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How France lost control of Gabon Africa's latest coup is a tale of colonial collapse

Emmanuel Macron (L) meets with Gabon's Ali Bongo in March 2023 (LUDOVIC MARIN/AFP via Getty Images)

Emmanuel Macron (L) meets with Gabon's Ali Bongo in March 2023 (LUDOVIC MARIN/AFP via Getty Images)


September 5, 2023   5 mins

Gabon fulfils all the stereotypes you might have about the west coast of Africa. Brutal, kleptocratic dictator whose family have been in power for over 50 years? Tick. Highly corrupt political system that facilitates large multinational companies to pillage, rob and destroy the livelihood of its people? Tick. Unbelievably resource rich and beautiful, with large areas of untouched rainforest? Tick.

Don’t be fooled. Despite its small size and seeming typicality, Gabon is different. Because this African country, with barely 2.3 million people, has played a massively outsized role in post-colonial Africa. For over 50 years, it has been both the exemplar case and chief facilitator of a dirty capitalism and corrupt neo-imperialism that has marred the continent.

To put it simply, Gabon’s leading Bongo dynasty is responsible for facilitating no-good transactions and all means of illicit activity — and the story of post-imperial French success cannot be told without it.

It all starts, as it so often does when it comes to France, with Charles de Gaulle. De Gaulle was desperate to keep sub-Saharan Africa in French orbit — and so set about with a plan. To maintain dominance, France would do a few things. Most obviously, France would keep close institutional, personal and political links with its former colonies, embedding itself into new states. But De Gaulle also tried something else: France would use whatever means possible to ensure the right politicians got into the right places. De Gaulle had a type in mind: those pliant to French interests, but who would also be sensible and intelligent enough to maintain power, and so ensure continuing dominance.

And so it was, like most of former French sub-Saharan states, with Gabon, who had as its first President Leon M’ba, a man so pro-French, that initially he rejected independence, instead attempting to make the country part of metropolitan France. Yet, from very early on, De Gaulle and the advisors around him carved out a special role for this tiny country. Small, but nevertheless oil and mineral rich, Gabon was unassuming, easy to control, and awash with liquid cash. These characteristics and its cringingly loyal, ruthless and highly strategic second President, Omar Bongo, made Gabon the central puzzle piece in a system of continued French political control — where France could offshore its geostrategic dirty work.

So, France started using the small country as a base, a place where the messy business of getting what it wants could be done, but not traced back to it. At the centre of it all was a series of multinational companies, who exercised massive amounts of power, and acted at the behest of the French state. The largest, and by far most significant of which, was an oil company named Elf Aquitaine. The company, using Gabon as its base, facilitated all sorts of contracts, bribes and bungs that furthered its and the French governmental interests — tellingly, France chose its CEO.

Elf Gabon, a subsidiary of Elf Aquitaine, made a standard annual payment of £15 million to leaders of African states, mainly of ex-colonies. The payment, essentially from France itself, would not have been acceptable if it was transparently from the ex-colonial master. So France used Gabon to make its dirty tricks possible.

As time went by, the size of the system exploded. By the Nineties, Elf was dealing with illicit financial flows exceeding $130 million a year. Money for contracts in places as far as Venezuela, Russia and Central Asia went in and out of the company, allowing French companies intimate to the French state strategic control of resources far outside of just its African ex-colonies.

In 1991, £250 million in euphemistically named “commissions” went through Elf for a deal involving six naval frigates being sold to Taiwan for a figure close to £1.6 billion. This was, in effect, a huge military contract for French companies, facilitated by a dodgy company based in Gabon. The country, in all senses but name, continued to act as a strange half-colony.

At other points, Gabon was used for more explicit and brazen political benefits. Funds were transferred to armed militias and rebel troops from it, using the Elf system. It also acted as one of the bases for Jacques Foccart’s Service d’Action Civique (SAC) — a French organisation that promoted its interests in a fashion not dissimilar to Russia’s Wagner Group.

In exchange for being the lynchpin of French neo-colonialism Omar Bongo, the kleptocrat President, would receive an unprecedented level of support from France. For one, Bongo became essential for French political life. And he was, as a result, kept safe by a crack-squad of French troops, connected by tunnels to the Presidential Palace from a local French military base. If protests, riots or a coup threatened Bongo, the French could always step in. The knowledge of this arrangement was all that was needed to keep him in power — for 42 years Bongo was President. Only his death parted him from the job.

Bongo became a strange figure in French politics. His role in greasing no-good arrangements made the country not just a place for dodgy deals with other countries, but also between French politicians. It was not unheard of for French politicians to head to Gabon and return with a suitcase of cash. Jacques Chirac’s campaign for president, it is reported, gained huge quantities of campaign funding from Gabon’s oil riches. It is partly because of these intimate connections that when Nicholas Sarkozy first took office, the first man he called was not Bush or Blair or Merkel, but Omar Bongo.

That this system collapsed is the story of the recent coup. The demise of the hold of the French state over Gabon — and the collapse of its tightly controlled system of neo-colonialism — is what allowed this coup to take place: the special relationship between Gabon and France no longer exists.

There is no one reason that the French and Gabonese have given up on the tight relationship. Some might point to the Elf affair, when Eva Joly, a Norwegian-French judge revealed the sickening extent of the corruption, resulting in the French government distancing itself from the company. Though French corruption within the country continued, the extent of the revelations meant France spread its bets throughout the continent — as it could no longer afford to be so brazen in its search for an edge within its ex-colonies.

Others might point to the death of Omar Bongo, the shrewd, power-hungry kleptocrat, whose charismatic authority, political nous and diplomatic skill made challenging the Bongo regime near impossible. His son, Ali Bongo, though just as kleptocratic and brutal as his father, was far less strategically decisive when it came to geopolitical direction in global affairs. Instead of cutting fine to the French wind, Bongo junior diversified his portfolio. Out went French total control, in came the free market, Chinese investment and the Anglo-American multinationals. In 2019, Gabon even joined the Commonwealth — the surest sign yet that it was trying to move away from the French.

The result: a dramatic decline in patronage from the former colonial overlord, even if the institutional links remained strong. Gabon became unexceptional once again — no longer the hidden secret to French colonial control, it became just another African state.

In a way, a farewell to the Bongos is a much-needed tonic for little Gabon. Most ordinary Gabonese never saw the results of so-called independence. Though Gabon gained a large middle class and a bechamel-thin class of super-rich elites, the majority of its population remained astonishingly poor. France continued to exploit the country as if it were a colony, in ways more pernicious and systematic than when it exercised real control. The loss of the dynasty that enabled huge funds to leak out of the oil-rich state and into a huge French slush fund seems like it only to be a good thing.

But it’s far from clear it is. What this latest coup means is highly ambiguous. Yes, it’s a clean break from a French-controlled dynast — but Bongo junior was already trying to move away from France anyway. And even that fact is highly contestable: the new leader of the military government of Gabon is none other than a cousin of Ali Bongo himself.

Perhaps this is typical. Gabon is a country whose recent history has been defined by secrecy —whose unassuming typicality gives it licence to hide the rhythms and patterns that govern its extraordinarily interesting and colourful political life. If there’s any conclusion we can draw from the recent coup, it is that that’s unlikely to change.


William Finlator is a student at the University of St Andrews.


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Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
7 months ago

Thank you for that brilliant evisceration of the Pax Gallica.

When I read something like this it reminds me that the late Cecil Rhodes Esq was absolutely correct when he said:-
“Remember that you are an Englishman, and have consequently won first prize in the lottery of life.”

Last edited 7 months ago by Charles Stanhope
Bruno Lucy
BL
Bruno Lucy
7 months ago

What a fitting reference Charles…..the very same Rhodes who….:
Rhodes used his political power to expropriate land from black Africans through the Glen Grey Act, while also tripling the wealth requirement for voting under the Franchise and Ballot Act, effectively barring black people from taking part in elections.
I want more of your unbiased wisdom

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
7 months ago
Reply to  Bruno Lucy

Vae Victis! And Oriel College will be forever grateful for his munificence, unlike many decidedly ungrateful Rhode’s scholars!

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
7 months ago

The political machinations and corruption is mind blowing. This is the first I’ve heard of any of this.

David McKee
David McKee
7 months ago

This is very interesting. A few hypertext links would have been useful, to substantiate the points made by Mr. Finlator.
What he does not explain is why Ali Bongo chose to downgrade his relationship with France. If it was as lucrative for him as it was for M’ba and Omar Bongo, why would he want to do that? And why would the French have allowed him to do that?
It is good to see that Unherd is branching out from established journalists, writers and academics.

Phil Rees
Phil Rees
7 months ago
Reply to  David McKee

Because China is more ‘rewarding’?

Warren Trees
Warren Trees
7 months ago
Reply to  Phil Rees

Most likely. Articles like this always remind me of how progressive Africa would be today if only it weren’t for those pesky Europeans. Who knows, left all alone for the past 2 centuries, Africa could have become the model for societal evolution?

Peter Buchan
Peter Buchan
7 months ago
Reply to  Warren Trees

…as if you know the answer to such a complex counter factual. Oh, wait, you’re European; the most flowered branch of the Burning Bush.
Please

Mike Downing
Mike Downing
7 months ago

The trial of Elf was widely reported in the papers and was indeed a veritable sleazefest.

One of the defendants ( a woman) who had decided to rat on others (I think because of a failed ‘affaire du coeur’) started to tear it all down in the witness box, and when questioned about her bedhopping and morals, replied in a manner worthy of Carmen Maura in The Law of Desire ‘je suis la pute de la République’.

Although she later backtracked a bit when there was no longer an audience to play to.

Steve White
Steve White
7 months ago

Here is the deal, we in the West need to figure out where we stand, and we need to move forward in the new multipolar world that exists. Which that means a lot more diplomacy among other things, and also genuine goodwill. Trying to preserve the past is just going to make us all more unpopular than we already are, and so that is a form of isolationism that we can’t afford, one that is thrust on us against our wills. We don’t call all the shots in the world anymore, and doing things the old way is only going to make us smell more rotten to the rest of the world. Really we should try to win nations over with goodwill, and noble and honest efforts. 

Last edited 7 months ago by Steve White
Bruno Lucy
Bruno Lucy
7 months ago

Her name is Christine Devier Joncourt. She used to be the foreign minister Roland Dumas mistress.
But Mike, let me give you this as a refresher : https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christine_Keeler
I know that we Gaelic are people of little virtue or principles, but even a body of water called the English Channel, doesn’t change human nature

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
7 months ago
Reply to  Bruno Lucy

Stop wallowing in self pity, you only demean yourself.

Bruno Lucy
Bruno Lucy
7 months ago

Charles…..there is nothing worse than a poor loser, especially in an argument that isn’t even yours. I suggest you think twice…..well….a little bit more….before invariably putting your foot in it.
I’ve got the message ( one would have to be deaf ). reminding me of a quote taken out the last movie version of the 4 feathers where the priest, just before troops are shipped out to Sudan, goes waffling the following:
God has endowed the British race with a worldwide empire, that we may work his will throughout the world”.

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
7 months ago
Reply to  Bruno Lucy

Grow up ! Your last sentence (above), which I repeat:-
“I know that we Gaelic are people of little virtue or principles, but even a body of water called the English Channel, doesn’t change human nature.”
Is simply pathetic, is it not?

Mike Downing
Mike Downing
7 months ago

Surely it’s Gallic not Gaelic as in ‘De Bello Gallico’. I’m reading book 5 and the wicked Caesar is just about to invade our beloved Isles for the second time.

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
7 months ago
Reply to  Mike Downing

“Gaelic” is Ms Bruno’s word NOT mine!
My usage was PAX GALLICA, which I think is correct.
Yes Caesar’s account is gripping stuff, as it was meant to be.
I have always liked the account of Aquilifer of the X Legion jumping into the sea and shouting something like “follow your Eagle chaps if nothing else”!

Last edited 7 months ago by Charles Stanhope
Mike Downing
Mike Downing
7 months ago
Reply to  Bruno Lucy

Touché, Bruno.

Of course, our Christine was mortified by the publicity and became a virtual recluse ( not so Mandy ” well he would wouldn’t he?” Rice-Davies who luxuriated in the notoriety).

But your Christine is to be commended for seizing her moment in the limelight with both hands and making me fall out of my chair in a fit of unrestrained giggles.

Bruno Lucy
Bruno Lucy
7 months ago
Reply to  Mike Downing

My point Mike was to state ( as pointed out to the headmaster above who could reflect on second degree punts) that regardless of the side of the channel we live on, it is a rather risky endeavour to think that one possesses all the virtues the other doesn’t possess. I sometimes feel I am in a muppet show sequel with Statler and Waldorf shouting their abuse from the hip every time France, or Gaelicia……or is it Galicia …..they lost me…. is the topic of an article.
History is a bi..c……always comes back to bite you in your rear end the minute you start being ahead of yourself. This is something we ALL should keep in mind.
But back to Bongo….father and son……they might be mother…..rs, but they are OUR mother…..rs, to quote FDR.
Personally, I like to see the military in their barracks and we’ll see how the whole charade turns out. Probably much of the same circus but with different clowns.

Last edited 7 months ago by Bruno Lucy
Mike Downing
Mike Downing
7 months ago
Reply to  Bruno Lucy

I was in a school pantomime when I was little and I’m sure my character was called Ali Bongo. If only I’d known the greatness that lay in store for my bit-part character, I might have taken it all more seriously.

Bruno Lucy
Bruno Lucy
7 months ago
Reply to  Mike Downing

Mike
I had completely overlooked the following : https://thecommonwealth.org/news/gabon-and-togo-join-commonwealth
it appears Ali Bongo is also your motherfu…r. . Life can be cruel don’t you think ?
What I find bewildering is the article’s author who seems to have overlooked a minor « detail ».
What did Cecil Rhodes say ? I so very much would like to hear it again.

P N
P N
7 months ago

Sounds like sensible policy from De Gaulle that has served his people well. That was after all his job.
I’m always amused by articles about Africa that assume their oil and minerals could have been extracted by anything other than Western expertise and capital and that the people have therefore been exploited or robbed.

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
7 months ago
Reply to  P N

Same with Arabs, Venezuela, Borneo, etc, etc, in fact let’s NOT be modest, EVERYWHERE!

Emre S
Emre S
7 months ago

This is not corruption, this is a glance at a deep state at work. Similar machinations exist elsewhere today, and of course not just for France.

Reginald Duquesnoy
Reginald Duquesnoy
7 months ago

Summa cum laude! What a piece from “just” a student…Plus ça change…
I bet you will have an irresistible offer from the FO or better MI6 upon graduation. Though the CIA pays better!

R Wright
R Wright
7 months ago

“France continued to exploit the country as if it were a colony, in ways more pernicious and systematic than when it exercised real control”
For me is the most interesting aspect of all of this. It turns out the white man’s burden of paternalistic colonialism is far less profitable than partnering with the perrenially corrupt African elite.