As its ruling dynasty withers, Gabon – a US ally and guardian of French influence in Africa – ponders its future

The fragility of one of the world’s longest-lasting political dynasties was exposed when the military attempted a coup in Gabon in January.

The coup, orchestrated by junior members of Gabon’s military, failed to unseat Ali Bongo Ondimba, whose family has run the central African country since the late 1960s. And Gabon’s next presidential election isn’t until the summer of 2023.

Bongo’s time in office may run out sooner.

The 60-year-old strongman has been effectively unable to rule since suffering an apparent stroke in October 2018, during Saudi Arabia’s Future Investment Initiative – often called “Davos in the desert.”

His evident frailty in recent TV appearances, coupled with the failed coup and lack of an obvious heir, has created a strong national sentiment that Gabon’s five-decade Bongo dynasty is on its last legs.

One of France’s last neocolonial outposts in Africa

Political upheaval is rare in Gabon, a diminutive central African nation about the size of the state of Colorado, with a population of 2 million and a lucrative oil industry.

Except for a short-lived military coup in 1964, Gabon has been regarded as a bastion of stability in troubled central Africa, where my research is focused. Oil wealth and the Bongo dynasty’s French backing has contributed to Gabon’s security, and in recent years Bongo has used this stability to turn Gabon into a key U.S. ally in the region.

But stability is not the same as democracy.

Since winning independence from France, in 1960, Gabon has had just three presidents. The first was Léon M’ba, who ruled from independence until 1967. The current president’s father – Omar Bongo Ondimba – assumed power after M’ba died.

Omar Bongo went on to rule Gabon with an iron fist for 42 years. To stay in power, he oversaw changes that ensured that the country’s nascent electoral system never became independent, free or fair.

During his rule, the elder Bongo helped to keep French political influence and military might alive in Africa by signing several mutual defense treaties with France. His policies benefited the “Françafrique” – a now-disparaged term describing France’s “special” relationship with its former colonies on the continent, which has included supporting dictators who protect its economic interests.

Gabon president Ali Bongo Odimba with Emmanuel Macron of France at the Africa EU Summit in Ivory Coast, Nov. 29, 2017. Reuters/Ludovic Marin/Pool
Omar Bongo ensured that Gabon remained a “neocolonial enclave,” as anthropologist Michael Reed wrote in 1987 in the Journal of Modern African Studies.

“Gabon’s very identity is inseparable from France,” Reed argued, “and the latter’s continued claim to ‘major power’ status, in which Africa is crucial, requires Gabon’s assistance.”

President Ali Bongo Ondimba, who assumed power after his father died in 2009 – in yet another election marred by irregularities – inherited his father’s fealty to France.

Gabon still routinely aligns itself with French interests in Africa. During Libya’s 2011 political upheaval, for example, Ali Bongo broke with the African Union and called for the embattled President Muammar Gaddafi to step down. France and other Western powers sought to dislodge the authoritarian Gaddafi, while African nations supported Gaddafi, promoting “African solutions to African problems.”