Gabon: The Struggle and Pain for National Autonomy

Gabon: The Struggle and Pain for National Autonomy

Friday, September 2, 2016 2:20 pm


Ademola Araoye

Ademola Araoye


By Ademola Araoye

It was predictable that the August 27, 2016 presidential elections in Gabon was going to be controversial with very high prospects of violence. In the latest count, with three dead, around 1,000 people have been arrested in Libreville and other parts of the country. This followed violence that followed the announcement of the re-election of President Ali Bongo. The unfortunate reality is that the Gabonese have no meaningful stakes in the elections. The elections did not offer a real prospect of change as the two protagonists are both from the family of late Albert Omar Odimba Bongo; both of them adopted, one literally and the other metaphorically. A win by any of the two, either the adopted Nigerian child asylum seeker incumbent Ali Bongo or half Chinese Jean Ping also adopted and married into the Bongo family, would be a mere continuation of the forty -five year dynastic rule of Albert Bongo, the former agent of the French intelligence service. The “anyone but Bongo” mantra of the opposition is empty.

The real contention in the Gabonese presidential elections remains who between the two in the Bongo political family would better protect and sustain French historic economic control and a pillage system that had been the hallmark of the long 42 year rule of Albert Omar Bongo. It is at the heart of the current imbroglio. It has become an issue because Ali Bongo’s profound policy deviation from the path of his father had elicited a serious crisis in relations between his presidency and the French establishment. The elections is thus more about the continued control of Gabon by France than the well being of the Gabonese. The French Foreign Ministry has thus waded early into the emerged controversy on the side of Jean Ping, demanding the breakdown of results polling station by polling station. The French Ministry paradoxically also condemned the half century rule of the country by the Bongo family and expressed the hope that someone outside the family would be allowed to take charge of the country. The head of the 70-strong European Union election monitoring team in the country has said the polls lacked transparency. Meanwhile, congratulating the people and Government of Gabon for the holding of a peaceful and orderly presidential election on Saturday, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon urged all Gabonese to accept the poll results.

Under normal circumstances, the sentiments exuded by the French would be most welcome. But the times and circumstances in Gabon are far from normal. A win by Ali Bongo would represent a defiance against France unseen since the time of Laurent Gbagbo in Cote d’Ivoire. The French media, as not unexpected, led by Le Monde, has therefore begun the demonization of Ali Bongo. Also, French African proxy regime, such as Alhasan Dramane Ouattara, have been accused of joining the fray in support of France and Jean Ping. Alhasan Ouattara was a special counsellor of the late Omar Odimba Bongo. The latter is suspected of bankrolling the rebellion in Cote d’Ivoire and along with Nigeria provided invaluable diplomatic support to Ouattara in the Ivorian crisis. As in Cote d’Ivoire, the emerging crisis in Gabon is about the progressive resistance to the consolidation of French control over its old pre carre…

The late Albert Omar Bongo, an informant to the French Air Force, was singularly hand-picked and brought to power in 1967 by the legendary Jacques Foccart, better known as Monsieur Afrique. Gabon, with a small population of less than a million in the 1960s and swimming in oil, a strategic asset responsible for a national but privatized money glut, had a special place in the African policy of French President and national hero Charles de Gaulle. Mr. De Gaulle created a quasi-ministry for African affairs, later dubbed the “African Cell,” with a strong presidential mandate , to keep Gabon, Ivory Coast and other Sub-Saharan colonies on track of French domination. In pursuit of this mandate, Mr Foccart, as the founding head of the African cell in the French presidency, was the manipulator who kept Francophone Africa in line.

At a time when Africa bristled with by anti-colonialist passions, Foccart successfully created the formal structures that have since sustained France’s insufferable back breaking bear hug not only in Francophone Africa, but again in controlling developments in the Organization of the African Unity and its metamorphosed African Union, at least until its proxy Jean Ping was relieved of the Presidency of the Commission of the African Union. Jacques Foccart is credited as the mastermind of the behind-the-scenes daring adventures that led Francafrique networks (of officers, administrators, ambassadors and other agents) to perpetuate French influence in Tropical Africa and Morocco. Algeria being a notable exception having defeated French forces in its revolutionary uprising to reject in 1963 France’s attempts to integrate the Arab country as France Outremeer, (France Overseas).

The man Monsieur Foccart depended largely on the deployment of the French military to install African leaders friendly to France and to remove or eliminate, often through coup d’etat and or assassinations of leaders that strayed too far from French control. Mr. Foccart coordinated with French state-run companies to secure special privileges, sometimes exclusive access to oil and other natural resources. This created the beginnings of FrancAfrique. Against this background, the need to pry open the space for autonomy of action for the African Union and the integrity of its internal processes was an important undercurrent of the vigorous challenge of Africanist states against the Nigeria, ostensibly protecting informal conventions of the African Union, led support of conservative actors for Jean Ping in the July 2012 elections for the Presidency of the African Union Commission. Nigeria’s allies in that elections were the conservative circle of states comprised of the consolidated proxies of France in Africa

Francafrique, even in its residual state in 2016, involves deep penetration of target states through a complex web of institutional and informal relations that ensure that France is a major player, read controlling counterpart, in the affairs of many African countries and even of the African Union. The emphasis on the African Union is important. Professor Lamine Kabba observes that through the networks of this largely opaque conglomerate in Africa, France, a concessionary founding member of the UN Security Council and the World Bank, can boast a significant global influence that extends far beyond the French-speaking states. He adds that it involves an effective style of diplomacy that is not necessarily staffed with well-seasoned accredited diplomats, but energetic and daring doers.

Francafrique builds relations that rely on close personal connections woven between the French leadership (the president and his close aides) and individual African leaders who depended on French assistance and security forces. Kabba notes that Francafrique excelled in channelling funds to electoral campaigns of some prominent French politicians too. Despite long term rhetoric about the scaling down of French influence in the internal affairs of its proxy states in Africa, the strategic interests of France has turned support for Africa democracy into a strategic tool for instrumental democracy. In turn, as in Cote d’Ivoire, with the exception of Africanist Laurent Gbagbo, Gabon and the Central African Republic, incumbent presidents were always afraid that the French Socialists would support opposition groups against their governments. In the post Cold War era, France has used democracy in Africa, merely procedural, as an instrument to advance its strategic objectives.

Instrumental democracy entails the deployment of democratic pretences and processes as vessels to achieve strategic goals of foreign and hegemonic forces and actors. In instrumentalized democracies, it is the mere motions, the procedural, rather than the substantive, established mores or ethical tenets of democracy that matter. Even in the post Cold War and before it, the focus of African democracy has been on the procedural. In more recent times elections in Burundi, through Congo (Brazzaville), Malawi, Togo, Cameroon, Cote d’Ivoire, to Equatorial Guinea have been merely going to the motions to establish dubious validity for incumbent presidencies or even validate dynastic successions as in Togo and even Gabon. We saw that in procedural elections Nigeria in the second presumed presidential election of Olusegun Obasanjo. Those elections were associated tragic human costs in codified and largely uncodified deaths of many senior and major political actors. As mind bogging revelations of the corruption entailed in the massive plans of the state to ensure victory for incumbent Jonathan administration in the last election have demonstrated, Nigeria is not immune to the dangers of this genre of democracy.

Coming elections in Zimbabwe, Uganda, Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda among others are already compromised even before the polls. The pretences of Electoral observer missions to these democratic charades has made them accomplices to the hollowing out of democracy in Africa. These missions also carry a baggage of political influences and cannot be trusted to be divorced from the political sentiments of the state directors and funding sources of these overhyped bodies. Democratic consolidation that imply the transfer of power from one governing party to another is thus a rarity in Africa. Accordingly, procedural elections, if they are held at all, have historically been the basis of the one man/one party state and Africa’s invention of the patrimonial governanc during the Cold War era.

In the post Cold War era, the fledging post one party and post one man state (POPS/POMS) in Africa is associated with neo-patrimonial state and governance paradigm in the post Cold War. Neo patrimonial governance in the post Cold War expends some time and energy to appear to be constitutional rule. So procedural elections have become the order of the day. Instrumental democracy involves the subtle engagement of interested outside forces, often neo-colonial and hegemonic forces, the deployment of sham elections to seek the validation of dubious electoral outcomes that advance their strategic objectives in that country.

In this elections, Gabon and the Bongo family literally have gone full cycle as France seeks to remove Ali Bongo from office. In 2009, France was full throated its validation of the election of Ali Bongo was criticized for its partiality in favour of the dynasty. At least three fatalities were registered in demonstration against French intervention in that election. French president Nicolas Sarkozy congratulated Ali Bongo and wished him success. Before Ali Bongo, Gabon had had only two presidents since independence from France in 1960. Leo Mba was elected president in 1961. His paternalistic and authoritarian rule was premised on national unity and Gabon’s dependence on France. In early 1964, he was restored to power French troops following a military uprising by the Gabonese army. He was sustained in office by the French military until his death in 1967. Bongo was thereafter installed by the French in 1967. He also remained loyal to the French until the very end in 2009. Ali Bongo has been the first to deviate from the arrangement. Gabon is to France in Central Africa what Cote d’Ivoire is to it in West Africa. The stakes of France in keeping secured its main beefsteak in Central Africa are therefore high in Gabon. This has influenced its pro Jean Ping pronouncements in the evolving conundrum in Gabon.

Albert Bernard Alhaji Omar Odimba Bongo was a major force within the FrancAfrique network. Gabon has a population of approximately 1.5 million. Approximately 73 percent of the population, including noncitizens, are Christians, including the syncretistic Bwiti; 12 percent practice Islam (of whom 80 to 90 percent are foreigners); 10 percent practice traditional indigenous religious beliefs exclusively; and 5 percent practice no religion or are atheists. Given the low population density and Omar Bongo’s reputed indifference to the welfare of the population, he and cronies around him were very rich. He had oil and was generous to the French establishment, to both the ruling parties and the opposition. Crude oil accounts for about 50 per cent of the country’s GDP. According to a 2008 statistical Energy Survey by BP, Gabon had proven oil reserves of 1.995 billion barrels (0.16% of the world’s reserve) at the end of 2007 and produced 230 thousand barrels a day for the same period.

Since then,  Gabon has discovered new oil fields. Gabon’s low population density, abundant petroleum, and foreign private investment have helped to make it one of the most prosperous countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, with the 4th highest Human Development Index and the third highest GDP per capita in Africa. The Americans, French, British and the rest of Western Europe beneficiary of the corruption and profligacy of the regime protected Omar Bongo against the will of his people. But France was the approved gendarme to assure the continued flow of oil to the West. More than half of the crude oil from Gabon is exported to the United States of America. The rest is destined to Western Europe. France’s military base in Gabon is of great strategic import for French control of West and Central Africa.

Democracy or not, France has therefore been the muscular guarantor of regime continuity in Gabon. But Omar Bongo played his part well. Mark Doyle of the BBC noted that Omar Bongo’s one man rule was successful in co-opting of the opposition – using the country’s considerable oil revenues to grease the path to power.” He pacified the opposition by bribing his opponents. In the circumstances, the well planned policy and agreement with France on dynastic succession went relatively smooth in the transition from Pa Albert Bernard Omar Bongo to Ali Bongo. In 2009, candidate and son Ali Bongo obtained just 42% of the vote. In Gabon’s first past the post elections rule that was enough to win him the presidency. His two main challengers – Mba Obame and Pierre Mamboudou each gained around 25% of the  628,000 registered voters. Perceiving the role of France in the charade that brought Ali Bongo to power, its consulate in Port Gentil was torched by irate Gabonese.

Then something snapped. President Ali Bongo, a product of what a commentator likened to a noxious trinity of God the father France, the son of Almighty Bongo and the invisible spirit of neo-colonial control, behaved true his times and generation. He fell foul of the French establishment as he sought to realign the governance paradigm in Gabon. Ali Bongo declared that he intended to liberalize and diversify Gabon’s economic partnerships. He noted that while French investors tend to be very familiar with the opportunities in Gabon, he dispelled the impression that other international firms will never land a contract or sign a partnership in Gabon because French companies take all of the business. He affirmed that the situation was different now.

He cited that other groups, companies and countries that had invested successfully in Gabon under his rule. He reiterated that Gabon would always be open to new French firms. Gabon however was looking for more partners to join them, from places like, he emphasized, South Africa or Nigeria. He cited the Singaporean firm Olam, for example, is a great example of how Gabon was bringing in new companies from around the world.  Now, Gabon wanted investors from all over the world who can invest and share part of the risk, not because they need to but because they believe in the opportunities here. Gabon was open for business and there are great opportunities. All investors needed to do was come and see that potential for themselves.

This could not be music to the ears of Paris. Also, erasing old paradigms implied no more free money to French politicians and political parties. Ali’s initiatives would begin to mitigate the ancient paralyzing political control of Gabon by France. Ali voluntarily gave up much of the wealth of his father’s estate to fund the program to enhance the capacity of Gabonese youth. Viola!! The man Ali Bongo had committed political apostasy and the fatwa of neutralization was invoked by the French establishment.

For the French, things don’t work that way. The dictum of the way of France or the high road was immediately applied. The French intelligence in a coordinated operations with the French judiciary went to work. As usual the French establishment media, the wire services AFP and the print, was in tow. A court in Nantes in western France, on the promptings of rival members of the Bongo family, in 2015 revealed that President Bongo was not a biological child as claimed by the late President Omar Bongo. The French intelligence released to the public a 1960s picture of Ali Bongo among Nigerian child refugees in Libreville who had escaped from the Biafra war. The French intelligence operations were completed with French investigative journalist Pierre Pean publishing a recent book strengthening the allegation that the president was actually Nigerian and was adopted during the Biafran war in the late 1960s.

President Ali Bongo’s close political associates were harassed in France. All was designed to frustrate the reelection candidature of Ali Bongo. Article 10 of the Gabonese constitution stipulates that presidential candidates must be of Gabonese citizenship at birth. However, the case of the opposition against Ali Bongo on the allegation of his birth outside Gabon was dismissed by the Gabonese courts. Meanwhile, just as in Cote d’Ivoire, France has zeroed in on a proven malleable adopted son of Albert Omar Bongo in the person of Jean Ping to overcome the Ali Bongo problem.

Ping, a Christian, an obvious beneficiary of his strategic relationship with the Bongo family reflected in his meteoric appointments in diverse fields, is the former husband of Omar’s daughter and former minister Pascaline Bongo, with whom he has two children: Christophe Bongo and Tarallo-Bongo. Pascaline was his father’s, Omar Bongo, Minister of Foreign Affairs from 1999 to 2008. Ping left government in 2008 when he became chairperson of the African Union Commission up to 2012, strengthening his international credentials. Jean Ping, although of Chinese father, has remained under a pall of being a French agent like his mentor. The cloud around his connection to the French intelligence thickened with the agitated engagement of France in his reelection bid as the President of the African Union Commission. Many believe that he compromised the integrity of the internal processes of the African Union as the President of the AU Commission. Observers note the unusually high number of French officials present in Addis Ababa that sought to promote his reelection in 2012.

Failing to win reelection at the African Union, Jean Ping was seen as their best solution to assure the continuity of French control over Gabon. This would advance overcoming the challenge posed by President Ali Bongo’s recalcitrant repudiation of his father’s special relationship with France, More importantly, it would kill Ali Bongo’s attempt to open up and liberalize the Gabonese economy. The Gabonese transformative agenda would die. At the heart of this transformation is the wellbeing of the Gabonese, infrastructural development and a realignment of national orientation to more constructively engage with Africa. Ali Bongo’s current pains are implicit in the struggle for national autonomy. The real danger is that if this crisis takes on a religious tone, the search for French control, as in Cote d’Ivoire and the Central African Republic, may be at colossal humanitarian costs. This is the time for Africa to wade in a still proactive and constructive manner.

Ademola Araoye is a former Nigerian diplomat and a retired official of the United Nations. Currently a Visiting Professor associated with the SARCHi chair on African Diplomacy and International Relations at the University of Johannesburg, Araoye is author of critically acclaimed books including Cote d’Ivoire: The Conundrum of a Still Wretched of the Earth and Sources of Conflict in the Post-Colonial African State. He is a regular contributor to TheNEWS magazine


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