France’s Bongo-Bongo Party
As Gabon erupts in violence, the dark, twisted legacy tying this former colony to Paris is bubbling up to the surface.
“There is France, and there is Africa,” French President François Hollande announced on a state visit to Senegal in 2012. It was a remark validated by geography but repudiated by history. Since most of France’s African colonies gained independence in 1960, they have maintained a web of opaque and incestuous ties with Paris — culminating in Élysée-backed coups, African strongman-banked safaris, and diamond-studded tokens of appreciation. But this decades-long patron-client relationship, Hollande insisted in 2012, would be replaced with a transparent partnership of equals founded on respect and solidarity.
This was largely nonsense, of course. As the contested presidential election and subsequent violence in Gabon has shown, La Françafrique refuses to go quietly into the night: For those Africans seeking to build democracy as well as those trying to deny it, the ties that have long bound France and francophone Africa cannot be easily undone. As wits point out, “Françafrique” rhymes with “France-à-fric” — slang for French politicians’ use of Africa as a personal ATM. While the practice has faded, its scars remain.
On Aug. 27, the Gabonese went to the ballot boxes to choose a president. For the first time in a half-century, the nation’s 2 million citizens had a realistic chance of electing a president with a last name other than Bongo. But as the post-election intrigue has revealed, they never had a chance of escaping France’s shadow.
For 42 years until his death in 2009, Omar Bongo ruled over a Gabon that was the heart of La Françafrique. As the nation’s founding father, Bongo sought to create a dynasty rather than a democracy. Instead of giving the Gabonese a true multiparty system, he gave them his son, Ali Bongo Ondimba. (Long rumored to have been born in Nigeria and adopted by the elder Bongo — rumors given a good deal of substance by the French journalist Pierre Péan, who has been a persistent thorn in the younger Bongo’s side.)
“Africa without France is like a car without a driver, while France without Africa is like a car without gas.” True to his bon mot, Omar Bongo provided the gas, both literally and metaphorically, for France and its political elite. While the French oil giant Elf Aquitaine exploited the tiny Central African country’s substantial oil reserves — filling a massive slush fund for France’s ruling class as well as for Bongo’s kleptocracy that was uncovered in the 1990s by French investigators — Bongo exploited his equally substantial bank reserves to cultivate ties in Paris.
Installed in power 1967 by Charles de Gaulle’s éminence grise on African affairs, Jacques Foccart, Bongo had little interest in cultivating democratic practices at home. What he was interested in was meddling in the politics of France, which he saw as the ultimate guarantor of his power. Occupants of the Élysée came and went, but Bongo remained a fixture of the murky fringe of French campaign finance. Among the load of diplomatic cables dumped by WikiLeaks in 2010 was one from the American Embassy in Cameroon, which hinted at the role played by the Banque des Etats d’Afrique Centrale (BEAC) in the financing of the presidential campaigns of Jacques Chirac and Nicolas Sarkozy. Bongo stands accused of embezzling millions of dollars from BEAC — he named the bank’s pliant director, Philip Andzembe — and allegedly channeled some of his ill-gotten lucre into Chirac’s and Sarkozy’s campaign coffers. Bongo, as one BEAC administrator noted with superb understatement, was “France’s favorite African president.”
Through mechanisms such as these, Omar Bongo built his signature “system of suitcases.” In a 2001 interview with the French newspaper Libération, Mike Jocktane, an ex-insider of the Bongo clan, admitted that the bribing of French politicians was an “open secret” in Gabon. “Everyone knew that when a French leader came to Gabon, he almost always left with a suitcase. The character of the regime was to cultivate everyone, regardless of their political affiliation, so as to obtain and maintain their support.”
Both Sarkozy and Ali Bongo Ondimba have denied the charges leveled by the BEAC administrator in the WikiLeaks cable. Undeniable, however, was Sarkozy’s critical support in 2009, when the younger Bongo, following his father’s death, claimed victory in a presidential election his opponents insisted he had stolen. Even as the contested results were still being reviewed by Gabon’s Constitutional Court, Sarkozy’s government congratulated the younger Bongo on his victory — a rush to judgment, Jocktane believes, explained by the existence of videotapes recording Sarkozy’s visits to the elder Bongo’s presidential palace.
In last month’s presidential election, Bongo’s opponents were determined to avoid a rerun of 2009, when his two principal opponents divided more than 50 percent of the popular vote between themselves. This time around, the opposition parties settled on a single candidate, Jean Ping, to run against the incumbent. While the 73-year-old Ping was hardly a new face — in addition to heading a number of ministries under Bongo, he served as chair of the African Union in 2008-2012 — he had the advantage of having a last name other than Bongo.
But when the election results were tallied, an anomaly appeared: While Ping won decisively in nearly all of the country’s provinces, Bongo carried his home province of Upper Ogooé by a margin that would stoke the envy of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. He won more than 96 percent of the vote amid a 99.98 percent turnout. (Given that only 71,000 voters were registered in Upper Ogooé, this means that only 12 failed to cast their ballots.) Not only did this raise his total vote count above Ping’s — 49.8 percent to 48.23 percent — and thus raise eyebrows among European Union observers; it also got a rise from Ping’s supporters, who immediately took to the streets in protest.
In the days following the initial riots, which broke out on Aug. 27, at least seven people have been killed. The government shut down the internet and silenced the domestic news media, so there’s no way to verify opposition claims that the death toll now tops 50. It could be much higher. The only thing clear now is that little is clear; as the magazine Jeune Afrique observed, “Information is now a rare commodity in Gabon.”
Hunkered down in his house, Ping has both declared himself president and demanded a recount of the vote, province by province — a demand rejected by Bongo’s representatives, who claim that such a procedure (one not anticipated by Gabon’s electoral laws) would be unconstitutional.
The results of the election, and the future of democracy in Gabon, probably won’t turn on such fine legalisms. On Sept. 5, Ping upped the ante, calling for a general strike by his followers and appealing to Hollande to intervene personally. “At this point,” declared a Ping spokesperson, “we depend on Hollande’s decision. He needs to bang his fist on the table and intervene. If he doesn’t, it will amount to nonassistance to a people in danger.”
For now, Hollande has refrained from intervening, not to mention banging his fist on tables. Instead he has called for “restraint and calm on the part of all parties” as well as an electoral “process guaranteeing transparency.” Hollande’s reluctance to go beyond diplomatic pieties may reflect the dwindling importance of Gabon’s oil reserves — France gets most of its fuel from Norway, Saudi Arabia, and Russia these days — but, ironically, it may also reflect France’s colonial legacy in the tiny African country. To intervene on behalf of Ping would be to continue the politics of Françafrique by another name.
Then again, to leave the name of Bongo in charge of the capital, Libreville, would be to ensure its continuation as well. There may be France and there may be Africa, as Hollande observed, but disentangling them is another matter.
Photo credit: Mustafa Yalcin/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
Robert Zaretsky is a professor of history at the University of Houston’s Honors College and the author of a forthcoming book on Simone Weil.