A second coup in Francophone Africa leaves Macron’s strategy in tatters

Tribune Content Agency

Stuck in a plush sitting room in Gabon’s presidential residence hours after being overthrown by his army, President Ali Bongo issued a plaintive plea for help to overturn yet another coup in Africa.

“Make noise,” Bongo said repeatedly in English in the video released on Wednesday. From the country’s oldest friend, France, there was only silence.

Bongo was detained in the same palace in which Emmanuel Macron embraced him on a state visit in March. Now the upper echelons of French policymaking are paralyzed following the overthrow of the scion of a brutal autocratic regime that France installed 56 years ago and has indulged ever since.

Macron pledged to reset relations with Africa when he took office in 2017, becoming the latest president to promise to end Françafrique, as the country’s post-colonial political and economic influence system on the continent is known. Instead, he’s been “perfectly aligned with his most recent predecessors,” said Jean de Gliniasty, France’s former ambassador to Senegal.

Yet the coup in Gabon, coming after Niger’s in July and others in Mali, Guinea, Burkina Faso and Chad over the past three years, is finally prompting a quiet reassessment of Paris’s approach to the continent, according to a senior French diplomat in Africa and a person familiar with French policy.

That kind of soul-searching might be coming too late. Having lost half a dozen African allies over his tenure, Macron’s Africa policy “is dead,” said Thierry Vircoulon, an analyst at the French Institute of International Relations.

“We won’t escape a reevaluation of our policy,” said Michel Duclos, a former French ambassador who’s a resident senior fellow at the Institut Montaigne think tank. “The problem isn’t to assess whether or not our strategy in Africa is a failure or not — we did what we could, we did our duty — but now we need to start from scratch, and think.”

The putsches show it’s no longer up to France to decide how relations evolve. Instead, the armies of these countries, often with public support, are pushing aside a mix of democratically elected and nepotistically appointed leaders who were similar in one way: their links to the West ran through Paris first.

In all six countries that have suffered coups over the past three years, France maintains deep economic, political and security ties. The revolts that ripped through Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger were driven in part by widespread frustration with the losing, French-led decadelong fight against jihadists who’ve killed thousands of people and displaced millions more in the Sahel.

As Paris goes back to the drawing board, it will need to figure out what to do about the thousands of troops it has stationed in Africa — a military presence that gave it clout with the U.S., but has fed mistrust on the continent.

“France’s declining influence in West Africa is a blow for these connections,” said Duclos.

And it will need to decide how it approaches its other Francophone allies in the region: autocrats who have either ruled for decades with an iron fist, jailing political opponents and enriching themselves while their populace suffers; or, like Bongo, have taken over from fathers who did.

“French decision makers didn’t really adapt their policy toward Africa, taking into consideration the thirst for genuine democracy in Francophone Africa,” said Rahmane Idrissa, political scientist at the African Studies Centre at the University of Leiden. “So in Central Africa, they kept supporting — or tolerating — those dictators, those despots.”

Among France’s dwindling list of friends in Francophone Africa are Paul Biya, who has ruled Cameroon since 1982 and spends much of the year at the Intercontinental Hotel in Geneva; Congo-Brazzaville’s Denis Sassou Nguesso, whose four decades in power have been marked by repression; Mahamat Deby, who was installed as president of Chad in a coup in 2021 following the death of his father; and Togo’s Faure Gnassingbé, who took over from his late father in 2005.

“In general, France prefers stability over transparency,” said Nathan Powell, West Africa analyst at Oxford Analytica. “Having reliable military leaders or authoritarians who may have their downsides — maybe they don’t respect human rights, maybe they have blood on their hands — is preferable to the alternative, which they believe is chaos.”

Still, it would be a mistake to blame France for the corruption and mismanagement that characterizes these regimes, according to Kah Walla, an opposition politician and president of the Cameroon People’s Party,

“We have our scores to settle with France, we have our scores to settle with the West, but as Africans we have agency, as Africans we have resources, as Africans those resources and that agency has been completely mismanaged — managed in a corrupt fashion by our leaders for the past five-to-six decades,” she said.

“Ultimately, he has failed to cling to power due to growing popular frustration that the vast oil wealth has failed to trickle down to ordinary Gabonese,” Bovcon said of Bongo. A third of Gabon’s 2.2 million people live below the poverty line.

Now Gabon’s neighbors — and Bongo’s fellow presidents for life — appear to be getting nervous. Hours after the Gabon coup unfolded, Cameroon’s Biya announced a reshuffling of his armed forces.

“Regional authoritarians will be looking over their shoulders more after the events of the last few months,” said Powell, who’s also a historian at Lancaster University’s Centre for African Studies. “They’ll start investing in coup-proofing measures — because militaries might start getting ideas.”


(With assistance from Pius Lukong, Simon Marks, Samy Adghirni and Alan Katz.)