France’s presence in Africa is “dwindling.” This is what Iran’s former ambassador to France believes. The former Iranian envoy to Libya has argued that France is unable to resort to military action to quell recent coups within its sphere of influence on Africa.
On August 30, just over a month following a military coup in Niger, Gabon’s top military brass orchestrated a putsch, bringing down the sitting government. Al Jazeera reports that eight coups have taken place in West and Central Africa since 2020, affecting nations such as Mali, Guinea, Burkina Faso, Chad, Niger, and Gabon.
Gabon’s coup was staged just a day after the presidential election results were released, confirming the victory of Ali Bongo who secured his third consecutive term. But opposition factions rejected the outcome as rigged, claiming widespread irregularities. Bongo has been in power since 2009, succeeding his father, Omar Bongo, who presided over the nation’s vast oil and mineral resources for 42 years.
The majority of the Central and West African countries experiencing coups were formerly French colonies, and following their independence, they continued to be tethered to Paris’s influence in security, politics, and economy. Despite their resource-rich status, many of these nations, including Gabon, grapple with glaring wealth disparities and inadequate resource allocation, resulting in a significant yawning gap between the ruling elite and a substantial portion of the public. In the case of Gabon, it is estimated that one-third of its 1.7 million strong population lives under the poverty line.
Abolqassem Delfi, former Iranian ambassador to France, has told Iran Daily that while coups have become a recurring theme in Africa, the majority of them in French-influenced nations before 2000 had been engineered in line with France’s interests. “These coups were either directly fomented by Paris or launched by militias backed by the French government. However, the recent coups largely diverge from France’s interests in these nations.”
Ja’afar Qannadbashi, an expert on African affairs and former Iranian ambassador to Libya, echoed a similar stance to Iran Daily, highlighting the prevalence of coups as a “rampant means of regime change and power transfer” due to the “fragility of political structures” in most African countries.
According to Qannadbashi, apparently legitimate governments elected through democratic processes often struggle to address ongoing issues, despite abundant resources at their disposal. Furthermore, the geopolitical competition among major powers in Africa exerts little influence on these coups.
Drawing upon his visit to Libreville, the capital of Gabon, Qannadbashi explained the gross disparities in wealth and resource monopolies among the ruling elite and their associates. “Within the city, there is a dichotomy, with one part exhibiting a modernity akin to European nations, while another segment languishes in poverty, bereft of basic needs for a humble life.
While pointing to the people’s economic discontentment with the inefficiencies of the Gabonese government, Qannadbashi said that the primary source of anger stems from the government’s heavy reliance on France and the latter’s control over the country’s decision-making and executive bodies. Therefore, the military intervened in response to the people’s protests, topping the government and assuming power. Qannadbashi asserted that the era of French post-colonial influence over African nations is now dwindling, after the end of the old colonial epoch.
Delfi highlighted the persistence of coups in African nations, despite international condemnation, citing a series of factors that fuel these recurring incidents. He pointed to the coup in Gabon and its anti-French undertones, saying: “France had been in the process of disengaging from Africa in recent years but sought a face-saving withdrawal that could protect some of its traditional interests.”
He noted that France had realized that maintaining control over Africa as it did in the past was no longer feasible, primarily due to the financial burdens imposed and the emergence of new influential players on the continent, including China, the United States, and Russia.
In examining the rivalry among major powers in Africa, Delfi referred to the outright confrontation between Europe, including France, and Russia, the Ukraine war. He hinted that this rivalry might have extended to Africa, noting instances where Russian flags appeared in the hands of opposition forces in Niger and Burkina Faso before coups and the noticeable presence of the Moscow-linked Wagner militia group in Africa.
The fact that the Gabonese coup came hot on the heels of the putsch in Niger, raises the question of whether France or other African nations would resort to military intervention to crush the coup plotters.
Qannadbashi suggested that even if France harbored such intentions, it did not have the ability to do so. “Because there are concerns that military intervention could embroil the French in protracted conflicts akin to the quagmire of Afghanistan where the Americans bogged down. Furthermore, French authorities worry that instead of receiving a warm reception, their intervention might trigger resistance from the affected people.
Delfi also noted that prevailing international conditions and domestic circumstances in France were not conducive to the utilization of old methods of flexing muscles and military intervention. He underscored that within an unspoken and unwritten reality, France had come to terms with the notion that, in the medium and long term, it could not guarantee a sustained presence in the nations within its sphere of influence on Africa. “While Paris strives to safeguard its interests in the short term, it is aware that the era of its dominance is drawing to a close.”