YAOUNDÈ, Cameroon – African bishops grouped under the umbrella of the Symposium of Episcopal Conferences of Africa and Madagascar (SECAM) have warned that the current spate of coups on the continent could lead to a geo-political realignment reminiscent of the Cold War, threatening peace and development.
Gabon offered the latest example of a military takeover, where a group of soldiers led by General Brice Oligui Ngeuma on Aug. 30 overthrew President Ali Bongo Ondimba, who had just won a contested re-election to extend his fourteen year term at the helm.
That military takeover effectively put an end to the 56 years in power of the Bongo family. Ali’s father, Omar Bongo ruled the country from 1967 until his death in 2009 when his son took over.
The Gabon coup came after similar events had taken place in Niger, Burkina Faso, Mali and Sudan. Jubilant crowds in these countries welcomed the military interventions, hoping, as the African bishops said in their statement, that they would “put an end to the system of predation and widespread corruption instituted by deposed regimes under the guise of a democracy, supposedly meant to bring prosperity to African countries.”
In a Sept. 7 statement signed by Cardinal Fridolin Besungu Ambongo of Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the current president of SECAM, the African prelates blasted the unconstitutional takeovers, asserting that any power conquered by force is “unethical” and therefore the Church cannot encourage “the formation of narrow ruling groups which usurp the power of the state for individual interests or for ideological ends.”
Quoting St. Pope John Paul II, the clerics said that the Church “values the democratic system as much as it ensures the participation of citizens in making political choices, guarantees the governed the possibility both of electing and holding accountable those who govern them, and of replacing them through peaceful means when appropriate.”
They expressed concern that those who take power by force with the usual promise of fostering a transition usually renege on their own promises.
“Here again, we ask ourselves the question of how far this movement, emerging outside a legal framework, can go,” the bishops said. “History has provided us with abundant examples of the attempt to perpetuate the transition, which is a denial of the promises kept by the actors of the coups.”
“SECAM cannot remain indifferent to what is happening on the continent, and above all to the problems posed by violence, the impoverishment of the population and the misery that is rampant everywhere … social injustice, and the exploitation of natural and mining resources by multinationals (with the complicity of certain African leaders),” the bishops said.
The statement expressed concern that the new regimes could either tend to align with the West, meaning the United States and Europe, or with the East, meaning China and Russia, creating the possibility of Africa becoming a battleground for revived Cold War tensions.
“What is to be feared is that this populism will reactivate the old reflex of adopting an ideological alignment as in the days of the Cold War, and the consequence of such a reversal could be fatal for Africa, given the attraction of its mineral wealth to the great powers,” the bishops said.
“We will not be surprised if the African populations remain poor in development.”
Such a realignment, the bishops warned, could frustrate African aspirations to self-reliance.
“It’s true that Africa, which abounds in rich natural resources such as uranium in Niger and oil in Gabon, to name but a few, has the potential to achieve social and economic development for its populations,” the statement said.
“And yet, the reality shows that the continent is still confronted with endemic poverty, the cause of which is to be found in the system of ‘economic colonialism,’ to borrow an expression dear to Pope Francis,” the bishops said in their statement.
The statement acknowledged that in most cases the recent wave of coups has played to broad popular support, reflecting frustration over decades of perceived authoritarianism and corruption.
“The fact that is striking when seeing the images broadcast on television and on different social media platforms is the enthusiasm aroused by the entry of the military, ready to eradicate the undeserved poverty from which the populations suffer,” SECAM said.
The bishops said in view of the unfolding drama, it’s critical for African countries to work across national boundaries “to ensure stability across the continent.”
“The African Union should encourage the exchange of ideas and resources among member states to prevent getting trapped and becoming prisoners of rigid ideological alignments,” they said.
“After all, Africa possesses the necessary means and talented individuals to achieve its development goals,” the SECAM statement said.