The latest coups in Africa have exposed some uncomfortable truths: The continent is on the verge of unravelling, and the EU is not only unable or unwilling to help – it is most probably not even fully aware of the situation on the ground.
Africa has now seen 33 military coups in 33 years. And at least 45 of the 54 nations across the African continent have experienced at least a single coup attempt since 1950, according to analyst data.
Some of the coups have been more obvious than others. Yet, somehow, the West always appears to be taken by surprise by a continent that EU officials refer to as a ‘partner’ or ‘sister’ continent.
The latest episode is in Gabon, where a group of senior military officers appeared on national television in the early hours of Wednesday (30 Wednesday) and said they had taken power after the state election body announced that President Ali Bongo had won a third term.
It should not have come as a huge surprise. The Bongo family has held the presidency for over 55 years and the elections last Saturday, like those in 2019, were very close, despite being widely believed to be fraudulent. A coup attempt in early 2019 was foiled.
It is not unlikely that other recent coups in Niger and Burkina Faso encouraged the army in Gabon to think they could pull it off.
It remains to be seen whether the possible ‘domino effect’ will frighten the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) away from potentially intervening in Niger.
Cameroon and Congo-Brazzaville, neighbouring states with corrupt, geriatric and little-loved presidents who have rigged elections for decades, are obvious next dominoes.
Either way, it’s clear that we’re potentially facing years of region-wide instability and that risks derailing efforts by the EU and the wider international community to tackle jihadist violence.
That, in turn, has implications for the EU’s migration control strategy in North and sub-Saharan Africa.
That the coups are able to take hold is also a sign of European weakness. Twenty years ago, France would have stepped in. Now, however, anti-francophone sentiment is so strong in the Sahel and West Africa that Paris is powerless.
This, and the chaos in the region, has been leapt upon by Russia and its notorious mercenary wing, the Wagner group.
Extremist groups linked to the Islamic State and al-Qaida have spread in the Sahel region, particularly in Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso in recent years, making the region increasingly unstable.
“The whole area – starting with Central African Republic, then Mali, then Burkina Faso, now Niger, maybe Gabon – it’s in a very difficult situation,” the EU’s chief diplomat Josep Borrell told reporters in Toledo, Spain.
For Europe, it is a problem, he added.
While EU foreign and defence ministers grapple to assess the situation and find a response to stem the increasing instability in West Africa and the wider Sahel region, one question looms large.
Why does the EU have so little situational awareness here (but also in other regions)?
The EU’s Strategic Compass, the bloc’s first-ever military strategy, was meant to fix this by producing a “shared threat assessment and a joint commitment to action”, covering security trends in different regions of the world.
Last year, Borrell courted controversy when he publicly criticised his ambassadors for failing to develop political links and intelligence networks.
The EU’s diplomatic service (EEAS) is a young institution that, in many third countries, is still finding its feet.
But the truth is that the bloc is doomed to rely on member states’ intelligence in the absence of its own intelligence service.
Unfortunately, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that, in diplomatic and intelligence terms, the blind are leading the blind here.
The EU plans to launch a new civil-military mission in the Gulf of Guinea in West Africa in autumn in order to contain the threat posed by jihadist groups, as the bloc seeks to stem the tide of growing instability in the region.
EU defence ministers are expected to discuss the developing military situation in Gabon as well as the bloc’s wider approach to the Sahel, the EU’s chief diplomat Josep Borrell said on Wednesday as the region faces increased instability.
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While Germany recently passed a bill to legalise cannabis, France continues to pursue a highly restrictive policy despite having one of the highest rates of cannabis use in Europe.
Look out for…
EU foreign ministers meet informally in Toledo, Spain on Ukraine, Niger and wider Sahel instability.
Views are the author’s
[Edited by Benjamin Fox/Zoran Radosavljevic]