The Coup d’État as a Democratic Response to the Pseudo-Coup
The Coup d’État as a Democratic Response to the Pseudo-Coup - How societies view and respect modern governmental hierarchies and the formal expression of democracy has been changing in the past few decades. This was profoundly demonstrated by the attempted pseudo-coup in Gabon on Aug. 30, which triggered a real coup.
The Coup d’État as a Democratic Response to the Pseudo-Coup
How societies view and respect modern governmental hierarchies and the formal expression of democracy has been changing in the past few decades. This was profoundly demonstrated by the attempted pseudo-coup in Gabon on Aug. 30, which triggered a real coup.
A climate of growing distrust in modern democratic structures has built in many states around the world, along with a sense of frustration that elections have not been accepted as transparent and honest. It is significant that this phenomenon has been evident for a longer period in Africa, where post-colonial states have been regarded as artificial, and the Western governance processes are less rooted in the populations.
The response to poor, distrusted, and arbitrary governance in Africa had traditionally been military intervention, not so much against democratic governance but usually in defense of it.
Attempts by African transnational institutions—the African Union, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), and so on—to build respect for “democratic governance” were widely lauded by civil society. Still, the declining prestige and example of major Western powers meant that essentially manipulated elections could perpetuate politicians into ongoing control of states without fear of severe penalties.
Many of these politicians, essentially perpetuated in office by illegal interference in electoral institutions, became outspoken in their condemnation of military coups because military coups have, in Africa, been traditionally aimed at overturning corrupt and ruinous governments that had supposedly been elected by democratic means.
Gabon’s change of government on Aug. 30 highlighted the blurring line between military coups d’état and political pseudo-coups. In 2023 alone, there have been three major “pseudo-coups,” in which political processes and legitimizing election authorities have been usurped to emplace or continue a political leader or party. These 2023 pseudo-coups have taken place in Nigeria, Sierra Leone, and Gabon.
Events in Libreville, Gabon’s capital, moved, however, from “pseudo-coup” to a full-blown military coup on Aug. 30, “minutes after” after the Gabonese Elections Centre (ECG) had confirmed that President Ali Bongo had won a third term in office.
On Aug. 26, Gabon held presidential, legislative, and municipal elections, but without the presence of domestic or international election observers. Mr. Bongo was competing for a third presidential term and was opposed principally by economist Albert Ondo Ossa, 64 (Alternance 2023 coalition), for the presidency. Twelve other candidates also competed for the presidency.
By Aug. 28, Mr. Ondo Ossa was claiming victory, even though the CGE had not announced any results. Mr. Bongo, heartened by the ability of Sierra Leone President Julius Maada Bio to retain office despite patently fraudulent—and generally unrecognized—elections on June 24, felt that he could similarly cling to office because of his control of the voting apparatus.
Mr. Ondo Ossa was clearly aware of what Mr. Bongo was doing. In 2006, Mr. Ondo Ossa joined the government of the late President Omar Bongo and Prime Minister Jean Eyeghe Ndong. He was successively minister of National Education and Higher Education (2006), minister of Higher Education and Research (2007), and minister of Scientific Research and Technological Development (2008).
Mr. Ondo Ossa was a candidate for the 2009 presidential election following the death of President Omar Bongo, who was, in fact, succeeded by his son in an election (and subsequent reelection), which were attacked as fraudulent. The government cut off Gabon’s access to the internet during the final stages of the election. On Aug. 26, Mr. Ondo Ossa complained that many polling stations lacked ballot papers bearing his name.
Meanwhile, Sierra Leone President Bio had been watching with interest how the ECOWAS, France, and the United States were reacting to the coup d’état in Niger on July 26. A strenuous military response against the Niger coup leaders would be a signal to Mr. Bio to possibly alter his defiance of international and domestic criticism of his seizure of power. Mr. Bongo had watched the Sierra Leone leader’s ability to withstand international and domestic condemnation and remain in power.
Mr. Bio had bought off large segments of the Sierra Leone military in the run-up to elections there and, immediately after the election (and continuing through August), was purging any remaining military and police officers and personnel he thought might be critical of the pseudo-coup. Mr. Bongo clearly had not considered that his own Forces armées gabonaises would act quickly and decisively to overturn the patently manipulated election outcome.
ECOWAS and the African Union were thrown into a quandary by the Gabonese coup d’état, which could hardly be dismissed as overthrowing a constitutionally-elected government, given the general rejection of the election outcome. However, the process throws into doubt the general perspective in Africa on military coups and the general distrust exhibited worldwide on the legitimacy of many elections (particularly in Western countries).
The July 26 military coup in Niger against an elected president was greeted with universal popularity in the country, despite the possibility that the governments of Russia and Turkey may have assisted the Nigerien military. However, it seems likely that the coup leaders in Niamey acted relatively spontaneously and were subsequently supported by the Russian and (separately) Turkish governments.
Defense & Foreign Affairs noted on March 2 that military coups in Nigeria had been better received by the Nigerian public than the results of the Feb. 25 elections. The headline read: “Nigeria’s Election of Bola Tinubu: Military Coups Have Been Better Received.” And Nigerians were truly familiar with military interventions in government, largely because those interventions were usually aimed at stopping rampant corruption and mismanagement by “elected” politicians.
Those Nigerian military interventions, like the military-managed public removal of the Egyptian government of Mohammed Morsi on July 3, 2013, were clearly aimed at restoring at least democratic values, if not democracy itself. This was in contradistinction to some other military coups or military-maintained governments in, say, Sudan, where the maintenance of power by military officials had been more self-serving than altruistic in nature.
The African Union, ECOWAS, and other institutions—quite apart from non-regional governments—had developed a range of measures to deter or overturn (whether immediately or according to a timetable of democratic restoration) coups. Significantly, these had become less and less of a deterrent to coups that were seen in countries such as Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger as existential to the continued viability of the state.
But no such deterrent regime was in place to overturn patently fraudulent elections. The theme was “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” And, indeed, an industry was evolved, not just in Africa but globally, which condemned any rejection of the validity of an election. In recent decades, what had begun in Africa as an almost universal practice for defeated political candidates to condemn the results and legality of any election they lost meant that respect for democratic electoral processes was diminishing, often for valid reasons.
Thus, the pseudo-coup survives, except where the results are so patently fraudulent as to be unacceptable and unworkable, or where the state in which the fraud occurred was so strategically powerless that it could be effectively isolated by the major powers (for example, might is right). In today’s world, in Africa, Latin America, or the Middle East, Western rejection and isolation of a state based on electoral malfeasance almost guarantees that non-Western powers (for example, Russia, China, and Turkey) would accept those Western-rejected governments.
The Western response to this process of pseudo-coups—implemented with varying levels of subtlety from Africa to North America, for example—has been to adopt an increasingly authoritarian suppression of allegations of electoral fraud to the point where this has exacerbated the polarization of societies.
In Africa, the process of redress has often and increasingly been the military coup. Still, the question has been raised as to how Western societies will respond, both to the illicit changes of government in Africa and to their own dilemma, now also increasingly similar to the African problem.