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Gabon: An Uneasy Civil‒Military Concordlocked

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.

Subjects

  • Contentious Politics and Political Violence
  • Governance/Political Change
  • History and Politics

In Gabon, in a situation close to the Huntingtonian understanding of military professionalism (Huntington, 1957), the army is generally physically separated from the people. (Soldiers may live in their own places in town, but they do not appear in uniform in public.) The physical separation, however, does not equal the political and social separation of the military from society, which would be the Huntingtonian pattern. Rather, the army fulfills a social role. However, as part of a profoundly clientelist political and social order and as an instrument of an arbitrary decision-making system, the armed forces of Gabon have not even marginally contributed to the construction of the state nor have they helped in defending its sovereignty. There are pockets of professionalism and a degree of national pride up to the level of colonel in the armed forces that do contribute to supporting a state with fragile foundations but that cannot preserve the military from interpenetration by a deeply anchored patrimonial sociopolitical system. The Gabonese regular “social army” fulfills a role distinct from conventional Huntington understanding. It is split into quasimilitary elite elements in contention with civilian counterparts at the upper levels of society, while the ordinary citizens are confronted by analogously suffering squaddies.

Historical Background

As the French consolidated their colonial domination over the western part of Central Africa, which includes modern Gabon, the separation of the soldier from the community was long a fact of life. The African military of the small Loango Kingdom had long ceased protecting the traditional social order, as evidenced by the fact that in the last decade of the 19th century and in the early 20th century, it was African soldiers who were hunting slaves to be sold on the coast to the benefit of the local rulers. During the wars of colonial conquest, the colonial armies’ rank and file were made up of Africans, and these wars mostly pitted Africans against each another. This process of alienation of the African carriers of arms from their community is the first historical example of distinct civil‒military relations in Africa. In the case of Gabon, the French initiative in the founding of Libreville as the equivalent of Freetown as a welcoming harbor for liberated slaves anchored the country’s attachment to France. Soldiers from the part of Africa that constitutes Gabon counted among the more than 40 African battalions recruited by the French for external service during the interwar years of the 20th century. The parallel service of Frenchmen and Africans—as well as French units and French-officered African units—blurred the territorial identities of colonial forces beyond recognition. In a way, this left the African soldiers “national orphans,” garrisoned all over the continent. As a result, even though a few World War II veterans did develop a more national self-conscious stance, many of them had not done their service in their region of origin, even if they had fought on the continent, so few of them joined in the struggle for independence. On the contrary, many African soldiers mutinied against their “own” new states, the most prominent cases being in the former British colonies of Uganda, Tanzania, and Kenya in 1964. The same year, in Gabon a military mutiny of much more modest scope was subdued with the help of French forces. The Forces Françaises au Gabon (FFG) have stayed there ever since.1

Creation of the Gabonese Armed Forces

The history of the Gabonese armed forced begins with a decree by President Leon M’ba on December 6, 1960. As in other postcolonial countries, the Ganonese army was initially made up of former soldiers of the metropolitan army, in this case mostly noncommissioned officers (NCOs) from the French 21st Brigade d’Infanterie de Marine (BIMA).2 As early as 1959, conscription had been ruled out because a service civil obligatoire could not have absorbed all young men of military age and any selection would have been perceived as unfair. Besides, in the locals’ minds, compulsory service was closely associated with the forced labor of the colonial eraGr 12 S 645, Dossier 6. Consequently, as late as 1962, President M’ba and French Ambassador Risterucci agreed that French soldiers of Gabonese nationality should be given the choice of re-engaging with the French army or switching to the Gabonese miltary (Letter June 5, 1962, Risterucci to M’Ba, Archives Chateau Vincennes, Gr 12 S 645, Dossier 1; hereafter cited by shelf number).

In practice, the first Gabonese company was set up on July 1, 1961. It was comprised of 78 French officers and NCOs and 150 Gabonese gendarmes. The creation of a second company followed on March 2, 1962. At that point, the constitution of a Génie militaire (units in charge of logistics, construction) was ruled out.3 The buildup plan included two options, a Gabonese one and an unofficial French one called the plan raisonnable. The former planned for a gendarmerie of 1,006 men and an army of 619 soldiers by 1965, while the latter suggested a staffing of 288 gendarmes and an army of 519 personnel. The latter was not officially endorsed but implemented. The buildup of the armed forces was interrupted by a coup in 1964, which also marked a turn in the development of military forces in the country.

The 1964 Coup and Its Long-Term Impact

The coup was perpetrated on February 18, 1964, by four French-trained Gabonese low-ranking officers—lieutenant-level Jean Essone, Daniel Ndo Edou, and Jacques Mombo and Second-Lieutenant Daniel M’Bene—with the help of some 150 soldiers (Reed, 1987, p. 296). From then on and until at least the early 1990s, the regular army was considered a potential threat to the power in place, a situation that explains the army’s slow growth and the rise of alternative armed forces specifically set up to defend the regime.

The then director of the cabinet of President M’ba, Albert Bernard Bongo, was in charge of steering the presidency’s reaction to the coup. Actually, Bongo used the opportunity to considerably reshape the security forces to support his own political aims, redesigning the entire security apparatus to help accompany his ascension to power and later to protect it. Bongo had been a second lieutenant in the French air force and had served 2 years in the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Gabon before independence. As director of the cabinet at the time of the coup, he was in charge of defense and had been among the first to detect the threat, but his warnings had been ignored (Malékou, 2016). However, his overall political situational awareness and alertness had earned him the trust of the French, who would later pressure President M’ba to promote him as his successor—even if this soured his relationship with the vice president (Reed, 1987).

There had to be a new start for the army after the coup, and French counsellors pushed M’ba to react. In practice, the response of the regime to the coup was less drastic than it could have been with regard to repression of the army or the civilian population. The president understood that most of the army personnel had an ambiguous loyalty to Gabon because they had served France as soldiers previously. Indeed, Léon M’ba is cited by the French Conseiller Militaire as saying on December 31, 1965: “’I do not have much to say to the Gabonese people because ever since after the events of February 1964 they have behaved well” (Nr 826 CMG/S).

The military themselves were eager to reconfirm their loyalty to the state. Coups in neighboring or sometimes more distant African countries were opportunities for them to do so, as they did, for example, spontaneously after Bokassa’s coup in Bangui on New Year’s Eve of 1965. At the same time, these coups were also used by the regime to further bridle the military, leading to resentment. For example, after the coup, strict new regulations on the supply of ammunition to the army were put in place, leaving many officers angry about the fact that the president had no confidence in their loyalty. During the first year of his rule, Bongo tried to avoid provocation. The events in Biafra between 1967 and 1970 alarmed him about the dangers of regionalism and secessionism, and he saw potential analogies to the Fang, Gabon’s biggest ethnic group, and their grievances. After all, a Batéké had taken the presidency from the Fang community’s M’ba, even though they felt strong entitlement to the position.4 After a coup in Burkina Faso in 1975, President Bongo ordered all ammunition to be placed under the control of the Presidential Guard (Rapport mensuel of the French Conseiller Militaire).5 There had been a precedent—the temporary disarmament to punish the police in 1969.

In subsequent years, officers would occasionally be purged for “tentative de coup” without any evidence being put forward. According to the French military advisor, Albert Bongo was the initiator in all cases. The French speculated that Bongo’s motivation was that there were not enough officers of “race pure” but too many “métis Mpongwé” (GR 12 S 645, Dossier 1). Bongo aimed at balancing the officer corps more equally. In practice, Bongo was preparing his takeover. By the end of 1966, the French reported that Bongo, now vice president, “[had] practically taken all Gabonese affairs in his hands.”

The threat environment Bongo sensed consisted mostly of rumors and incomplete information, although the high number of military coups in the region justified his worries to some degree. In hindsight, many of Bongo’s dignitaries realized this.6 However, contemporary witnesses confirmed to this author that they considered Bongo as commanding a political understanding and a capacity to maneuver and guide, which had a strongly intimidating effect on everybody who worked with him.7 There was no way to circumvent Bongo on any issue, and even in 2019 his political talent still received acclaim. He still is described as a sharp thinker unlikely to having fallen to unjustified anxieties. The superior figure of Bongo allows to explain the own contribution to Bongo’s regime without having to take any responsibility for the outcome. There is only one case witnesses could recall as an example of Bongo’s fallibility: in September 1971, Germain M’ba (then Ambassador to Tokyo) was assassinated in Libreville. This caused major discussion and confusion. The victim’s family accused both “the French” and the Garde Républicaine. Bongo did not want to be connected to the resulting enquiry and delegated it away from the Gabonese security forces to the French services. This short crisis faded away without result, and in 1974 a French assessment declared that Bongo’s rule had again achieved uncontested and absolute power (GR 12 S 645, Dossier 1).

Regime Protection: The Garde Républicaine

An important but relatively unnoticed development directly after the 1964 coup was the creation of the Garde Républicaine de Sécurité (GR) in May 1964. In his first report mentioning the GR, the French military advisor noted that most of the members of the force were recruited abroad and that those “mercenaries” were characterized by their “lack of discipline” and their “brutality” (GR 12 S 645, Dossier 1). The GR unit, which would grow over time from fewer than 100 personnel to an extended battalion of five companies of approximately 160 personnel each, became the extraconstitutional and widely feared main instrument of presidential coercive power.

In 1966, the French reported that “La Garde Républicaine de Sécurité est très solidement encadrée et la proportion de Batékés (Bongo) a été sérieusement augmentée” (GR 12 S 645, Dossier 2).8 By 1967, the GR had 60 personnel. An planned increase to 200 in that year was stalled by a lack of capable recruits. However, the target was reached by the end of 1968, with all GR members being Batéké of Bongo’s home region. In addition, an Escadron d’intervention Rapide and a company of paratroopers were set up simultaneously, and, together with the GR, they were garrisoned in the presidential palace.

The GR was renamed the Garde présidentielle (GP) in 1990, but its nature as an instrument of regime protection shaped by and for President Omar Bongo did not change. By 1992, the GP was composed of 740 Batéké from Bongo’s home region and 50 Moroccan elite soldiers provided by Bongo’s close ally, the King of Morocco. The GR/GP continued to operate according to its own chain of command, reporting only to the president.

A Second Line of Protection: The Gendarmerie

With the GR representing close protection of the president and his inner circle, a more extended and very robust trench line to secure political order was constituted by the Gendarmerie. By the end of 1966, it was described by the French as the most solid military force in Gabon (GR 12 S 645, Dossier 2). The Gendarmerie grew fast, from 650 personnel in 1964 to 1,000 in 1967. In 1967 (July 1), for the first time the command of its first battalion—called Gardin, after the first French officer in command—went to a Gabonese. By 1969, the Gendarmerie had increased to 1,241 personnel. Gendarmerie officers reportedly counted among those social groups generously graced by presidential “envelopes,” meant to ensure the loyalty of the pillars of his regime.9 In 1982, all Gendarmerie officers were requested to renew their serment de fidélité to Bongo due to his fear of military conspiracies. Over the years, the Gendarmerie would remain Gabon’s most reliable and professional military force reporting to the Ministry of Defense.

The Regular Armed Forces: A Poor Parent

Army

As indicated in the historical account, the early Gabonese military was few in number, poorly equipped, and under the close control of the French military. Until the coup in 1964, it was made up of a single battalion, the First Bataillon d’Infanterie Gabonais. After that, it split into two detachments, paving the way for the constitution of a second battalion, which was effective by 1965. Prior to that, the command of the second unit shifted from a French NCO to a Gabonese second lieutenant.

Five years into independence, the composition of the armed forces of Gabon was as shown in Table 1.

Table 1. Armed Forces of Gabon, 1960 (Based on Data From the French Military Archives)

Officers

NCOs

Privates

Total

Libreville (LBV) Etat Major

8

15

71

Owendo training

2

6

78

Oyem garrison

1

6

34

Mouila garrison

2

9

55

On training in France

3

3

0

Recruits (privates) by July 1965

55

Total

16

39

238

293

This included one peloton [section] of newly created Auxiliaires Féminins based in Owendo, south of Libreville.

In a letter of March 1966, the French superior commander, General Ailleret, wrote to military advisor Lt. Col. Galut that he should put pressure on President M’ba to increase the army to 450 personnel by 1967 (GR 12 S 645, ordre de mission). Ailleret emphasized that the Gabonese armed forces were modest and well known to France, and that the army would not represent a threat because the Gendarmerie would be loyal and in control. Threats to the power in place could therefore only arise from individual soldiers who wanted to satisfy personal political ambitions (GR 12 S 645, Dossier 2). At that time, the newly established Republican Guard consisted of a mere 84 soldiers commanded by a former French NCO. Its quality was considered poor, and M’ba asked France to send 10 gendarmes to train and it and build it up (GR 14 S 258).

By 1967, according to the French Assistance Militaire Technique (ATM; op cit.) the regular army counted 545 staff, including 51 Air Force (two pilots), 26 Navy, and 45 females in the female corps. Following border incidents with the Congo Republic between 1966 and 1968, three new pelotons of 150 each in Dindi, Port Gentil, and Bitam were planned. By 1972, the size of the Army had reached 35 officers, 75 NCOs, and 695 soldiers distributed among seven companies (including a new paratrooper company). The units in two battalions were at a mere 35% of effective strength. By then, the Gendarmerie had 20 officers, 101 NCOs, and 1,124 soldiers in nine territorial companies.10 In other words, Gendarmerie it was as large as the French forces garrisoned in Gabon. The GR, for its part, had 20 officers (14 of them French) and 370 soldiers, equipped with 10 light tanks, one 75-mm cannon, six 81-mm mortars, and 10 machine guns. By contrast, the Army’s “heavy” firepower was limited to two 75-mm cannons and 20 anti-aircraft artillery.

Air Force

In 1960, just for the first celebration of independence, three French Broussard aircraft were repainted in Gabonese colors for the national holiday on August 17. In terms of equipment, the Air Force could rely on two C47 Douglas Skytrains, four Broussards, and one Bell helicopter “un peu fatigué,” all materiel that had been handed over for free by the French in 1962 when their local airbase was officially transformed into a Gabonese base. By 1972, the Air Force had grown to include one DC 6 and three C47s, two Nord 262s, one Mystère, two Cessna 357s (for the GR), one Puma, and one Alouette helicopter, as well as 12 SAM missiles. Like the other components of the armed forces, the Air Force had its equipment level significantly beefed up after the beginning of the oil boom in 1974. In the late 1970s, President Bongo ordered a wing of four Mirage fighter jets—later to be increased to five—and the adaptation of Libreville’s military airport. In 1983, the Air Force received its first modern Hercules aircraft.

Navy

In 1969, the Navy received a new boat, the Commandant Bory, meant to replace the old vedette Speedboat Bouet Willaumez.11 The Navy was hoping to have a proper base by the end of the year, although the French at the time assessed its old ship as “beyond repair” (GR 12 S 645, Dossier 2). According to the French, even the new boat was of little value because there were no facilities to maintain it in Gabon. Its commander was a Gabonese officer without any maritime training, working with a parrain [godfather] at his side, a former French Navy second maître [Petty Officer Second Class]. The two Navy vessels were operated by six officers and 55 crew. In 1983, the Navy received its third unit, a 32-m patrol boat, the N’Guene, from the United States.

Weaponry

As of 1969, Gabon’s import of arms had been gradual, with much of Gabon’s weaponry continuing to be gifts from France, whereby the latter seemed to have increasingly tilted its support in favor of the GR and the Gendarmerie. For example, the Army received 35 rifles MAS 49/36 (10 rounds semi-automatic), but the GR received 100 such rifles, 200 pistols MAC 50, 200 submachine guns MAT 49, eight machine guns, eight 73-mm guns, and three 60-mm mortars. In addition, it received two Cessna 337s (Skymaster), four all-terrain camionettes, and five armored cars automitrailleuses M8.12 A few years earlier, at the time when tensions arose with neighboring Congo (1966‒1968), France donated 10 scout cars (blindés) to Gabon, three of which went to the GR and seven to the Army. It is important to note that, over the period, all equipment necessary for orientation, command, control, and communication went to the GR, including binoculars (100 in 1975), 20 compasses, and five photocopiers. Egypt delivered light tanks and trucks, Brazil delivered mortars and rifles, and Iran, Germany, Togo, and Belgium delivered small arms. A look at budgets may help explain the relationships among the three main components of the armed forces. In 1966/67, the total armed forces budget was 6.42 million euros (in 2019 value). Of this, less than 24% went to the three services combined (Army, Navy, and Air Force), whereas more than 38% went to the Gendarmerie, and a considerable 10.5% went to the small GR alone:

Army, Navy, and Air Force: 397,394,000 XAF = ± 1.6 million euros (at 2019 value)13

Gendarmerie: 581,850,000 XAF = ± 2.45 million euros

Garde Républicaine: 159,610,000 XAF = ± 0.67 million euros

Police: 409,962,000 XAF = ± 1.7 million euros

In the 1990s period of democratization, which Omar Bongo described as “the wind of change rattling the palm trees,” quality equipment was distributed as demonstrated by this representative tally: the Gendarmerie by then had 2,000 submachine guns, and the Army, none. Of assault guns, the Army had 2,000, and the Gendarmerie had 1,500; of hand grenades, the Army owned 0, the Gendarmerie 50,000, and the GR 250,000. Not only was this the outcome of a stronger militarization of the security forces during the period of 1990s democratic pressure, but also it had gradually developed, at least for the Gendarmerie, from 1974 to 1975 and onward. Spending for the Gendarmerie increased from 700 to 920 million XAF; in comparison, the Army and Navy received 425 million in 1974 and 620 million in 1975 in total. Bongo’s threat assessment increased after France did not intervene in another coup in Niamey, Niger. Hence, firepower was concentrated in Gabon’s most loyal forces.

Staffing

In terms of personnel, based on detailed archive research (data available through 1978), comparative growth in staffing for the different forces is shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1. Armed forces in Gabon 1960‒1978.

Based on data from the French military archives.

There are few quality data for the 1980s because restrictions on French archives and a lack of records in Gabon cause a gap in the data. Interestingly, the most reliable data collection, IISS Military Balance, gives standardized repeated information as of 1990, which has not differed from year to year ever since. Gabonese sources from Parliament and high-ranking generals estimated active forces in June 2019 to be 20,500, including 12,000 Army/Navy/Air Force/Fire Brigade, 3,000 GR, 4,500 Gendarmerie, and 1,000 secret police. These numbers were confirmed by French military advisory staff (see Figure 2). One high-ranking Gabonese military source gave the exact number of 20,185 overall. This is a considerable force compared to Gabon’s small population of approximately 1.5 million inhabitants, even if GlobalFirepower.com’s military strength index ranked Gabon’s forces as among the weakest military, placing Gabon 126 out of 136 countries in 2018 and dropping it to 128 in the 2019 grading.

Figure 2. Armed forces in Gabon 1960‒2019.

Based on data from the French military archives, IISS data, and interviews.

Training/Readiness

In 1967, the French military noted, “the mini army remains completely inefficient, but . . . does not appear to present a threat to the government” (Annual report of the French command, GR 14 S 258). In the same report, the French also assumed that the Gabonese forces were not sufficiently solide[solid] to protect order. The report further commented on the poor performance of the administrative staff, the absence of a civic attitude, and the importance of family alliances that overwhelmingly shaped communal relations. The morale of soldiers in those years was at its nadir, and decisions taken at the top on command structures further deepened frustrations. Promotions were stalled, and the highest ranks in Gabon at the time were one Commandant (i.e., Major) and two Captains. The decision in 1968 that a French officer would resume control of military administration from a Gabonese comrade caused anger. This had consequences. For instance, a year after the French donated armored cars, they still stood idle, because a unit to operate them had not yet been established.

A 1971 follow-up assessment denoted a slight improvement, stating that the Gabonese command showed a lot of goodwill but also that it was “currently incapable [of directing] and coordinat[ing] action (operations), including very basic ones. In case of a real operation, French officers would have to back up the Gabonese military hierarchy” (GR 14 S 258).

Systematic military schooling of Gabonese soldiers started in earnest in the 1970s. The first cohort, in 1971‒1972, included 101 students who were sent to different military training institutions in France, depending on their service affiliation. In 1972‒1973, Gabon asked for 173 personnel to be trained, but only 116 were admitted. By 1977, another 268 soldiers had been trained, mostly for NCO levels but including seven helicopter pilots. The report on each year and cohort is monotone: “The results of the Gabonese military are in general very mediocre” (GRS 12 S 645, Dossier 8). The French military adviser put this in a broader context:

The multiple appeals against indolence, absenteeism, and the lack of civil spirit launched by President Bongo to the Gabonese people seem to fall on deaf ears: “Any organization that does not include technical assistants on its staff stands out by its inefficiency and incoherence.” (French Military Advisor No 1361 CMG/CD of September 1969, translated by author)

A command post exercise in 1975 gave no indication of how efficient the chain of command was by then because most of the heads of units had missed it. General N’Koma, Colonel Ba Oumar, and Lt. Col. Roux (Air Force) were traveling in Morocco, and Commandant Djoué had accompanied his wife to Paris for medical treatment.

The Missions of the Armed Forces

A Convention spéciale of March 18, 1961, bearing the signature of Léon M’ba, designated the Gabonese army as a French auxiliary, with the mandate to maintain domestic order in critical conditions. It was another 5 years before other tasks were added—in the context of growing tensions arising with neighboring Congo and Equatorial Guinea as of 1966. Léon M’ba then declared in a speech for the first and last time that the emphasis of the army’s role was external defense.

Then, in November 1967, M’ba declared that the army must contribute more than just defense and must become an “army of development”—a common concept throughout sub-Saharan Africa. This was more ex post rationalization than something new, as the Génie militaire had already been mobilized earlier to build roads (a modest 12 km before the rainy season in 1965). The development of such an army, however, was hampered by the lack of means: in 1968, the Génie had only three trucks, one excavator, one grader, one bulldozer, and one compressor.

The operational capacity of the Gabonese armed forces improved considerably over the stretch of 30 years. Their deployment in peacekeeping operations in 1997 (in the context of a regional Central African force in the Central African Republic) had a positive impact on their discipline and effectiveness. Some of their officers, such as retired Brigadier-General Bibaye, gained an excellent reputation for their performance as commanders. High standards for the infantry combat force were upheld by the fact that forces abroad have been generally mixed, including a 20% GR ratio. By 2019, an estimated 6,000 Gabonese military of all services were deployed abroad. Apart from peacekeeping operations, Gabonese soldiers saw little action other than small-scale patrols in the regions bordering Congo to suppress poaching, gold traffickers, and the infiltration of small arms. Four regiments were earmarked for this task.

The Political Logic of Command and Control

In 1971, a general assessment of Gabonese armed forces provided to the French Etat major des Armées indicated that the three categories of armed forces (Army, Gendarmerie, GR) had no means of coordination among them, and there was no council to align them whatsoever.14 This was deliberate because the President did not want a powerful military command.

Disharmony among the services and the impossibility of communicating or coordinating is a standard method developed by political leaders in all of Central Africa, especially in francophone countries, to forestall any danger that might arise from the difficulty of “guarding the guardian”—the core problem of civil‒military relations. By nature, forces are competing if they are not compelled, or institutionally set up, to cooperate. In such a system, they are brought together at the behest of the leader only if and when he feels that this can serve his interest. If he feels that pitting them against one another, or putting them in competition, will be more useful, he will do so. This makes him the one and only commander in chief, and the main arbiter in case of conflict. Furthermore, the presence of an external backer—France, in this case—gives him yet another channel to react to perceived risks.15

Common Interests: The French Anchor

France has been, and remains, a pillar of regime stability in Gabon ever since the country’s independence, even if the link has become looser over time and the relationship has experienced periods of tension. French support for the Gabonese military—in its diverse formations—has been a key element of the provision of stability, while it has enabled the French to preserve their access to a key strategic outpost for the projection of their military force and strategic influence in Western/Central Africa. Thus, the French have been maintaining a combination of technical military assistance (Assistance militaire technique, AMT) dedicated specifically to the support of the Gabonese armed forces, and a military base to support their own operations in the region ever since independence.

As mentioned, the creation of the Gabonese army was in fact largely an act of changing a few uniforms and items of equipment to Gabonese colors, while the new army was placed strictly in a French conceptual framework, working directly under the command of French officers. For the first 6 years, until September 1966, the Gabonese military was under the official command of the French armed forces. Once supreme command went to the Gabonese president—then Albert Bongo—the post of chief of staff nevertheless remained with a French technical assistant (GR 14 S 258).

At the same time, the Gabonese constitution was amended to allow for the permanent deployment of French forces on the territory of Gabon.16 The context was not only the President’s distrust of the Gabonese military after the coup, but also tensions with then socialist Congo Brazzaville and turmoil in neighboring Equatorial Guinea. At the tactical level, this led to the setting up of a radio alarm network connecting all watch posts on the borders with Congo and Equatorial Guinea to the President’s office and to the French forces in Gabon. Several years later, in 1975, following a military coup in N’Djamena, a direct radio line would be set up between the French Embassy in Libreville and the GP.

Table 2 shows the positions held by senior French officers in the Gabonese command structure in 1974. Additional French officers, with no formal command, played the role of “godfathers” to Gabonese commanding officers.

Table 2. French Officers in the Gabonese Armed Forces Chain of Command, 1974

Supreme Level of Command

Inspection of Forces: Lt. Colonel Veleat

General Staff of Armed Forces: Lt. Colonel Boulingui

Services Level of Command

Armee de l’Air: Cpt. Clement

Armée de Mer: 1st Maitre Le Martelot

Armee de Terre: EM 1 RIA 1ere régiment interarmées Cpt. Fenies

Unit

Gabonese Air Force base

Naval Base Port Gentil

Comp Libreville Sous Lt. Djoue Danany

1 Comp Mouila INF Cpt. M’BIA

2 Comp OYEM INF Cpt. Mayandji

3 Comp Franceville INF Lt. Poncy

4 Comp Tchbanga INF Lt. Ella Abessolo

5 Comp Makoku GEN Cpt. Bruneau

Det Feminin SPFAT Picaut

In 1969, Bongo had still insisted that the two highest positions in the Army and the Gendarmerie be held by French officers. As their posts were transferred to Gabonese colleagues, the French commanders of the Army and the Gendarmerie were rebranded Inspecteur de l’armée and Inspecteur de la Gendarmerie, respectively, reporting to the superior command of French forces in Central Africa in Fort Lamy (N’Djamena), Chad. Even the Garde was commanded by a French officer, Lt. Col. (later General) LeBraz.17 In 1972, French officers are still in command of all administrative (executive) positions “under” Gabonese officers, and the Air Force is almost entirely French run. In 1975, the Chef Assistance Militaire Technique was at the same time the Chief of Staff of the Gabonese army.

It was not until 1976 that all superior positions were held by Gabonese, with the sole exception of command over the two naval vessels, the Léon M’ba and the Bongo.18 In the Gendarmerie, executive “technical” positions were by then still covered by French NCOs, or the latter would execute functions officially assigned to Gabonese officers. Bongo’s principal military advisor remained for many years Chef de Battalion Henri Carbonie, who had a position in the Cabinet and received for this an additional monthly allowance of 50,000 Francs. In 1981, despite tensions that had occurred in the interval (see below), the two ships of the navy and the general staff of the Gendarmerie were still officially commanded by French officers. The exact date isn’t discoverable because there is no access to archival material beyond this date, but eventually Gabonese officers took command.

In terms of personnel, French forces in Gabon were long more numerous than their Gabonese counterparts. A balance was reached earlier for the Gendarmerie (1968) than for the Army (1975).

In 1965, French forces consisted of 97 military assistance personnel (17 officers, 80 NCOs) assigned to support the Gabonese forces, and 1,031 officers and soldiers in French units, broken down as shown in Table 3.

Table 3. French Technical Assistance to Gabon and French Forces in Gabon, 1965

French Military Technical Assistance (AMT)

Forces Françaises au Gabon (FFG) (now Eléments Français au Gabon; EFG)

Officers

NCOs

Officers

NCOs

Soldiers

Army

6

16

19

39

230

Gendarmerie

6

51

7

80

615

Air Force

3

11

2

4

15

Navy

1

1

1

2

17

Health

1

1

Total

17

80

29

125

877

Ten years later, the relationship between the French AMT officers and their Gabonese counterparts was as shown in Table 4.

Table 4. French Technical Assistance and Gabonese Military Personnel, 1974‒1975

French AMT

Gabonese Officers

Gabonese NCOs

Gabonese Privates

1974

1975

1974

1975

1974

1975

1974

1975

Gendarmerie

58

67

25

27

171

140

1183

1070

Army + Navy

31

32

51

53

139

176

466

563

Air Force

21

24

6

10

36

44

41

44

In other words, there were twice as many French AMT officers as Gabonese officers in the Gendarmerie. The disproportion was even higher for the Air Force, whereas the balance was more along expected lines for the Army and Navy, although still unusually high if the role of the French was merely technical assistance.

Besides the volume of French military staff deployed in Gabon, the solidity of the knot between by the two nations rested on a defense agreement passed in 1960 (and renewed without alterations in 1965 and 1974) that provided that the French military could take over the control of order in case of internal subversion, even without a request from Gabon (!) (Journal Officiel de la République Française No 60-168). The French military attaché would make the decision. At his disposal were paratroopers from other garrisons based in other African countries who were deployable within 16 to 19 hours and could be built up into an entire brigade within 30 hours. This capacity was unmatched by any African force at the time, let alone the Gabonese one.

Some distancing from France did occur in the mid-1970s, a context marked by sharp confrontations about the “new international economic order” between what was not yet called the Global North and the Global South, and the flexing of the muscles of oil producers through the then all-powerful OPEC. In both confrontations, France and Gabon were on opposite sides. In addition, the greater leeway left by France to Gabonese opposition figures and other critiques of the Gabonese regime between the late 1970s and 1988 to pinpoint the corrupt structure of the Gabonese order angered the president.19 In this context, Albert Bongo converted to Islam, becoming Omar Bongo. From that time on, he insisted on being addressed as His Excellency President Bongo, in order to avoid controversies about his first name.20

In military terms, the distancing translated into efforts to diversify sources of supplies as well as sources of support. Weapons were bought from Yugoslavia, Romania (Kalashnikovs), Zaire (mortars), and Belgium rifles.21 Air force instructors were invited from Greece. Relations were intensified with China over the period until 1986, as evidenced by the fact that President Bongo visited China twice in 1974, as well as in 1975, 1977, 1978, and 1983 (Reed, 1987, p. 313).

Still, with oil prices decreasing (at least until the second Iran oil crisis in 1979), Gabon quickly shifted back closer to France, the principal customer for uranium and manganese, its only alternative export apart from bulk of rare kinds of timber. In practice, despite the tensions, relations were never severed. French military aid to Gabon increased to 150,000,000 XAF in 1975 (before two devaluations of the FCFA, this was the considerable amount of 12 million francs, making the Gabonese individual soldier arithmetically the principal recipient of French aid), and the 1978 general modernization of weaponry was covered 30% by France.

The Armed Forces as a Component of an Extended Patronage System

After nearly 60 years, it has become the order that some form of connection to the Bongo family is vital to any step toward advancement in Gabon, be it personal or professional, at every stratum of the social hierarchy. By 2020, the Bongos represented a clan of about 10,000 members and affiliates, who penetrate throughout society in both hierarchical and geographical terms. This “nerve system” of the personal regime has been compared to metastasis into society, like a more bureaucratic analogue of the former East German STASI police—other interviewees named the ‘Ndrangheta as a fitting example, although this example would represent the merely intimidating rather than the violent influence of this ”nerve system”.

In parallel to the soft power of the family apparatus, which draws its stability from the fact that it alone secures the status of its members, the upper echelon of the army forms a scaffolding around the Bongo family affiliates, to whom competing offers cannot credibly made from any other fringes of the political world. If coercion fails, and the 2016 election tested this control system in earnest for the first time, the generals and honorable may have to use their soft power to prevent the situation from getting out of hand. The generals in their majority provide a reserve power cross-check in wider society; as “anchor persons” they form the political synapses to all strata at which a rival power could emerge—especially after the first line of defense may have fallen victim to potentially overwhelming violent onslaught. The deep penetration of society through the influence of patriarchs, entrepreneurs, or other “patrons” of clientele networks would have the combined power, as is assumed, to take any revolutionary drive out of political resistance and transform it into a manageable, channeled “conversation.” This necessitates careful differentiation, which led to a hiring freeze for the army in 2016, along with a moratorium on promotions.22 This is particularly worrisome for active officers, who practically never make it from Colonel to General. All actual command is executed by well-trained Colonels, including the small detachments to peacekeeping operations. The soldiers remain the reserve force of the regime, the second-to-last line of defense. Officers are highly frustrated because only a few generals have had a proper military career. This is where tension grows. In simple numbers, there is a general for every company in all services, four of which are five-star generals, with Admiral Odjoua Maly (Secrétariat General de la Défense Nationale) expected at the time of writing to be promoted to Amiral de Gabon five-star by 2019. Slowly, the military elements of the ruling cliques grew into the political realm. There was a diffusion of the two elements that finally resulted in civil‒military relations in a new form. The big achievement, according to contemporary witnesses, was the domestic balance of the principal ethnic groups. By late 1966, promotions started to accelerate and Commandant (Major) N’Koma became the first Lt. Col., although French estimates stated that the minimal Gabonese forces would not justify such a rank. By 1970, Gabonese officers counted two Commandants, two Capitains, two Lieutenants, and two Sous-Lieutenants. Bongo promoted himself to five-star general of the Air Force (General d’Armee de l’Air). In 1984, Gabon had its first four Generals, but the Chief of Staff remained Colonel Mbia. By 1975, two generals of the Gendarmerie were promoted, N’Koma and N’Zong, but their rank was hardly justified by the numbers of Gendarmerie personnel.

More and more high-ranking positions have been, and are being, created within the armed patronage system, disproportionate with the size of the troops, and as part of the spread of a large patronage system that enabled Bongo to sustain his power for 40 years. The often cited “100 families” who would rule Gabon can be identified by the about 100 generals both “active” or second division (retired) of the armed forces. Estimates even among Gabonese high-ranking officers and French military advisors fluctuate between 70 and 140 generals. One general described the chain of command to this author as a turned-over pyramid.

One witness (K1, male mid-30s) cited in his family a general who never had any military employment, let alone a military command, in his lifetime. The reasoning from K1’s perspective was that this general’s function was more like that of an “honorable” member of parliament or of the political party.

In the perception of the interviewee, such generals would form a second line of defense of the family-bound system of Bongo rule: accordingly, the armed forces would form the first line of defense through mere coercion. In fact, only the GR and the Gendarmerie would credibly fulfill this function. The age of cooption of political opponents as the first line of defense for the regime is over, as the means available to “buy in” everyone are increasingly limited. Since 1993, simultaneously with establishment of the multiparty system, different coalitions have developed within the political elites. They form the vehicles for the struggle over the diminishing means available to the state.

Generals find themselves in a privileged position in comparison to other political elite groups because they are institutionally linked to the state, and hence keep benefiting from cooption.23 They form the second line of defense of the regime. Their position is rather one holding soft power deeply penetrating society.

The Military as Political Tool

After 1969, Bongo systematically introduced military officers into his cabinets, and he carefully considered their ethnic affiliations. Captain of the Gendarmerie Mamiaka (Sake) became Minister [Secretary] of Interior and Prisons, Infantry Captain Mengome (Fang) received the portfolio for Public Construction and Infrastructure, and Lt. Goho of the medical service (M’Pongwe) became director of the General Hospital. The big achievement, according to contemporary witnesses, was the domestic balance of the principal ethnic groups. By 1968‒1970, the pool for oppositional recruitment and agitation was limited to the coastal regions of Ougoue and Nyanga. In parallel, Bongo insisted French forces had to stay in Gabon. According to Colonel Retout, the French military advisor to President Omar Bongo, the president was “hostile to any quick Africanization” of the military. At least until 1972, he refused any suggestions from France that they would decrease their military presence in the country, and he was keen not to transfer senior command responsibilities to Gabonese officers. In practice, this meant creating new oversight positions for senior French officers as Gabonese colleagues gradually took over their posts.

Omar Bongo had been Secretary of Defense when he took power and he retained this position until 1980, when his rule was securely consolidated. History repeated itself in 2009, when Ali Bongo took over from his father. He, too, had been Secretary of Defense for 10 years at this pivotal moment.

The nepotist configuration did not change throughout the 1990s period of cursory democratization, which affected intra-elite confrontations. Only after the contested 2009 elections, when, after Omar’s death, his son succeeded him in power, was the army built up, so that units would be at the standard required strength. Ali Bongo, the new president, had already employed the Army during the election campaign to intimidate members of the administration. Without any legal grounding, the then defense minister ordered the Army to set up roadblocks, and over 2 days they confiscated every official car the driver did not clearly use for work purposes. This was well understood as a warning that the hard power would rest with the Bongo family. After the elections in 2009, the Army was deployed to Port Gentil, where clients of the defeated opponent Mba Obame rioted. Hundreds of deaths were reported in the city, which remained under siege for 2 weeks.

From 2009 to 2016, the army was sent back to the barracks, and the GR and Gendarmerie remained the only visible forces in the public domain. The violent events after the election of 2016, however, demonstrate that the escalatory ladder in Gabon is very short. If not, it would be very unlikely that the power of intimidation by the armed forces would be able to secure the regime.

The order of activation can be deduced from deployment against riots in 1992, 2009, and 2016. Accordingly, intimidation is secured by the Guards, which are then followed by the Gendarmerie as heavy response units (with anti-riot kit), and finally is stepped up to the actual deployment of armed paratroopers, who apply lethal force. The appearance of their red berets is generally understood as the last step before the use of live ammunition. They represent the highest level of violence.24

The Army would have been perceived as a threat by the people only after the turmoil of the 2016 election, when they were deployed in an auxiliary role to subdue riots among the electorate. The army has since disappeared back into the barracks and continues to be on standby for its previous function, which is the Grand Defile of military parade on Independence Day every year. By 2016, the rule of Ali Bongo appeared to be consolidated to a degree that he again relied on the GR and paratroopers as his first line of defense only. Indeed, although the riots were heavier in 2016, Parliament was burned down, and Senate and radio were attacked, the Gendarmerie and paratroopers managed to lock the people into their quarters. Electricity and water were cut off, and after 1 week the population surrendered to the unprecedented level of violence. The Army was deployed but remained a reserve.

The Lumpenmilitariat, the Military Counterpart of the Lumpenproletariat

The ordinary soldiers in Gabon, who participate as auxiliary clients in the struggle between the powerful, are themselves excluded from many of the benefits of the intra-elite power contest. This means that they lurk in a precarious balance between two positions: on the one hand, their slightly privileged position relative to unarmed non-elite compatriots makes them as a distinct group comparable to Karl Marx’s Arbeiteraristokratie, preying on their equals; on the other hand, their insecure status in the military hierarchy makes them a rather disjointed Lumpenmilitariat.

Under the conditions of the first two decades of the 21st century, the military is able to perform neither its technical combat role nor its assumed role as a unifying agent and pillar of the social contract, because it is supposed to primarily serve the regime—either as a “social army” with the ambiguous task of symbolically legitimizing the state or as a force that coercively protects the regime. Individual soldiers, with either high or low status within their wider nonmilitary community, are bound up in semi- or nonstate patronage systems; they are not encouraged to perform in a professional manner. With different characteristics of quasiness of African armies (Bachmann, 2013) established relative to their own claims of Huntingtonian professionalism.

Table 5. Military Salaries in Gabon

Rank

Salary in XAF

Salary in USD

Soldat 2nd class

120,000

200

Soldat 1st class

150,000

250

Caporal

175,000

295

Caporal Chef

190,000

320

Sergeant

345,000

580

Sergeant- Chef

385,000

600

Adjudant

400,000

670

Adjudant-Chef

470,000

790

Adjudant-Chef Major

530,000

890

Lieutenant

456,000

770

Capitaine

560,000

940

Commandant

600,000

1,010

Lieutenant Colonel

720,000

1,245

Colonel

820,000

1,380

Note. Compiled from a variety of sources (Augé, 2015), including author’s interviews in Libreville in June 2019 with one general, one sergeant, and French military sources. Monthly salaries are per rank, including housing and travel allowances.

Wages of the lower military ranks are disproportionately low compared to the cost of living (Table 5). For example, sending a child for a year in a—poor-quality—public school costs 25,000 FCFA in fees. However, a meaningful education for a child in a relatively affordable private school is around 700,000 to 750,000 FCFA. This is more than the equivalent of a monthly salary of a Lieutenant Colonel, and books, transport, uniform, and materials are not included. Other costs of living are revealing, too: A bunch of bananas is 1,000 CFA (= $1.68), a pineapple costs 1,500 (= $2.50), 12 eggs cost 1,400, and 10 kg of rice cost 8,250 CFA. Taxis and taxis-brousse are the main means of transport, for lack of an alternative, and they cost between 200 and 1,500 per trip without leaving the city. Electricity and water average 37,000 CFA (= $63), Internet costs 32,000/month. A run-down imported Toyota Corolla (the standard car for ordinary citizens) is 15,000,000 FCA (= $25,240). Rent for a small studio apartment starts at 300,000 (= $500), while a three-bedroom apartment sets one back some 1,000,000. Clothing is, like about everything except local beer (500/450 cl), imported. One can buy trousers from European donations at the open market for 500 CFA or a fake football jersey for 2,000, but the regular price for new jeans would be 12,500. A low-range Zara dress costs 37,000 CFA. A bottle of wine plus a package of cigarettes costs 6,500 CFA. The equivalent of a about $200 in FCFA is not less than a stimulation to racketing of civilians (Augé, 2015).

Political Culture

In Central Africa, dimensions of neopatrimonialism, including clientelism, “Big Man” presidentialism, and nepotism are so deeply ingrained in political life as to constitute insuperable institutions. Presidentialism is a hybrid form of what Ali Mazrui (1967) called the African monarchical tendencies. He thus deduced present political settings from precolonial ones, pointing to the strong position of the executive inherited from colonialism.

By contrast, the notion that Africa was ever composed of sovereign states, classically defined as having a monopoly on force in the territory within their boundaries, was rejected by scholars like Jeffrey Herbst (2000). If they had, so the argument goes, the political structure of African states would be fully differentiated and territorially bound. In the Central African politicocultural environment, however, the state could never become the all-embracing monopoly holder of power. Political power systems are highly differentiated, and the state is only one way to control wealth. The personal gains of power brokers are closely connected to the extractive instruments of the pseudobureaucracy, and the interests of armed and unarmed members of the countries’ elites are strongly interwoven.

The determined upholding of the institution of chieftaincy as the core of indirect rule ended with decolonization in much of Central Africa. With the installation of bureaucracies, local traditional rulers were gradually sidelined. However, this policy was only partially successful, because the neopatrimonial structure, as political “background noise,” stood in the way of establishing a true bureaucracy. Former chiefs’ consent was gained by appointing them to prestigious representative sinecure positions. Patronage networks continued working in a modern disguise. As a rule, intermediary power brokers were subsumed under the master patronage of the political leader, usually heading a single-party system. In return, the president would adopt pseudotraditional insignia of power unrelated to the constitutional order.25 Since there are hardly any intermediary levels of decision-making within the highly hierarchical Central African political structure, rulers often become increasingly isolated. The resulting effort to compensate for this isolation through alternative channels again strengthens informal systems. The military, an established factor within both the formal and informal systems, benefits significantly from its dual positioning in terms of networking. Simultaneously, the military can traditionally claim a good proportion of the state’s funds, which already helps to bribe it into obedience.26 In Central Africa, the state is not simply a political instrument: it is the key source of revenues necessary to gratify one’s clientele.

Gabon is a society in fear. The poor, a vast majority of the population, live in the distress of inescapable poverty and potential sudden arrest. The Prison Central of Libreville is a shared nightmare. The wealthy, and there is little in intermediate social stratification apart from foreign expats, live in fear generated by the zero-sum logic of their political culture. To have power, to be rich, is translated as manger [to eat]. Everything one would share, in this logic, is a nonredeemable loss. Hence, not only wealth, but also power se mange en entier [is consumed in one piece], and there cannot be synergy or pooled advantage. Given the decline of overall income from oil, the principal economic pillar of Gabon, there is less to distribute to an ever-increasing number of claimants from the growing ruling elites’ families. The political logic demands getting closer to the control of that income. Political power again becomes an intra-elite infight: beneficiaries split into factions attempting access to power without political conditionalities. All politics is about maneuvering toward better access to the one dominant source. Different “elevators to power” can be used, including rational choice economics and politics of alliances and temporary agreements, as well as seemingly irrational tools like witchcraft. On the more rational side of Western appreciation is civil society organization, including the political parties, trade unions, and secretive organizations like Rosicrucians and Freemasons. The latter have a questionable reputation, especially among French observers, although the influence of local brotherhoods is mostly very constructive. It was Freemason members who drove the peace process for the Central African Republic in the early 2000s. The rule not to do harm to other members led many of the national elites to reconcile over negotiations held in Libreville in 2013. Most non-African onlookers would consider witchcraft an irrational element of decision-making or career advancement, but political power arises from, or is consolidated by, the illusory mastery of, or fear of, witchcraft.

Such competition by different means does not directly affect much of the public sphere, which has little to gain from it: clients may switch from patron to patron or one political movement to another one, but, both their opponents and the politicians in power trade roles frequently and according to a reasoning opaque to outsiders. The little material change one would detect in comparing Libreville of 1996 to that of 2019 is expressed in the increasing elevation of walls surrounding compounds. The walls around the rich peoples’ compounds have changed their function. In Libreville, the well-off and the poor literally live side by side. There are quartiers where one finds only ramshackle huts, such as around Carrefour Rio, or only palaces of surprising size and first-class restaurants like La Sabliere, but most of the town has affluent villas directly neighboring on slums lacking any infrastructure. Before the emergence of originally very limited public and affordable Internet access and the launch of Google Earth in 2001, the walls were merely blinds to obstruct visibility of the richesse behind them. Now, however, people can peep from a bird’s eye perspective onto the large carparks and enormous swimming pools next door, and the walls have taken on a defensive role. Twenty years into the 21st century, not only do the poor live in fear for their daily sustenance, but also the well-off feel exposed to the jealousy of neighbors.

However, conflict avoidance as a main characteristic of Central African society may represent one of the strongest pillars of relative stability in the country—so far. This is clear in the constant efforts of the regime to avoid any tribalism in society. Diversity in the civilian realms is mirrored by the diversification in the military world. The 1974 Bongo Cabinet serves as an example. The idea of being Gabonese was very strong in the country from very early on. It has been one of the cornerstones of Gabonese statehood. Historically, the Fang have comprised about a third of the population, and this was mirrored in the cabinet of 1974, which was as a year of stability, when Bongo’s regime was consolidated and uncontested. The Fang made up 14 out of 40 cabinet members (not counting the president, a Batéké)— exactly 35% of members. There were three Batéké members, fourteen Fang, four Mpongwé, three Eshira, four Myéné’, four Nzébi, two Bapounou, and two Massango. Other ethnic groups were represented proportionally but all were represented: Nzebi, Galois, Ndoumou, Vili, and Orungu by at least one person. This balance has been maintained ever since because mobility in Gabon is low and constituencies are ethnically stable. Most of the population lives in Libreville, but one refers to a home village for political affiliation. Fang can thus be identified to represent several regions around the capital and upstate: L’estuaire, Ogoué Ivindo, Oyem, Bitam, and N’Ddolet. This secures a stable balance. On the other hand, intermarriage has mixed people beyond recognition. Everybody is kin of everyone. The patrimonial social structure, however, maintains the head of family’s binding to a “tribe,” which only stands for a form of Gabonese-hood.

The values and motives they share have long been more important than the differences among tribes. Discussion with seven former members of government, most of whom were in the political sphere from day 1 of independence, has revealed Gabon as conflict-averse and compromising.

A diplomat’s report described Richard N’Guema, State Secretary for Information and National Organization, as follows: “R.N. benefits from a particularly undeserved arrangement. As a notorious alcoholic, he was dismissed last year from his position as Director of the Cabinet of the President. He is being maintained in the government for reasons of ethnic balance, due to his being a Fang from Wolou N’Tem.” President Bongo was certainly not unhappy to let a representative of the rival ethnic group demonstrate his incompetence. His position gives Secretary N’Guema access to radio and television, where he has already delivered a few statements that did not escape ridicule (GR 12 S 645, Dossier 8, translated by the author).

Unity is perhaps the most important value of the country, which produced a cabinet of 25 ministers (French denomination), eight state secretaries, and nine high commissioners. Opposition politicians do not consider themselves as opposition in the strict sense. They feel a strong bond with the country and rather think of themselves as constructive critics. The fact that all of them have in some form and often over decades been members of Bongo’s administration also decreases the likelihood of violent repression against them. The self-declared two presidents of whom Ali Bongo as holder of the position holds a strong legal claim on the position. Howwever, Jean Ping holds the greater legitimacy as obvious winner of the last elections. He would not risk an unnecessary escalation, as he confirmed to this author.

Last, news from the security sector came when half a dozen GR members up to the rank of Lieutenant attempted a coup in January 2019. Military observers pointed out that they seem to have been sacrificed into a planned failure, drawing on idealistic members from the company d’honneur, the brass band for parades. The surprisingly fast mobilization of the army in the streets of Libreville was cited as an indicator that the event was anticipated. The “coup” was suppressed instantly, and the regular army presented as a pillar of stability.

Conclusion

Under conditions of the first two decades of the 21st century, the Gabonese military is able to perform neither its technical combat role nor its assumed role as a unifying agent and pillar of the social contract, because eventually it is supposed to primarily serve the regime—be it as “social army” with the ambiguous task of symbolically legitimizing the state or as coercively protecting the regime. Individual soldiers, with either high or low status in their wider nonmilitary community, are bound up in semi- or nonstate patronage systems; they are not encouraged to perform in a professional manner, no matter how high the quality of their professional training. The armed forces of Gabon have not even marginally contributed to the construction of the state nor have they helped in defending its sovereignty. Civil‒military relations in Gabon are best described as an ambiguous concord within a complex societal environment.

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Notes

  • 1. Now Eléments Français au Gabon (EFG)

  • 2. French Marines typically served in colonial and postcolonial contexts.

  • 3. To fix this deficit, soldiers were merely equipped with shovels so that they could serve as infantry polyvalents [all-purpose infantry].

  • 4. Bongo’s recognition of Biafra’s independence was entirely due to his loyalty to France, whose politics he supported even against fellow African countries (GR 14 S 258).

  • 5. Some French sources claim that this order dates from 1990, but it is 15 years older.

  • 6. Representatives of the Collectif des Anciens, Cadres, Dignitaires et Notables de la République.

  • 7. Many among them were reckoned as belonging to the Gabonese opposition, but this notion was outright rejected. Each person described himself as contributing constructive critique rather than resistance.

  • 8. The Republican Guard is firmly controlled (commanded) and the proportion of Batéké people (Bongo) has been significantly augmented (author’s translation).

  • 9. Interviews of a former minister and a journalist at a national newspaper in Libreville in 2019.

  • 10. Including one special Escadron leger d’intervention with five light tanks AM M8.

  • 11. The boat, named after the French admiral who signed the first trade agreement with the King of Loango (South of Gabon) in 1839, is described as a vedette but would instead qualify as a mine seeker.

  • 12. Better known under the NATO denomination Greyhound.

  • 13. The French franc was devalued by 11% in 1969. The important information is the proportion of funding. The current values serve as orientation. See historical exchange rates on fxtop.com

  • 14. Author’s translation of February 8, 1971, letter to superior general staff.

  • 15. Joseph Mobutu achieved mastery in this technique. His much bigger forces of 80,000 to 100,000 personnel were assigned military advisors from France, Belgium, the United States, Germany, Korea [North and South], China, Israel, and South Africa. They also had different weaponry, defying cooperation.

  • 16. Based on a defensive alliance between the King of Loango and France from February 9, 1839.

  • 17. Lt. Col. LeBraz was Technical Assistant. He was supported by seven French officers/NCOs under contract with Gabon (Gabonese uniforms), and one Gabonese second lieutenant.

  • 18. Leon M’ba: 85 tons and one 75-mm cannon; Bongo: 80 tons and two 20-mm cannons.

  • 19. Among others, articles in Jeune Afrique, and several broadcasts around the book The Bongos (Péan, 1983)

  • 20. There is no evidence supporting the persisting rumors that Bongo converted to Islam in response to a condition imposed by the Sultan of Oman for the financing of Bongo’s Transgabonais railway project (Yates, 2018, p. 98).

  • 21. It needs to be highlighted that even if arms were distributed to the army, the ammunition was stored at the GR. Source: Renseignement Etat Major des Armées, December 17, 1975, Vincennes.

  • 22. Since July 5, 2019, the Gendarmerie has recovered recruitment. There is no vetting process and people with an affinity to violence seem to be mustered at an increasing rate.

  • 23. This is not expressed by the unrevealed salary, but by in-kind benefits like cover for housing and travel.

  • 24. Paratroopers and Green Berets of the GR alternate positions between the two units. This policy helps balance the high level of loyalty expected from the Guard and the high level of combat readiness expected from the paratroopers.

  • 25. Most famously, Jomo Kenyatta’s and Joseph Mobutu’s leopard headgear. See Trotha (1999).

  • 26. On the informal aspect, Lamb and Mthembu-Salter (2012, p. 89); on the institutional aspect, Mouiche (2005, Chapter 7).