Gabon’s Coup and Africa’s Butterfly Effect: A Wake-Up Call for Europe

by Dr Joana de Deus Pereira, Senior Research Fellow, RUSI Europe

In the vast expanse of Africa, the whisperings of a butterfly’s wings can summon a storm. Gabon, a small country on the equator, is the latest to feel this storm’s rage as a coup d’état threatens to unsettle its political landscape. The recent ousting of its government is not an isolated event but a powerful echo of Françafrique’s intricate history and its lingering influence. Originally conceived in 1945 as an African version of the British Commonwealth, the term Françafrique – which sought to depict the unique postcolonial relationship between France and its former African territories – soon became a symbol of France’s continued involvement in Africa’s politics and economy. How is the French legacy viewed today, and what role does it play in the recent wave of coups?

Gabon: A Lens on Broader Dynamics

Gabon’s political tumult is reflective of a broader pattern. Recent data highlights an unsettling trend: a resurgence of coups after decades of relative decline. When, following coups in Mali and Guinea, Sudan experienced a coup in 2021, UN Secretary-General António Guterres didn’t mince words, describing the trend as an ‘epidemic’.

From the colonial era to its independence in 1960, Gabon’s journey has been intertwined with France. Even after gaining sovereignty, French involvement persisted, particularly in the country’s prosperous oil sector. While these ties have contributed to economic growth, they have also fuelled simmering discontent. For many Gabonese, especially the youth, France’s lingering footprint is viewed with suspicion, seen as neo-colonialism rather than genuine partnership. This sentiment extends to several aspects of Gabonese society. The CFA Franc, a currency underpinned by the French Treasury, is often criticised as a mechanism of French control. Similarly, public aid from France, while ostensibly supportive, is perceived by some as a way to maintain influence and as favouring the Gabonese elite over the masses.

Adding another layer to this narrative is the growing influence of Russia in certain African regions. Russian groups like Wagner have been active in shaping perceptions, amplifying anti-French rhetoric while championing pro-Russian sentiments. This geopolitical dance has apparently been influenced by external entities, and it is redefining alliances and rivalries across the continent.

Modern Pan-Africanism: From French to Russian Influence?

In the digital age, neo-Pan-Africanist narratives have found fertile ground on social media, where they can gain significant traction. These narratives, however, have sometimes transitioned from constructive critique to aggressive invective against policies, often specifically targeting French influence in Africa.

Pan-Africanism, an intellectual and political movement, has for decades championed African independence and solidarity among African people and Afro-descendants. From its roots, it has evolved into what is widely termed neo-Pan-Africanism. This evolution, fuelled by the desire for true African autonomy, also manifests in various sentiments, some of which have been intensified and can veer into the realms of conspiracy, populism and even xenophobia.

Among the most vocal neo-Pan-Africanist activists and influencers are Kemi Seba and Nathalie Yamb. From his early engagements with the French branch of the ‘Nation of Islam’ to his establishment of Urgences Panafricanistes in 2015, the Franco-Beninese Kemi Seba’s journey has been characterised by a robust commitment to Pan-Africanism. Seba has participated in a Pan-Africanist tour across Europe with tickets available on Eventbrite, mobilising thousands of participants in the biggest capitals of Europe.

Nathalie Yamb, widely known as ‘The Lady of Sochi’ or ‘Nathalie Yambonov’, champions the cause of eliminating French influence from Africa. With Swiss-Cameroonian roots, her rhetoric primarily opposes French influence, and she is particularly vocal against West African presidents who are perceived as pro-French. Yamb’s influence grew significantly after her participation in the inaugural Russia–Africa conference in Sochi in 2019. Her regular social media updates delineate her fierce Pan-Africanist stance. She was present at the recent 2023 BRICS Summit, and her tweets are widely shared across social media platforms.

One of the intriguing facets of the neo-Pan-Africanism movement is its relationship with foreign entities. The alignment between neo-Pan-Africanist circles and Vladimir Putin’s regime is evident. There are clear indications that certain individuals and entities, in their push against French influence, are aligning with Russian interests, with figures like Kemi Seba having connections with prominent Russian personalities.

Beyond Africa: A Global Reckoning

The political waves originating from Africa have far-reaching implications. Europe, in particular, cannot afford to view these events as distant or isolated. The intertwined fates of continents mean that economic upheavals, mass migrations or extremist ideologies birthed in one region can cascade across borders.

Europe’s historical and contemporary ties with Africa further underscore the importance of attentive diplomacy. Africa’s political upheavals should serve as a clarion call for the international community. The evolving narratives across Africa, from the rainforests of Gabon to the deserts of Mali, encapsulate a myriad of emotions, histories and aspirations.

The message here is unambiguous: it is a dire wake-up call. If we continue to disregard the signs, the reverberations of Africa’s political storms might reach Europe’s shores sooner than expected.

In geopolitics and international relations, no event – no matter how remote – is isolated. It is high time to cast a vigilant eye over Africa’s political landscape, or Europe may find itself unprepared for the storm that follows.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI Europe or any other institution.

Military members from the Gabonese Armed Forces stand in formation during the opening day ceremony forthe Central Accord Exercise in Libreville, Gabon in 2016. (U.S. Army Africa photo by Tech. Sgt. Brian Kimball)

More about the author:

Dr Joana de Deus Pereira, Senior Research Fellow, RUSI Europe

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