Meet Ali Bongo Ondimba, Obama’s Man in Africa

In an exclusive interview with Foreign Policy, Gabonese President Ali Bongo Ondimba talked U.S. military support and his father's controversial legacy.

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Fleets of luxury vehicles, crates of expensive Champagne, a $500 million presidential palace, specially designed platform shoes, and dozens of homes in Paris alone: Omar Bongo Ondimba didn’t just rule the oil-rich central African nation of Gabon with an iron fist for more than four decades. He did it in style.

When he died from unexpected cardiac failure in 2009 at the age of 73, he left behind a wife, two ex-wives (one of whom became a successful pop singer after their divorce), more than 50 children, and 1.5 million citizens in a nation his supporters say he essentially built from scratch.

Omar Bongo took over Gabon’s presidency in 1967, seven years after the small nation liberated itself from France. It was little surprise that one of his sons, Ali, won the same seat three months after his father’s death. Yet Ali Bongo Ondimba still denies — despite a contested 2009 election — his father’s legacy helped put him in power.

“My father used to say I would inherit his house but not his seat,” Bongo told Foreign Policy during an exclusive March 31 conversation at the Atlantic Council think tank in Washington, adding that his father’s legacy “was more of a burden than an advantage” during his 2009 campaign.

A self-proclaimed reformist, the younger Bongo visited Washington for last week’s annual Nuclear Security Summit. There is hardly a viable opposition in Gabon, and Bongo is favored to win another seven-year mandate in an August vote. Bongo’s father is widely understood to have used the country’s oil wealth for enormous personal gain. But when asked whether he thought it might be time for the Bongo family to step down, the central African nation’s 57-year-old current leader practically scoffed.

“I am bringing change,” Bongo said repeatedly. “Who am I facing? Old politicians. They were the ones who were having responsibility at the time of my father. I am bringing change.”

As it turns out, keeping the younger Bongo in power might be in Washington’s best interest.

Over the past seven years, Gabon has quietly solidified its role as an easy diplomatic ally to the United States in a region rocked by instability. Its relationship with the Obama administration was strengthened when Gabon rotated into a temporary role on the United Nations Security Council from 2010 to 2011. During that time, the Obama administration was desperate for UNSC members to support an intervention in Libya to oust dictator Muammar al-Qaddafi from power.

Bongo’s government pulled through: In February and March 2011, Gabon voted in favor of two Security Council resolutions, one that imposed sanctions on Qaddafi and another that established a no-fly zone over Libya. On a visit to Washington in June that year, Bongo became the first African leader to publicly call for Qaddafi to step down. He was also the first African leader during Obama’s administration to stay at Blair House, the American president’s private guest residence. And in 2014, he and his wife, Sylvia, were seated at the head table with Obama and his wife, Michelle, at a state dinner during the African Leaders Summit in Washington.

“There’s been a slow but steady build-up of the relationship that’s largely gone unremarked,” said J. Peter Pham, director of the Africa Center at the Atlantic Council. “Whereas the other countries on the UNSC were more reserved, Gabon led the way and helped the administration get the African vote for the resolutions to intervene in Libya.”

Eric Benjaminson, who served as U.S. ambassador to Gabon from 2010 to 2013, told FP the Libya intervention proved Libreville’s strategic importance in Africa. He said Bongo’s ability to influence other African leaders was helped, in large part, by Gabonese government officials who had worked for his father before they worked for him.

“They had Rolodexes that were amazing,” Benjaminson said. “They could call any African leader with private cell numbers. They knew Qaddafi and they knew his chief of staff very well, and we were trying to work through the Gabonese to get Qaddafi to step down without military action.”  

Ultimately, that didn’t work. But Benjaminson said throughout the intervention, Bongo’s administration offered Obama a remarkable amount of information about talks it was having with other African leaders behind the scenes, even if the White House was not organizing or leading those diplomatic efforts. Gabonese officials would check with the United States to see if their decisions “fit into the framework of what the other Western UNSC members were doing, and we would tell them and they would modify things often,” Benjaminson said.  

Benjaminson accompanied Bongo on his trip to Washington in 2011 and said from what he could see, “Obama sort of liked him.”  

“The guy’s an interesting raconteur, he’s a friendly African, and it’s not Obama’s home so it doesn’t look like he’s coddling up to a country that his ancestors came from,” he said, referencing Kenya, the birthplace of Obama’s father. “It was a nice thing.”

Beyond Libya, there were other reasons the United States found it easy to throw its support behind Bongo. As the defense minister during his father’s administration, Ali Bongo reformed Gabon’s military into what both Pham and Benjaminson called “professional” — far better trained and prepared than other militaries in the region.

In his conversation with FP, Bongo made clear those reforms remain a huge source of pride for him.

I developed the armed forces, especially in a way that improved living and working conditions,” he said. “My record is there.”

Now, he said, military challenges are shifting. Boko Haram, the terrorist group that originated in northern Nigeria, has launched violent campaigns in Cameroon, Chad, and Niger. Gabon shares Cameroon’s southern border, far from where the terrorists are carrying out attacks in the country’s northern regions. Still, Bongo said Gabonese officials worry the group will resort to moving further south, or using the Gulf of Guinea for piracy.

Additionally, Gabon for decades has struggled to control poachers who kill elephants for illegal ivory, as well as drug smugglers and human traffickers whose routes go north from Gabon. Bongo said his government now suspects “contact between poachers and terrorists.”

The United States has already provided training to Gabonese anti-poaching rangers and sailors, and Bongo said U.S. Navy Secretary Ray Mabus is visiting Gabon this month to discuss further cooperation on maritime security. “Terrorists also have to fund their activities, so they’re looking to any kind of illegal activity — so whether ivory, or rhino horns, or cocaine, or human trafficking, or gold trafficking, or arms trafficking — anything,” Bongo said. “They’re trying to establish a transnational network of crime, so we just want to make sure that we’ll be able to face all that.”  

Gabon has been committed to wildlife preservation since Omar Bongo was in power, and 23 percent of Gabon’s maritime territory and more than 10 percent of its land were set aside as maritime and national parks as of 2014. Benjaminson said Obama was “very impressed with Ali’s commitment to conservation and protection of endangered species.”

Regarding U.S. military support, Pham said what Gabon “needed was training; they weren’t waiting for a handout.”

“They’re playing a larger role in regional security and they’re punching well above their weight in those terms,” he said.

Still, it’s hard to ignore the not-so-shiny aspects of Ali Bongo’s administration. As Benjaminson put it, “his father was much worse and much more corrupt than he is, although he is corrupt.”

Ali Bongo “did spend a lot of money on clinics, roads, hospitals, and better schools,” Benjaminson said. “But he also wasted money hosting the Africa Cup of Nations, having speed boat races; and he bought himself…a [Boeing] 777.” 

“Why an African leader needs a 777 is beyond me,” Benjaminson said. “He loves luxury but has some of Gabon’s interests at heart.” 

According to the most recently available statistics, Gabon’s per capita income is four times higher than most sub-Saharan African country. But that’s due in large part to huge income inequality between the country’s most elite and most impoverished. Unlike some other African countries where protests over extending term limits for politicians have erupted into violence, Gabon’s president can by law run for re-election indefinitely.

During last week’s visit to Washington, Bongo met with Assistant Secretary of State Linda Thomas Greenfield. The State Department turned down multiple requests from FP for comment on that meeting, and specifically refused to discuss whether Washington worries Bongo’s push for another term in power could cause instability in Gabon.

But Bongo was more than willing to offer his thoughts on that issue. He told FP he has much to be proud of when he looks back on his father’s controversial legacy, but that when it comes to elections, “it’s not about a question of family, it’s about a question of person.” 

“It was Omar, now it’s Ali. It’s not the Bongos. No. You know, that’s very important,” he said, failing to note that his nickname at home is “Bongo Fils,” or “Son of Bongo.”

“It’s a democratic country and it’s for people to choose. Ok, they like Ali, they’ll choose Ali, it’s not because his name is Bongo. That’s irrelevant.”

Photo credit: Alex Wong/Getty Images

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