Omar Bongo and the French Organ-Grinder

Paris, June 18 : When I was invited to debate on French TV this week about the late Gabonese President Omar Bongo, I thought hard about something good to say about the guy.

Sergeant Bongo of the Colonial Army joins his colleague Sergeant Mobutu of the Colonial Army as faithful NCOs who served their master well and were graciously rewarded for their service to France.

I found two nice things to say. During his 42 years of cleptocratic rule, Gabon knew no civil wars but this came at a terrible price. And Bongo said in the 1990s: “For there to be corrupted, there must be corrupters.” This brought into the limelight the rule of France in post-colonial Africa.

“No More Boy. Sergeant Bongo now.”

Like Sergeant Mobutu Sese Seko, Omar Bongo ran his small oil-rich country as if it were his private business. At his death, his personal wealth was estimated at nine billion dollars, almost five years of the country’s budget ($1.8 billion 2002 est.). Meanwhile, Gabon’s foreign debt is 27% of its GDP, a very hard thing to explain for such a big oil exporter. But Bongo had deep pockets and little was invested in infrastructure compared to the country’s wealth.

There is so little transparency in the country that the basic statistics remain estimates. Gabon’s population is estimated at one million five hundred thousand but there are no statistics on poverty which is the lot of all those left out of Bongo’s circle of gold. Sixty percent of the population works in agriculture. Literacy is 63%,  not bad for the region and 3.8% of the budget is dedicated to education. Unemployment is estimated at 21% of the adult population.

Bongo got his wealth in large part through siphoning off oil wealth to the tune of one dollar per barrel, royalties paid by the French company Elf which went straight to his private accounts. Bongo financed both right wing and left wing political parties in France in the form of under-the-table kickbacks, part of the deal worked out with his handlers. Just last week Valerie Giscard d’Estaing said he broke off relations with Bongo in 1980 when the Sergeant admitted financing Jacques Chirac’s presidential bid against him. It took 30 years for the information to be confirmed publicly!

During his 42 years in power, Bongo paved only 838 km of road. City streets are just one pothole after another. He also built only 814 km of railway and that was not for passengers but rather to bring the lumber and ore out of the forest to ships waiting to haul it to France.

Business is Business

Gabon is a small country about the size of Colorado, rich in oil (330 000 bbl/day) with 2.45 billion bbl in proved reserves (1 Jan. 2001) and which makes up 77% of the country’s export revenues. The country also exports timber, manganese and uranium (and AIDS).

Bongo knew how to quiet his opposition either by buying them off or jailing them when they would not take the bribe. The first multi-party elections took place in 1993 and of course were rigged as have been all the subsequent ballots. He kept the press on a very short leash and did not hesitate to ban foreign media from broadcasting in the country when he could, as when he shut down Radio France International’s FM transmitters on occasions when the radio reported news not to his liking.

Then French Prime Minister Jacques Chirac summed it up best in the late 1980s when he came to Gabon to inaugurate a new rail link from the forests to the port.  He said Demcoracy is not good for Africa because it aggravates ethnic divisions.

Bongo was hand picked by the French secret service and de Gaulle’s Africa man Jacques Foccart to replace Gabon’s first President Léon M’ba in 1967. France has permanent military basis there which have been used for staging interventions in other countries of the region (Chad, Zaire). French troops also intervened in Gabon (1964, 1990) to protect their interests.

French Courts and protecting the ‘Boy’: Game Over?

Bongo has repeatedly been challenged in French Courts which systematically dismissed the cases under a French law which gave immunity to foreign heads-of-state.

In 1995, Bongo’s personal and high-end tailor, Francisco Smalto, went on trial in Paris accused of running a prostitution ring. Bongo liked to have his suits delivered by tall blonds. A service for which Bongo paid Smalto over three million francs a year. The Call-Girls said the President refused to use condoms and some said they had contracted Aids. Bongo refused to submit to a blood test. Smalto went to jail.

Bongo, along with his father-in-law, Congo-Brazville’s President Sassou and Chad’s President Deby attacked a French activist (François-Xavier Verschave’s book Noir silence) for insulting them under the French law which protects foreign-heads-of-states’ image even when the allegations are true. The Courts rejected their suit and this led to France abandoning their lese majesté law in 2004.

In the first half of this decade French Courts condemned Bongo’s French partners in Elf for corruption and embezzlement in several high-profile trials which put France’s relations with Africa on the front pages. Elf was so dirtied it disappeared in favor of Total.

In 2007 two French human rights NGOs, Survie and Sherpa, went after Bongo in the French courts for embezzlement but the courts threw the case out. Then in Feb. 2008 Le Monde got hold of a French secret service report which showed the assets in France of African leaders and their families, including Bongo. This was followed by another class action suit by Transparency International which the Courts have accepted to hear. In an unrelated, case the Courts in Bordeaux froze Bongo assets in France this year in a case where a French businessman sued for extortion. He was jailed in Gabon by Bongo and had to pay for his release.

It makes little difference whether it is Bongo’s son the Defense Minister, or his Daughter the Chief-of-Staff, or his former son-in-law and Foreign Minister Jean Ping, or someone else in the circle who takes over; the system remains intact. The only way to break the system is for French Courts in Paris to do their job and put an end to the organized crime called ‘France-Afrique’.

* Jean Ping is Bongo’s former Son-in-Law and Foreign Minister who would have a hard time explaining the origins of his vast wealth and European assets.  In a show of support for kleptocracy, Ping was elected President of the African Union Commission by fellow African leaders.  A clear demonstration that Africans have little to hope for from the AU.