In the early morning of January 7th, junior army officers led by Lieutenant Kelly Ondo Obiang took control of the state television broadcaster in Libreville to proclaim their overthrow of Ali Bongo Ondimba, the president of Gabon. Seemingly unimpressed by Bongo’s New Year’s Eve message from Morocco—where he has been receiving medical treatment for several months—Obiang lamented Bongo’s poor leadership and urged “all security forces and the youth of Gabon to arm themselves and “take control of all means of transport, barracks, security checkpoints, armouries, airports.” By the afternoon however, government loyalists in the army had thwarted the coup and arrested or killed most of the plotters.
The attempt in Gabon caught many by surprise. Coup attempts have become rare events in sub-Saharan Africa over time. Additionally, the only previous coup attempt in Gabon—which incidentally failed to oust the government in which Bongo’s father served as vice president— was quickly unraveled by a French intervention in 1964. Furthermore, the swift restoration of Bongo’s presidency suggests this coup lacked widespread support among both the army and the general public. It is therefore puzzling that Obiang sought to stage the coup without the necessary prerequisites for its success.
Although very few details have trickled in regarding the motivations of the Gabon plotters (beyond their disatisfaction with the incumbent regime), it may be instructive to examine how plotters consider the potential reactions to their actions. This is especially useful in the case of Gabon, given that decisive actions of the French likely deterred future challenges against the government.
Other actors can similarly deter coups. Recent scholarship, for example, has argued that the international community has become far more likely to punish coup-born governments, coup leaders are consequently stepping down from power more quickly when reactions are hostile, and these trends have overall led to a reduction in coup attempts. This is not to say that reactions to coups are always negative, just that they are regularly more hostile than what we have seen in prior decades.
Departures from enforcing what might be thought of as an anti-coup norm could have important consequences. Just as enforcing such a norm against one coup might deter coups elsewhere, formally or tacitly endorsing coups could act to encourage plotters in other countries.
The 2017 coup against Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe acted as a clear example of a departure from an anti-coup norm, with the international community—and especially the African Union—implicitly endorsing the act. While the AU or other organizations may see sanctions as undesireable or outright counterproductive in cases like Zimbabwe, actions (not) taken against one coup potentially have implications for the future.
Whatever problems existed, Gabon was similar to Zimbabwe in that a coup was overall an unlikely occurrence. Neither country had ever experienced a successful coup; Zimbabwe had been free from any coup attempts, and Gabon had not experienced one in a half-century. Further, both countries had seen long-term stability in political leaderhsip, with Mugabe’s tenure approaching four decades at the time of his ouster and the Bongo dynasty having ruled for over 50 years.
What they did have in common were long-tenured dictatorships with uncertain political and economic futures. Bongo’s failing health and fitness-to-rule may very well have been a concern. Bongo’s New Year’s Eve speech, slurred at times, did not inspire confidence in his leadership. The sluggish economy has also seen several general strikes in the oil-rich country.
And though less powerful plotters may act under the hope that other domestic forces will join them, Obiang and his colleagues could also have been emboldened by the international community’s accomodating reaction toward Zimbabwe’s Armed Forces. Perhaps planning to sell a “good coup” that would push a democratic transition, the plotters may have expected the AU and others to remain silent. Recent precedent, of course, suggested a tempered response when targeting ailing dictators who had manipulated the electoral system to extend their rule.
While the coup’s failure keeps us from seeing how relevant actors would have responded to Bongo’s ouster, the coup attempt acts as a reminder that coups remain a major threat to the region’s political order. Coups might sometimes result in transitions to democracy, but such outcomes are themselves rare, almost invariably rely on domestic popular support, and can frequently lead to further political deteriorization and substantial loss of life. It would do the international community and its members well to prevent such acts.
Jonathan Powell is an associate professor of political science at the University of Central Florida. Mwita Chacha is an assistant professor of political science at Nazarbayev University, Astana, Kazakhstan.