What’s Going On With The Hybrid War On Gabon?
The oil-rich West-Central African state of Gabon, home to less than two million people and some of the highest income-per-capita earners in the entire continent, surprisingly exploded into Hybrid War after a disputed presidential election handed a narrow victory to the incumbent. The opposition attempted to storm the electoral commission’s offices and then proceeded to torch the National Assembly in an orgy of anarchy that was belatedly put down with tear gas and riot police. Right afterwards, the security services attacked the opposition’s headquarters and arrested a few hundred of its leader’s supporters. As yet another country descends into the hellfire of Hybrid War, the rest of the world is scrambling to explain why this is happening, what the impact will be, and where it’s all headed.
In seeking to clear up the confusion surrounding the Hybrid War on Gabon and discover all the answers, the research begins by introducing the reader to the basics of this country so that its relative importance can be made understandable. After that, the work proceeds to discuss Beijing’s interests in Gabon and Libreville’s changing attitude towards China, before rehashing some of the details from the ongoing Hybrid War. Looking to the future, the research will then prognosticates on France’s reaction to these unfolding events and describes the factors that could push it to directly intervene in the fracas.
The coastal country of Gabon rarely makes it in the headlines, having remained a largely uneventful place for decades due to its comparatively small population and moderate energy reserves, both of which are concentrated on the littoral. The country used to be a member of OPEC from 1975-1995, but then returned once more in July 2016 after a two-decade-long hiatus. Its economy is obviously dependent on extractive resources, with oil being chief among them followed by iron ore and timber, all three of which collectively make up an estimated 93% of total exports. Gabon’s largest trading partners are China and France, and its foreign policy has swayed from Paris to Beijing and then back again to its former colonial master. France maintains nearly 1,000 troops in the capital of Libreville and has a consulate in the second-largest city of Port-Gentil, which also doubles as the country’s largest port. Moreover, the Total energy company maintains extensive investments in the energy sphere, which when combined with France’s economic and military influence, explains Libreville’s overreliance on Paris.
What’s particularly interesting about the country is its membership in the Saudis’ hemisphere-wide “anti-terrorist” coalition, which can be explained both as having been a possible prerequisite to its return to OPEC but also due to President Bongo’s Islamic faith, something which is a rarity in Gabon and only shared by 6.4% of the population. It doesn’t mean that every Muslim leader in the world is automatically predisposed to joining this bloc simply because of their religion, but just that Bongo seems to have been more susceptible to the Saudis’ outreaches due to the dual factors of his country aspiring to rejoin OPEC earlier this year and him being a statistically extreme confessional minority in an otherwise non-Muslim state. These national and personal attributes seem to have come together in making the “anti-terrorist” (read: anti-Iran) coalition attractive to Gabon.
Even though the country is lightly populated and thus doesn’t have much of a market potential to speak of, it’s still a strategic location for much more than only its energy reserves. Due to the French military presence in Libreville, Paris is able to keep troops on standby for snap-response deployment to Central African hotspots such as the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Additionally, because of its location, Gabon provides France with a midway location between the two rising African powers of Nigeria and Angola, a position which Paris could leverage to maximum effect if need be. France will probably maintain some sort of a military force in the country indefinitely because of these geostrategic and geo-economic considerations, but it’ll likely never admit to them openly and instead rely on the public knowledge that there are around 10,000 French citizens living in Gabon in order to justify its continued armed presence there.
Beijing’s Interests In Gabon
It was earlier mentioned how China is a player in Gabon and that the country had at one time leaned remarkably close to Beijing, so it’s necessary to follow up on what was meant by that and explain it a bit more comprehensively. President Bongo’s father, Omar Bongo, led the country for a whopping 42 years until his passing in 2009, leaving behind a legacy of what eventually turned out to be very pragmatic ties with China in spite of Gabon’s historic relationship with France. Beijing’s interests in Gabon at the time were the same as it was throughout most of Africa, and that was to acquire access to its extractive resources so that they could be exported to China. Despite being such a tiny and apparently obscure country, Gabon figured prominently enough in Chinese designs to warrant a high-profile trip by then-Chinese leader Hu Jintao in 2004 during his broader African tour, a visit which marked the zenith of Beijing’s influence in the country and was symbolic of the two side’s deepening relations with the other.
Everything started in change around 2013, however, which was the year that Chinese companies began encountering serious resistance in Gabon. Sinopec surrogate Addax became embroiled in a $1 billion oil dispute in Gabon during that year and ended up losing a huge court case in September which soon thereafter led to it paying a $400 million settlement in January 2014. Just a month before that in December 2013, Chinese mining giant Comibel lost its license to one of the world’s largest iron ore reserves in Belinga. These two landmark events marked an observable turning point in the Gabonese government’s relations with China, and the China Daily information outlet came out with an informative article around that time detailing all of the new challenges that Beijing could expect to experience going forward.
In hindsight, it appears as though Gabon had long been preparing to replace China with the EU, or put another way, perhaps just to temporarily exploit its relationship with China in order to receive football stadiums, waterfront developments, and the construction of its National Assembly and Senate (all of which are described in the previous China Daily hyperlink) that could then improve its negotiating position with the EU in advance of the multilateral Economic Partnership Agreement between Brussels and several Central African countries. Gabon entered into negotiations about this accord in the middle of the aughts but never ended up concluding the agreement, though it did seal a new fishing partnership marketed as “Blue Gabon in the beginning of 2013. Nevertheless, the prevailing trend is clear – irrespective of the ultimate success of Libreville’s policy, Gabon had decisively decided to drift away from China in favor of the EU ever since 2013, and this is the unmistakable trajectory that the country was going on the brink of the Hybrid War outbreak earlier this week.
It’s at this point that it’s necessary to review the lead-up to the recent conflict. Like it was written, Omar Bongo, the father of the current president, had presided over Gabon for over four decades before his death in 2009, after which a very close election resulted in his son assuming power. Clashes broke out between the government and the opposition during this time, with rioters burning down the French consulate in Port-Gentil and attacking several oil facilities. The violence was thankfully contained and didn’t end up toppling the new government, though it did foreshadow what would eventually break out seven years later during the election earlier this week. The government foresaw that violence was a very real possibility this time around so it deployed the military prior to the vote as an advance precautionary measure.
This turns out to have been a very wise move, since the razor-thin margin that Bongo pulled off in beating Jean Ping 49.8% to 48.23% with a spread of only 5,594 votes prompted the opposition to attempt a storming of the electoral commission and to torch the parliament. Ping’s supporters were provoked by their leader’s illegal declaration that he won the election before the tally was officially proclaimed, which preconditioned his followers into believing that the election was stolen from them the moment that the government made its announcement certifying that Bongo was the true winner. The opposition does make a valid point, though, in raising questions about the unprecedentedly active electorate that turned out to vote in Haut-Ogooué Province. The mineral-rich southeastern corner of the country is recognized as being the president’s strongest region of support, and a staggering 95.5% of the 99% of possible voters which came out to the polls backed Bongo.
In response to what legitimately might have been a case of fraud that could have otherwise given Ping a presidential victory, the opposition demanded that the votes be recounted, and the French Foreign Ministry even got involved by saying that Gabon must publish the results from all polling stations because “the credibility of the election as well as Gabon’s international reputation are at stake.” With the parliament burning and violence showing no sign of abating, France’s 1,000 or so troops stationed in the capital might end up being the final kingmakers in Gabon’s game of thrones.
Tricking Paris Into An Intervention
Analyzing the events in Gabon from the perspective of Hybrid War theory, it’s clear to see that the country is undergoing a premeditated regime change attempt, though not necessarily one which is backed by a foreign power. France, the predominant actor and final decision maker in all affairs of significance in Gabon, doesn’t have an interest one way or another whether it’s Bongo or Ping who runs the country. The incumbent wasn’t as close to China as he used to be, and his half-Chinese challenger didn’t make any suggestions during the campaign season that he would move Gabon closer to his father’s ancestral homeland. All in all, there are no grounds to dispute that Gabon would proceed with its pro-European path regardless of who won the election. The only faint difference between the two candidates is that Ping might pull Gabon out of the Saudis’ “anti-terrorist” coalition or distance his country from it, though it’s highly unlikely that the Saudis would react in any substantial or disproportionate way to this very minor political affront and loss of prestige, if such a move even happened in the first place (and there are no indications that it would in any case).
Therefore, it increasingly looks as though Ping is purposely fanning the flames of violent voter rage in Gabon in order to create the conditions that would necessitate a French intervention against Bongo, though one which would be clothed in the language of “humanitarian interventionism”. Ping is already testing this scenario through the dramatic appeal that he just made in which he pleaded that “We need assistance from the rest of the world to protect the population of Gabon from a clan of mercenaries, a rogue state.” This is precisely the sort of language meant to invite an outside military intervention, but it looks like France is biding its time and considering what other options it has besides that one. Paris already released the statement that it wants the results from all polling stations published in order to ensure that no fraud had taken place during the election, which can be read as a gentle suggestion that France is giving Bongo a face-saving means in which to step down by attributing his controversial victory to an erroneous tallying of the votes. It’s doubtful that he’ll abdicate his office just like that, however, since he firmly believes that he must continue his family’s legacy in ruling the country and that it would be shameful to leave the presidency under such conditions.
For the moment, France doesn’t seem to have any interest in ordering its Libreville-based forces into action, though it’s obviously preparing them to react to any emergency situation as it arises. Without a military intervention to swiftly depose of Bongo, Ping must then rely on French diplomacy in negotiating a phased leadership transition through a technical or caretaker government that could be installed with international pressure if the government is successfully compelled to agree to a compromise solution to the Hybrid War crisis. It’s not certain that this scheme would succeed, nor that a new round of elections would be held as part of this framework within the short time frame that Ping might be hoping for, so it’s possible that he and his supporters might try to trick France into carrying out a “humanitarian intervention” against Bongo by targeting some of the 10,000 French citizens residing within the country. They might spread the falsehood that these French casualties were just randomly “caught up in the violence” or possibly even “victims of the regime’s indiscriminate killing”, the second narrative of which could be used to transform the envisaged “humanitarian intervention” into a direct regime change operation modelled off of the one carried out in 2011 against Ivorian President Laurent Gbagbo under similarly manufactured circumstances.
Gabon is indeed undergoing a very sudden and violent period of Hybrid War activity, with the opposition having been seemingly provoked out of nowhere in torching the parliament and throwing the erstwhile stereotypically peaceful country into chaos, but clear signs from the similarly disputed 2009 election show that the anti-government forces had bided their time over the past 7 years quite well and invested it in preparing for this scenario. Gabon, once the most stable and barely discussed nations in Africa, is now front and center in all global news outlets and teetering on the edge of civil war. The three countries most strategically tied to Gabon are now anxiously awaiting the results of this turmoil.
China is worried about losing even more of its position in the country than it already has over the past couple of years since Gabon began progressively distancing itself from Beijing in favor closer ties with Paris and Brussels instead, while Saudi Arabia is standing by to see if one of the most unlikely members of its “anti-terrorist” coalition will still remain on board with the bloc if the opposition manages to successfully seize power. France, for its part, is the only one of the three actors in a position to actually do anything about this mess and directly involve itself in the conflict-resolution process, though only if it decides to order its in-country troops to decisively intervene between the two sides and/or carry out an overt regime change operation there. As it stands, Paris doesn’t have much of an appetite for getting drawn into a military adventure that’s not of its own making, seeing as how it appears very unlikely that France had anything at all to do with the current unrest that’s plaguing Gabon.
Rather, it convincingly looks like the opposition has masterfully engineered a scenario in which the lives of some of the 10,000 French citizens in Gabon are plausibly threatened and which in turn could prompt Paris into undertaking a “humanitarian intervention” in favor of Ping’s regime change insurgents. When it’s all said and done, only France has the means to overthrow the Gabonese government, whether through discrete pressure behind the scenes or militantly interfering in its affairs, since Libreville has enough conventional forces to fight off the rebels and bring peace to the country, though provided that it has the political will to use such resources in the ‘heavy-handed’ manner in which they must urgently be employed. Should Paris fail to act and Ping doesn’t succeed in overthrowing Bongo, then a beleaguered Libreville might end up turning to Beijing for relief and inadvertently spark the same sort of French-led intervention that it had initially hoped to avoid.