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date: 28 November 2020

Gabon: An Uneasy Civil‒Military Concordlocked

  • Olaf BachmannOlaf BachmannAfrican Leadership Centre, King's College London

Summary

Like many other African military forces, the Gabonese national army was a direct offshoot of a colonial army—the French one, in this case. Like many of their former brothers in arms on the African continent, the Gabonese military has had difficulty finding their bearings in the newly independent nation, with which they have experienced no bonding. A coup carried out by a handful of officers in 1964 dealt an early blow to the development of civil‒military concord. As of 1965, the political leadership, then firmly in the hands of the Bongo family, made sure it would keep the military under control. An important part of the security belt created by the Bongo regime was the propping up—and corresponding generous endowment—of a Presidential Guard and the paramilitary forces of the Gendarmerie. With the regime feeling more and more secure, among other reasons thanks to the agile management of an extensive patronage system fuelled by the country’s oil wealth, the army was allowed to grow and develop somewhat, although it never reached the capacity to defend the country’s sovereignty against any serious threat. Over the more than four decades of Omar Bongo’s rule (1967‒2009), Gabon’s defense remained outsourced to France through a range of initially secret and later publicly “legitimized” defense treaties. Occasional tensions, such as in the mid-1970s, did not significantly alter that pattern. With its security firmly guaranteed by the Garde Républicaine, the Gendarmerie, and the French, the regime worked to integrate the army into its control system. This was done though accelerating creation of a large number of senior officers’ posts, and these officers were gratified with honors, financial rewards, and at times official government posts. Meanwhile, the rank and file were kept at bay. Consequentially, a two-tier army that mirrored the country’s sociopolitical makeup evolved. Small pockets of professional soldiers did emerge in the country over the years, especially among up to colonel-rank commissioned officers, who benefited from excellent training abroad and were able to perfect their skills on peacekeeping operations. However, professionalism did not percolate through the institution. In 2020, 10 years into the reign of Omar Bongo’s son, Ali, the relationship of the military to the political power is unclear. On the one hand, the army may be an instrument of repression used by a ruling elite that is less and less benevolent in distributing benefits because it has lost the resources to do so. Such was the case in response to unrest after the 2016 elections. On the other hand, it cannot be excluded that part of the army’s lumpenmilitariat could side with the people in a revolt against the government. Because the legitimacy of the clientelist order is under duress, the coercive force provided by the carriers of arms can provide one line of defense, but the military may also turn against their increasingly anemic patron.

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