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Central Africa’s Dinosaur Regimes and the Art of Coup-Proofing

After the 30 August Brice Nguema-led military coup in Gabon, political commentators called time on central Africa’s Francophone “dinosaur regimes” – hinting that Bongo’s overthrow would most likely create cascading effects across the subregion. This prediction was informed by the fact that these countries – Cameroon is under Paul Biya who is 90; Equatorial Guinea under Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo(80); and the Republic of Congo under Denis Sassou Nguesso (79) – face practically the same issues that triggered the coup in Gabon.

These presidents are currently the longest-serving in Africa: Equatorial Guinea’s Obiang has been in power since 1979 after deposing his tyrannical uncle, Francisco Macías Nguema, the country’s first head of state; President Biya, in power since 1982, is on his seventh term as Cameroon’s leader; while Sassou-Nguesso ruled Congo from 1979 to 1992, then continuously since 1997.

Although no coup has taken place in any of these countries, the reactions of leaders in central Africa have reinforced the notion that military coups have contagion effects and thrive in environments where democratic systems are ineffective or weak, and where leaders are corrupt and unaccountable.

Hours after the coup in Gabon, Biya of Cameroon and Kagame of Rwanda hurriedly effected some changes in the military top brass in the form of forced retirements and sudden promotions of military officers ostensibly to prevent such usurpation of power. Cameroon’s Minister of Communication and government spokesperson, René Emmanuel Sadi, later warned Cameroonians speculating on the possible spillover effects of military coups to “immediately” refrain from drawing such “illogical and absurd comparisons”, which he said could be considered as calls to destabilise the country, and therefore justify their arrest and prosecution.

President Sassou-Nguesso of Congo Brazzaville, meanwhile, recently demoted Jean-Jacques Bouya, a potential rival to his son, Denis-Christel Sassou Nguesso. Weeks prior, Sassou-Nguesso survived a “social media coup” after rumours of a coup began circulating while he was in New York at the 78th session of the United Nations General Assembly. Leaders of the Commission of the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS) suspended Gabon’s membership until it returned to constitutional order, and directed the immediate temporary transfer of ECCAS headquarters from the Gabonese capital, Libreville, to Equatorial Guinea’s capital, Malabo; while Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, who served as the vice chairperson, assumed the role of the bloc’s chair. Mr Obiang’s family – like that of Ali Bongo in Gabon – has been accused of large-scale looting of state resources and severe repression of the opposition.

ECCAS also appointed the president of the Central African Republic, Faustin-Archange Touadéra, “facilitator of the political process” in Gabon tasked with meeting all Gabonese actors and partners of the country with the goal of providing “a rapid” return to constitutional order.

ECCAS comprises Angola, Burundi, Cameroon, the Central African Republic, Chad, the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Republic of Congo, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Rwanda and Sao Tome and Principe. Raphael Parens, a fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute’s Eurasia Programme and an international security researcher focused on Europe, the Middle East, and Africa says central Africa’s leaders still appear “vulnerable” even if this vulnerability has not yet manifested in a military coup.

“At present, President Biya appears more vulnerable than his ECCAS neighbours because of the nature of the jihadist and ethnolinguistic challenges in his country,” Parens tells African Arguments. “The other regimes in the region are less susceptible to change except by outside shocks. The upcoming DRC election could act as a trigger point if violence or widespread unrest crosses the Congo River in the form of refugee crises,” he said.

His view is echoed by Danielle Resnick, Non-Resident Fellow, Global Economy and Development Programme at the Washington DC-based think tank, the Brookings Institution, who believes most regimes in the ECCAS sub-region are still “incredibly vulnerable” and reliant on a system of patronage networks with other political elites and the military in order to maintain their position.

For some of the more ageing presidents, Resnick notes, there is a “high risk” of political violence and instability in the wake of their deaths when these networks may collapse and when opponents to the current presidents’ designated successors (often their sons) emerge. “Cameroon, Congo-Brazzaville, and Equatorial Guinea are most likely to follow this pattern due to the governance styles of Biya, Sassou Nguesso, and Obiang Nguema, respectively,” Resnick told African Arguments. “The Central African Republic is also quite vulnerable since Touadera’s hold on power is largely dependent on the Wagner Group rather than widespread public support.”

The trouble with the “institutional coup”

Nearly three months after the coup in Gabon, an overnight curfew is still in place. Amid pressure from Gabonese citizens, regional blocs and the international community, Gabon’s military junta on 13 November announced plans to hold a general election in August 2025; Brice Nguema  stopped short of declaring whether he will contest or not. Several erstwhile military leaders – the likes of Nguesso of Congo, Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni, and Rwanda’s Paul Kagame – rebranded themselves as civilian presidents and have ruled their countries for decades now.

The African Union’s Peace and Security Council charter bans military leaders from participating in the democratic elections held to restore constitutional order, and from holding key government posts. However, Colonel Assimi Goïta of Mali has already declared himself a candidate in the country’s future elections. If Gabon’s Brice Nguema ultimately runs, Resnick points out, it will likely elicit concerns from the international community though with no concrete reactions.

“Unfortunately, both the AU and segments of the international community seem to place more weight on whether elections are held at all than whether they are held in a free and fair manner,” she observes. “Sanctions and expulsion from regional economic bodies occur when there is a coup but not necessarily when elections are rigged or if an “institutional coup” occurs, which is when the constitution or constitutional courts uphold abuses of power by incumbent presidents.”

Resnick believes that for a coup to genuinely shift the political system, it needs to shift not only the actors allowed to participate in the governance of a country, but also the modalities of selecting leaders and ensuring they are accountable for their actions. “Even if Nguema is a cousin of Bongo, if he is bringing in previously excluded opposition groups into the political arena and will commit to legitimately free, fair, and transparent elections, then it will be a significant shift away from the dynastic, authoritarian rule that prevailed under Bongo, the father and the son,” she says. “It will only be clear what trajectory Gabon takes when elections are finally held and if the outcome is ultimately respected.”

Parens of the Foreign Policy Research Institute’s Eurasia Programme says General Nguema has succeeded in securing elite and international backing for his coup. “Any polling on the subject is likely limited by selection bias, literacy rates, and the location of polling. Should polling have occurred outside the major cities, the results may be different,” he says.

Dr David Otto, director of counterterrorism for the Geneva Centre of African Security and Strategic Studies, says the coup in Gabon has provided the opportunity for one top and privileged military member of the Bongo family to replace the old Bongo dynasty. The events in Gabon, just like previous ones in Chad and many other states in central Africa, Otto observes, were triggered by family feuds rather than “issue-based coups” in West Africa and the Sahelian states.

“Every country in Africa has a unique socio-political ecosystem that could provide justification for a military junta to launch a coup,” Otto tells African Arguments. “The Bongo family have operated a dynasty in Gabon since its independence in 1960 and they have used the army and the other security agencies for regime protection. Members of these elite forces have often been selected on the basis of their loyalty and family ties,” he says.

Ethnic stacking the military and other coup-proofing measures

DRC’s Felix Antoine Tshisekedi Tshilombo on the campaign trail: “Sanctions and expulsion from regional economic bodies occur when there is a coup but not necessarily when elections are rigged.” Photo courtesy: Felix Tshisekedi campaign media.

Recent studies have uncovered the tradeoffs of ethnic stacking in militaries in Africa. Marcel Plichta, a doctoral candidate in International Relations at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, has identified such tradeoffs between making a military that cannot threaten the regime and a military that functions effectively against external threats and insurgencies. A military that is too weak to plot a coup is often too weak to defeat enemy countries or terrorist groups if they go to war, he says.

“For instance, if soldiers are promoted based on loyalty, or being a family member instead of their skill or merit, they are less likely to perform a coup (usually) but the military will be less effective because its leaders are not the best qualified soldiers,” Plichta tells African Arguments.

“Officers tend to resent regimes that don’t promote them either because such regimes don’t trust them or because the officers are not members of the elite.

“Although they are not promoted and therefore have less power, they also have more grievances against the regime,” Plichta says, pointing to many of the junta leaders in the Sahel who happen to be colonels and captains rather than generals. On the other hand, a leader that creates a presidential guard or other elite unit that is solely loyal to him tends to give such units equipment and training at the expense of the regular army. In this case, Plichta argues, the risk of a successful coup or mutiny is lower, so too are the resources the army gets.

“Sometimes, leaders will purposely send their soldiers to train abroad in different countries, which reduces the likelihood that any of those external countries can turn on the regime but means that many soldiers are trained completely differently and struggle to work together,” he explains. “Other times, the presidential guard will be foreign (for instance, the Central African Republic’s use of Libyan mercenaries during the Cold War), which can cause resentment on nationalist grounds.”

Another coup-proofing measure is when regimes make it harder for military officers to communicate so that they are less able to coordinate a coup or rebellion. But this comes with its own drawback as such military officers cannot communicate to plan military operations which is a critical asset in fighting insurgencies or terrorist groups.
“If a leader uses his intelligence services to spy on his own forces, then the intelligence services are less able to monitor the enemy, so the military has less intelligence than they need. Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein is a classic example of this, he had lots of intelligence services that all monitored each other for loyalty, instead of monitoring his regional adversaries like Iran,” Plichta notes.

Chad, though not a “dinosaur regime” in terms of the age of its leadership, is another ECCAS member that has taken measures to avoid catching the coup bug. It was instructive that Hungary announced earlier this month the imminent deployment of a contingent of 400 men to Chad as “the only stable state in the Sahel”, with the stated motive to help stop illegal migration and counter-terrorism. But observers see the decision as a new praetorian guard to protect Mahamat Idriss Deby Itno from his own palace coup.

Dr Edith Lucie Bongo-Ondimba (d.2009) in an un-dated photo (courtesy: Dr Bongo-Ondimba social media fan account). Daughter of Congo-Brazzaville’s veteran president, Dennis Sasou-Nguesso, her marriage to Gabon’s Omar Bongo Ondimba in 1989 showcased the dynastic bonds that existed among Central Africa’s post-independence ruling families.

Elections as flashpoint for unexpected change

The Democratic Republic of Congo is scheduled to hold its next presidential polls next 20 December, closely followed by Chad and Rwanda in 2024, and later Cameroon in 2025.

Analysts including Plichta believe that the elections could serve as a trigger to usher in a transition of power.

“We can think back to the DRC’s 2018 election where many alarming markers – such as Kabila’s delays, changes to the electoral system, widespread accusations of irregularities, etc. – were present coupled with a lot of cynicism (in the U.S. at least) that the system would collapse entirely but there was nonetheless a transition of power to Tshisekedi,” Plichta argues. On this basis, he believes Cameroon’s election could easily become a flashpoint, especially given that Biya will then be 92 years old.

“The internal crises and threat in the Lake Chad region don’t seem to be going away any time soon. Combined with the potential for more economic shocks in the next two years, like the conflict in Ukraine further affecting global oil and wheat prices, a lot can go wrong between now and election day.”

However, some critics dismiss the coup in Gabon as a flash in the pan that will have very little or no real impact in the subregion. Dr Elvis Mbwoge, political scientist and lecturer in the department of Political Science and Comparative Politics in Cameroon’s University of Buea, says supporting military takeovers like the recent one in Gabon is not only “the wrong thing to do”, but exposes how much Africans “are stuck in the primitive traditional stage of political modernisation”.

“Have people asked themselves why the military in Gabon that claimed Ali Bongo Ondimba rigged the election did not do the right thing [and hand over power] to the opposition leader who was allegedly cheated [of victory]? The wish of creating a contagion of autocracy in Africa will, unfortunately, take us nowhere; the case of the then prosperous Libya is still in our minds where its people just wanted change – and change they got, losing Africa’s only hope,” Mbwoge told African Arguments.

Change is possible in Africa, he says, if Africans decide to build and trust their state institutions while employing dialogue and mediation to solve pressing issues. “For example, Nigeria’s February election [was] contested in court by opposition parties over gross electoral malpractice. The military and the people could not intervene because they believed in the democratic institution of justice. This is the right and only way strong democracies are built,” said Mbwoge.

In conclusion, he argues that Africa must not be taken back to the early post-independence decades when coups were glorified as the only path to fighting corruption, mismanagement, poverty, and insecurity. “The question is, did these military governments achieve any better? Africans are urged to learn and to stop repeating the same mistakes.”

Source : African Arguments