companies, the African country is one of the continent’s largest producers of tropical timber. And it has under-exploited mineral potential: deposits of iron, gold, diamonds, copper, zinc and rare earth metals. And uranium, as evidenced by the long presence of the French nuclear company Areva. But above all, manganese, a mineral used in steel production and batteries, which is the second largest producer in the world.
Eramet, one of the largest French metallurgical companies in the African country, operates in Gabon, in the territory of the city of Moanda, with over eight thousand employees. According to the French Ministry of Finance, the company extracts and manages 90% of Gabon’s manganese through its subsidiary Comilog, while the rest is managed by the Chinese company CICMHZ. Eramet’s Setrag unit manages the Trans-Gabon Railway, the country’s only railway. Overall, Gabon became the top destination for French exports among the six member countries of the Central African Economic and Monetary Union last year.
It is still unclear whether the fall of Ali Bongo will lead to a change in relations with Paris. According to the opposition leader, the president’s family was behind the military coup that led to the ousting of Bongo himself. The goal, according to Albert Ondo Ossa, would be to keep power over the country within the same family. In an interview with France’s TV5 Monde, Ossa explained that the military junta did not carry out a coup but merely carried out a “palace revolution”. After his fall, Bongo was placed under house arrest for irresponsible government. He was replaced as interim president by General Brice Clotaire Oligui Nguema, head of the elite Republican Guard and cousin of Bongo, who will be sworn in as president next Monday before Gabon’s Constitutional Court.
“Bongos have decided to put Ali Bongo aside and continue with their system,” Ossa said. “The Gabonese people have taken to the streets at night to celebrate the removal of Bongo, but I tell you that the Bongo family will not disappear. One bongo has taken the place of another,” he added.
This is why the coup in Gabon is different from the others. Starting with what came before. In fact, Niger has lifted French ambassador Sylvain Itte’s diplomatic immunity and ordered his expulsion. French General Staff spokesman Colonel Pierre Gaudillière stated that “the French armed forces are ready to respond to any resurgence of tensions that could damage French military bases and diplomatic missions in Niger” and that “measures have been taken to protect them” . .
French economic interests are also important in Niger. For the last twenty years or so, the Sahel country has always been one of the three largest uranium exporters in France, guaranteeing companies in Paris around 25,000 tons of the mineral. At EU level, Niger accounted for a quarter of uranium shipments. Today, with France’s departure, China’s and Russia’s spheres of influence are expanding. China’s state-owned China National Petroleum Corporation and China National Nuclear Corporation have invested $4.6 billion and $480 million, respectively, in the country’s oil and uranium industries, according to Beijing’s Commerce Ministry. Offers of support for the insurgent soldiers who overthrew President Mohamed Bazoum have come from Moscow, and in particular from the Wagner mercenary brigades.
The Nigeria issue is perhaps the most sensitive for Macron at the moment. As the hours pass, the likelihood of military intervention by the Paris army grows. The African country’s military junta is on high alert and has requested defense assistance in Mali and Burkina Faso. These are two other states affected by the uprisings against the elected governments, united by the heavy presence of Wagner’s Russian troops in support of the insurgents.
In Mali there are around fifteen companies in France, including the branches there are around two hundred. Large corporations such as Bnp Paribas, Total Energies and Laborex are represented. The country, the continent’s leading cotton producer, receives 3.3% of French exports to Africa and the Indian Ocean. France is his second supplier. Burkina Faso, on the other hand, is home to around forty French companies. It is a country rich in gold and is the sixth largest gold producer in Africa according to data from Coface, accounting for around 80% of exports in 2021.
Another Sahel country toppled in a coup is Chad. In 2021, the army took power after the combat death of President Idriss Deby, a politician and general who was always close to Paris and also militarily helped it stay in power for around thirty years during the various riots and coup attempts. Under Chadian law, the President of Parliament should have risen when Deby died in power. But the military dissolved it, changed the constitution and appointed Deby’s son, General Mahamat Idriss Deby, as interim president for 18 months. The overturning of the laws sparked a series of uprisings that were put down with military intervention. France is one of Chad’s most important economic partners, where around twenty French companies operate. Paris mainly exports agricultural and food products as well as machinery and IT equipment to the African country, while importing fossil fuels and gum arabic.
Many French companies also have a presence in Guinea, where in September 2021 the commander of special forces, Colonel Mamady Doumbouya, overthrew President Alpha Conde, who had amended the constitution a year earlier to run for his third term. Colonel Doumbouya became interim president and unhurriedly promised a transition to democratic elections within three years.
Operating in Guinea are the Bolloré Group (which also managed the profitable Conakry port terminal through its Africa Logistics before selling it to MSC), Air France, Orange, Société Générale, BNP Paribas, Total and others. The country’s economy is largely based on mining, especially gold and bauxite, of which the country owns a third of the world’s reserves. It has many untapped deposits of iron, gold, diamonds, uranium and crude oil in a sector that already contributes 60% of its GDP through exports.
Here, too, the Chinese influence seems to be increasing over time. Coface points out that its public debt is mainly held abroad (56% of the total), of which 70% is held by China, while the rest is held by multilateral organizations.
A country with a high poverty rate and particularly vulnerable to fluctuations in commodity prices and Chinese demand for bauxite, which is essential for aluminum production. And above all exposed to a strong political instability that affects the entire region and risks permanent development French influence, traces of a colonial power on the dwindling road.