Gabon's President Ali Bongo
Gabon's President Ali Bongo Image Credit: AFP

Things are not good for France in Africa. Exactly one month after the French-aligned president was overthrown in Niger, another coup has rocked the African continent, this time in Gabon where France’s ally, the Sorbonne-educated Ali Bongo, was toppled on Wednesday.

Bongo had inherited power from his father in 2009, who was also French-backed, and both father and son have been in control of the country for more than half a century.

A history of brutal colonialising

A former French protectorate, Gabon has always been highly strategic partner for Paris, thanks to its diamonds, timber, rubber, uranium, and more recently, oil and gas.

While more recent extractions have been made through formal agreements between the two countries, during the first half of the past century, they were taken for free — or as many would say ‘stolen’ with forced physical labour of the country’s impoverished inhabitants.

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France gained control of the African country in 1885 and began to formally administer it from 1903 until 1959. Although formally independent since August 1960, Gabon remained one of France’s closest and most reliable African allies; a base for never-ending military, political, and economic investment.

Ever since Charles de Gaulle was in power, the French thought they could stay in Gabon forever. Niger’s coup put an end to that, followed by this morning’s putsch in Gabon.

French economic interests

One French giant that is alarmed by the news of Wednesday’s coup is the mining firm Eramet — a major employer in Gabon — which announced suspension of its operations.

Its sudden move implies that French interests are at risk, raising serious questions about the fate of other French giants working in oil, construction and energy, like Total, Bouygues, and Engie, along with the string of French banks that control Gabon’s financial system.

French President Emmanuel Macron is monitoring the situation closely, waiting to see whether the coup leaders will renege on relations with France, just like the ruling junta did in Niger after staging a coup last July, toppling President Mohammad Bazoum.

Parallels with Niger

Last Friday, France’s ambassador to Niger Sylvain Itte was given 48-hours to leave the country, triggering a defiant response from Macron, who decided to keep him, against all odds. Only he was singled out as persona non grata — not the American envoy, or the Russian one — showing just how fed up the people of Niger are with France.

Demonstrations broke out across the capital, demanding the ambassador’s departure along with all 1,500 French military personnel stationed in Niger, stationed as part of counter-terrorism operations against affiliates of Daesh.

Young people threatened to storm the embassy and France’s military base if Paris did not withdraw the ambassador immediately. Macron would take nothing of it, saying that without the help of France, Niger would “no longer exist.”

What will happen to the CFA Franc, which is pegged to the euro, and by mutual consent, must be kept in 50% of a nation’s foreign exchange reserves at the Banque de France?

What will happen to Gabon’s French nationals, and all of the French firms that employee thousands of locals — mostly at low wages, while keeping high salaries for Frenchmen?

And what will be the fate of other French ex-colonies in Africa, which might looking closely at the developments in Niger and Gabon?

Hands-off Africa

Last January in what now seems like a highly prophetic speech, Pope Franis demanded that foreign powers stop steeling Africa’s resources.

“Hands off Africa” he said, without naming a specific country although he seemed to be referring to France, the one former coloniser that still controls the lion’s share of African resources in countries from Gabon to Niger.

— Sami Moubayed is a historian and former Carnegie scholar. He is also author of Under the Black Flag: At the frontier of the New Jihad.