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The recent coup in Gabon — the seventh in Africa since 2020 — has provoked a series of panicked reactions from diplomatic, business and regional communities. As coup contagion spreads across West and Central Africa, the burning issue is a simple one: which country is next?

To answer this question it is important to understand the broad geopolitical environment in which military-led regime change in Africa occurs, going back to 2011. Indeed, there are parallels between the recent coups and the Arab Spring, when violent protests spread across North Africa and eventually resulted in regime change in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya.

Though the exact drivers of discontent were different, there is a number of similarities. In both instances those leading the regime change capitalised on a spirit of dissatisfaction with underperforming, arrogant and unresponsive elites out of touch with the realities of ordinary citizens.

Intriguingly, the military leaders in most countries are millennials — another similarity with the youth who led the Arab Spring protests. Meanwhile, governance across the globe has taken a more authoritarian turn and has in some ways legitimised such actions.

Furthermore, in an era of increasing geopolitical competition among great global powers, the role of African nations is increasingly being defined by their geostrategic alignment rather than their democratic credentials.

With the likes of the Wagner Group offering support for newly installed juntas, military leaders have recognised that they have leverage, especially in a world where the virtues of democracy are being questioned. 

While shifting demographics and geopolitics may have created an environment that is fertile for regime change, several unique conditions also explain the latest wave of coups.

Longevity of regimes

Underpinning the coup in Gabon was a ruling dynasty (the Bongo family had governed Gabon for more than 50 years) that was undemocratic, repressive and corrupt, and whose longevity was tied to the fidelity of the country’s armed forces. Within a context of gross civic dissatisfaction, the military exploited the Bongo administration’s dependence on it to undertake a power grab.

Though potentially risky, the junta was confident its takeover would draw popular support, thereby nullifying the effects of the expected regional and international condemnation.

When assessing the nexuses between governance systems, state repression and civil-military relations, a few countries on the continent share these characteristics with Gabon.

People celebrate the coup, in Port-Gentil, Gabon, August 30 2023. Picture: REUTERS
People celebrate the coup, in Port-Gentil, Gabon, August 30 2023. Picture: REUTERS

The first set are fellow Economic Community of Central African States (Eccas) member states Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea and the Republic of Congo. Collectively, the administrations of Paul Biya, Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo and Denis Sassou-Nguesso have ruled for 123 years.

As was the case in Gabon, the longevity of these regimes is not tethered to the strength of their respective political institutions but rather the might of their country’s armed forces — a dynamic that renders these countries highly vulnerable to the whims of their respective militaries.

Outside the Eccas bloc a watchful eye should be kept on the likes of Djibouti, Uganda and Togo, where governments with an authoritarian tilt continue to leverage off their armed forces to suppress populations that yearn for greater political freedom.

Catalysts for coup d’etats are not limited to military-centric autocracies. This was demonstrated by regime change in relatively functional democracies such as Burkina Faso, Mali and — most recently — Niger. A common theme in these Sahelian states was how insecurity affected civil-military relations, causing the role of the military to become elevated while that of the state was diluted.

In each of these three cases the state’s position was further undermined by policy positions that were seen to favour foreign rather than domestic interests. Taken together, the expanding threat of militancy, alongside an inordinate reliance on the military for state stability, could also be catalysts for unconstitutional power grabs in other African states. The Central African Republic, beset by armed insurgencies and dependence on both internal and external armed forces, falls squarely in the firing line.

Another consideration relates to how much the military’s interests are threatened by the state. A notable example was the 2012 coup in Guinea-Bissau that toppled the regime of president-elect Carlos Gomes Júnior. At the time, Gomes was elected on a mandate to deal with corruption and organised crime in Guinea-Bissau, with a particular focus on investigating ties between members of the military brass and transnational drug-trafficking networks. Gomes’s intentions led to an unconstitutional power grab by the country’s armed forces.

A more contemporary example was Sudan, where the civilian arm of the Sovereign Council transitional government aimed to dilute the control of the Sudanese Armed Forces over key economic institutions. However, the civilian government’s efforts in this regard led to it being subject to a coup by its military counterpart in October 2021.

Countries that have touted or actively tried a reduction in the role of their armed forces as economic agents include Ethiopia, Egypt and Zimbabwe. Depending on the degree of the government’s encroachment on the military’s economic interests, such governments could themselves be targets of military-led regime change.

Coup consequences

Military coups often have a detrimental effect beyond domestic politics. From a financial markets perspective, the direct effect has been largely muted given the limited exposure to international capital markets. Barring Gabon, none of the countries in question have actively traded Eurobonds. However, neighbouring countries in the region have suffered increased risk premiums as a result of contagion.

The likes of Senegal have fallen firmly in the market’s firing line simply because it is both Sahelian and francophone. Such indiscriminate contagion is certainly a risk and may become more pronounced in an environment where interest rates remain high and sentiment towards emerging markets retains a negative bias. Add election anxiety and potential ratings downgrades to the mix, and a number of countries may start to see their fiscal headroom erode further.

The modus operandi of many of the military juntas, at least in the short term, has been to close borders and restrict airspace. Along with the inevitable sanctions that accompany such unconstitutional regime change, this will be damaging for trade if sustained. It also poses serious questions about the prospects of integration and the African Continental Free Trade Area, if such insular and protectionist policy orientations are maintained.

The natural effect of a perceived and actual decline in political stability and quality of governance will almost certainly affect future capex decisions. Extractive companies in particular are highly sensitive to country and governance risk, and the “scar tissue” of such events will remain when it comes to renewing investment or growing investment in the region.

• Gopaldas and Cummings are directors at African risk advisory firm Signal Risk.

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