Bingo for the Bongos: The Black Concierges of Gabon, M. Frindéthié (April 2010)

In May 2004, president Omar Bongo Ondimba of Gabon, who until his death in 2009 had been the pet child of the twisted post-independence Franco–African liai- son called Françafrique, met with President Bush in the Oval Office, in the context of what the White House characterized as President Bush’s “outreach to the conti- nent of Africa.” This meeting took place despite the fact that the Bush administration had often criticized Bongo’s regime for systematic embezzlements of public funds and international development aid and for recurrent abuses of human rights. Later, allegations surfaced according to which, ten months before Bongo’s arrival at the White House, the Gabonese autocrat had paid Republican fundraiser and lobbyist Jack Abramoff 9 million dollars to facilitate his meeting with Bush.

In Gabon, 9 million dollars would have gone a very long way in poverty reduction and development projects. With per capita wealth ten times higher than the average per capita income in Africa, Gabon is apparently a rich country. Yet, only the contrary is true. The very small population of Gabon (1.5 million people) makes the figures highly misleading. For instance, Gabon could only boast of 800 kilometers of asphalted roads in the 42 years of Bongo’s reign. This represents less than 20 kilometers of road for every year that Bongo remained in power. There are no travelable roads connecting Libreville, the capital, to the other cities of the country. Gabon’s main resource is crude oil, which accounts for 60 percent of the country’s income. Yet, at the height of Gabon’s oil boom in 2006, 40 percent of the Gabonese adult population was unemployed and more than 70 percent of the population of Gabon lived below the poverty line. Of Bongo’s country, Cameroonian author Mongo Béti once asked: “Where does Gabon’s oil revenue go?”

In fact, much of Gabon’s oil revenue ended up in the multiple over- seas personal bank accounts of the narcissistic dictator of Libreville. Boasting of rubbing elbows with world leaders was one of Bongo’s numerous distorted enjoyments. For Bongo, being captured in photos in the company of world leaders constituted convincing proof that his crooked politics met the approval of the “free world.” The dictator’s office in Libreville was decorated with pictures of all the presidents of the French Fifth Republic: General de Gaulle, Georges Pompidou, Valery Giscard d’Estaing, François Mitterrand, Jacques Chirac and Nicolas Sarkozy.2 These were the mementos of Bongo’s proud French connection. Bongo needed to complete his presidential picture collection with those of American presidents, the most prized trophies. For that, he was willing to shed 9 million dollars of his coun- try’s geological revenues rather than use this huge amount of money, especially by Gabonese standards, to better the lives of his wretched people. A simple photograph of him posing with President Bush would grant him American sanctification of his corrupt politics. Bongo got to shake Bush’s hand in a meeting that was laden with the heavy scent of quid pro quo. The dictator of Libreville made sure that the pho- tographs of him by the Oval Office fireplace chatting with his smiling and gracious host were circulated all over Gabon at the same time as criticisms of his dishonestly accumulated wealth were getting traction both at home and abroad. Indeed, over his 42-year-long reign, the Gabonese dictator had been cited in mul- tiple corruption cases. However, efforts to pin him down had bumped against the various French governments’ wariness and had yielded no results for the simple rea- son that Bongo was the godfather of Françafrique in Africa, other less preponderant valets being Paul Biya, Sassou Nguesso and Blaise Compaoré.

Indicting Bongo would risk exposing the involvement of every French government of the Fifth Republic in the network of criminality that Françafrique constitutes and, perhaps, would precipitate the subsequent release of France’s formidable grip on Francophone Africa. Keeping Bongo content and out of the judicial limelight, on the other hand, would ensure a smooth running of the system that guarantees the dictator, and many French officials, prosperity while keeping France’s balance of payment affirmative. Bongo’s megalomaniac lifestyle was supported by kickbacks he received from businesses operating in Gabon, and especially from oil companies like Elf and Total.

Managing Gabon like a family plantation, Bongo diverted millions of dollars from the exploitation of the rich Gabonese fields of crude oil, manganese, uranium and timber into his private accounts in European banks. During the Elf trial, the company’s executives confessed that they deposited a yearly stipend of 40 million dollars in a Swiss bank account for Bongo, as a reward for permission granted to Elf to exploit Gabonese oil. Philippe Jaffre, chief executive officer of Elf, also confirmed that in 1995 Bongo and Gnassingbé Eyadéma of Togo received millions of dollars to convince Nigerian dictator Sani Abacha to grant Elf license for the exploitation of Nigerian oil. Abacha himself made 190 million dollars on the deal. Bongo was insa- tiable. Despite all the huge capital that Bongo accumulated through his shady deals, many of his purchases were directly paid with funds from the Gabonese Treasury. Around the cities of Paris and Nice alone, Bongo was reported to possess 33 properties of a total value upward of 130 million dollars. His numerous mistresses with extravagant lifestyles were maintained on public money. Those of Bongo’s 30 children not registered on the state payroll lived insolently on public funds. Bongo’s chief of staff was his daughter Pascaline and his defense minister was his son Ali (now president of Gabon), notorious for competing with his father on luxury sports vehicles collection. For his adversaries and a great majority of ordinary Gabonese, Bongo was a selfish and ruthless autocrat, a marionette of neo-colonialism. For French politicians and big multinational executives feeding on Bongo’s immoral governing methods, however, the dictator of Libreville was the guarantor of their continual prosperity, the black concierge of French interests to keep in power by all means. For all that Bongo meant to France, he had to be recurrently reelected. So, each time so-called presidential elections came around in Gabon, the electoral machine “made in France” was brought out and dusted, and “voters [were] multiplied, the minority [was] transformed in majority, defeat or deadlock [became] victories, and Bingo for Bongo!”3 Election rigging was such a casual occurrence in Gabon that Bongo’s French cronies did not even bother concealing their deception. In December 1998, Robert Bourgi, French lawyer and friend of Bongo, a self-proclaimed election observer, decided to flood Libreville with a team of French magistrates and lawyers whose mission was supposedly to monitor for fairness the presidential elec- tions in Gabon for which Bongo was a candidate. Before leaving Paris, Bourgi sent a letter to Bongo, which said much about his proclaimed “neutrality.” Bonsoir Papa. … j’ai réuni vendredi l’équipe de magistrats et d’avocats, qui, dès le 2 décembre, sera sur place à Libreville. Je vous adresse copie de la lettre que j’envoie ce jour à l’ambassadeur de France à Libreville. Est-il utile de vous dire combien vous manquez à ce sommet France-Afrique ? … Je suis sûr que Jacques Chirac, en jetant un regard circulaire lors des réunions et des réceptions, doit se dire: “Mais est-il possible qu’Omar ne soit pas là, que nous puissions nous réunir sans lui…?” Allez Papa, vous nous reviendrez, et vous lui reviendrez à Paris en triomphateur des élections du 6–12–98…4

Good evening, Daddy: Last Friday I gathered a team of lawyers to arrive in Libreville by December 2. I am sending you a copy of the letter that I mailed to the French ambassador in Libreville today. Is it neces- sary to tell you how much you are missed at this France-Africa summit? I am sure that when he notices your absence at the meetings and the receptions, Jacques Chirac wonders: “But is Bongo really not here? Are we really meeting without him?” Well, Daddy! You will come back to us, and you will come back to him in Paris as the win- ner of the December 12 elections…

In early 2009, France’s honeymoon with Bongo seemed to be ending. French authorities announced a freezing of Bongo’s bank accounts in France and an investigation of his assets, following a complaint by the French branch of Transparency International, which alleged that Bongo had redirected hundreds of millions of dollars of state public funds to his private accounts. Though in the past Bongo had brushed away this kind of preliminary investigation, that time, however, things looked so exceptionally serious that the dictator of Libreville made it clear to French authorities that if they did not back off, the 10,000 French nationals living in Gabon could face repatriation and French interests in his country could suffer. However, this threat also came at a time when Bongo was no longer his energetic self. In fact, on May 21, 2009, Spanish foreign minister Angel Moratinos confirmed rumors that Bongo was hospitalized in a Barcelonan clinic. The Gabonese dictator had been suffering from intestinal cancer. The announcement came a few months after the death in Rabat, Morocco, of Bongo’s wife Edith Bongo, daughter of Con- golese dictator Denis Sassou Nguesso, and amidst investigations in France of the actual origins of the huge fortunes amassed by presidents Bongo, NGuesso and Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo of Equatorial Guinea. On June 10, 2009, Bongo’s death at Quiron Clinic in Barcelona was officially announced. In “ordinary” times, Mrs. Bongo would have passed away in a French hospital and the dictator of Libreville himself would have been surrounded by a swarm of attentive French doctors. France has ordinarily been the destination of ailing Francophone African leaders and their close collaborators, who have traditionally neglected to develop care centers that could merit the appellation of “hospital” in their own countries. In Africa, the com- moners usually die at home or in ill-equipped shacks of infection and contamination that are pompously called hospitals, while the elites are pampered in European private clinics, not that European clinics keep the latter living for ever.

Bongo’s choice of Morocco for his wife’s care and Spain for his own was symbolic. The Gabonese dictator intended to signal his displeasure with the Sarkozy government for allow- ing an impertinent investigative judge to probe his wealth and to even go so far as ordering a freeze of nine of his French bank accounts. In fact, Bongo, who like many African leaders had a very bad reading of histor- ical events, had always thought of himself as an untouchable. The fall of Bokassa and Mobutu actually had not taught Bongo any lesson at all. The fact that throughout his dictatorship he was able to weather all the changes of the guards that took place in France since de Gaulle, the fact that he was able to quash every opposition at home thanks to the French intelligence services, and the fact that he had jailed or assassi- nated political opponents and participated in every shady deal organized at the high- est level of the successive French governments had given Bongo the illusion of invulnerability; and until very recently, he had thought that this latest probe, like the ones that had preceded it in March 2007 and July 2008, would die in the egg. That time however, investigating magistrate Françoise Desset’s persistence to push the case against Bongo so far as to obtain an injunction on the dictator’s bank accounts in France seemed to epitomize Bongo’s loss of both political and physical vigor. As Bongo lies peacefully in his grave, the assessment of his stewardship is demoralizing. Many Gabonese citizens had hoped that with Bongo gone, Gabon would start to make up for lost time. They were mistaken. The August 31, 2009, presidential elections in Gabon looked more like the typical charade orchestrated by France than the democratic process expected by the Gabonese. Once again, the old voting machine made in Françafrique was taken out of retirement, dusted, and stuffed with fake numbers; when the results were proclaimed on September 3, 2009, as usual, it was Bingo for Bongo! Ali Bongo, that is.

The son has succeeded the father, which augurs nothing optimistic for the Gabonese people and for Africa in general. The dictator’s son was reared in an 800-million-dollar palace and fed with the genetic poison of kleptocracy. He is inexorably bound to rehearse his father’s decadent governing ethics. Françafrique can rest assured, for it still has a few long years to live before its post- script is written. With Baby Bongo, Sarkozy might even have the kind of long-last- ing honeymoon that his two immediate predecessors enjoyed with Papa Bongo.


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