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AFRICA UNSCRAMBLED OP-ED

It smells like revolution — Gabon celebrates the end of 56 years of Bongo dictatorship

It smells like revolution — Gabon celebrates the end of 56 years of Bongo dictatorship
People wave Gabon national flags as they celebrate after a military coup, in the streets of Akanda, Gabon on 30 August 2023. (Photo: EPA-EFE/STR)

The power of leaders such as Omar and Ali Bongo with their chateaux in France and Swiss bank accounts grew from the barrel of a French gun. That was the last resort if anyone attempted to topple them. France intervened militarily in Africa more than 50 times in the post-colonial era.

A tale of passion and revenge captures the essence of “Françafrique”, or French neo-colonialism, that ended in Gabon on Wednesday 30 August 2023, along with 56 years of rule by the Bongo clan.

During the late 1970s the President of Gabon, Omar Bongo, discovered that his wife, Marie-Josephine Bongo, had taken the man they had hired to paint their mansion as her lover.

Bongo had this house painter, Robert Luong, arrested and deported to France. He was told never to come back to Gabon, or he would be killed.

But the President could not keep Mrs Bongo from travelling to France and pursuing the relationship, so Bongo asked permission from his friends in France to kill Luong, which he was granted.

The President hired two French secret service agents who publicly gunned down Robert Luong in the village of Villeneuve-sur-Lot on 27 October 1979.

As compensation for the loss, an organisation calling itself l’Association des amis du Gabon (Friends of Gabon) paid one million Francs to Robert Luong’s widow and to his sister.

Besides Luong, Bongo allegedly had several other opponents killed, usually by French assassins, while French presidents including Francois Mitterrand, Jacques Chirac and Nicholas Sarkozy counted on Gabon’s oil money to finance their political campaigns. Gabon, along with the rest of the Francophone African states, voted as a bloc for France at the UN.

This was “Françafrique”: a cosy symbiosis between the French state and the ruling elites in their former African colonies in which for decades they collaborated and watched each other’s backs.

French historian Gerard Prunier says Gabon has “been the international capital of the bizarre monster called Françafrique”.

Françafrique, says Prunier, grew out of General Charles de Gaulle’s desire to restore French grandeur after an unbroken string of humiliating defeats from the French army’s collapse to the Germans in 1940 to the loss of Algeria in 1962.

De Gaulle’s “special adviser” on Africa and architect of Françafrique, the shady former Resistance fighter Jacques Foccart, who had been running covert operations on the continent, engineered the rise of Albert-Bernard Bongo to be President of Gabon in 1967.

Establishing dominance

Bongo turned his government into an extension of his family, which included 53 children from 30 different women and five war orphans that he adopted, one of whom was the son of the Biafran rebel leader Chukwuemeka Ojukwu.

Though he had no clear religion, Bongo converted to Catholicism to obtain an audience with the Pope and reinforce his authority in a Catholic country.

Then, to overcome a problem with the Opec oil-producing countries during the oil boycott, he converted to Islam in 1973 and became Omar Bongo. He was the go-to guy managing relations between Africa and the oil-producing Arab countries.

But the power of leaders such as Bongo with their chateaux in France and Swiss bank accounts grew from the barrel of a French gun. That was the last resort if anyone attempted to topple them. France intervened militarily in Africa more than 50 times in the post-colonial era.

In Gabon in 1990 Mitterrand sent in troops to put Bongo back in power.

But by August 2023, the French insurance policy had expired. Omar Bongo’s son, Ali Bongo, who succeeded him in 2009, was removed from office and placed under house arrest on Wednesday morning, much to the joy of nearly everyone in Libreville, bringing the smell of revolution to the small city.

Read more in Daily Maverick: African leaders work on response to Gabon military coup

Gabon joined the expanding club of countries that have experienced military coups in recent times: Central African Republic, Mali, Guinea, Burkina Faso and Niger, all former colonies of France and all once run as outposts of its neo-colonial empire.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Military coup in Niger unveils a complex web of actors and interests

Unlike the others, there was no lurking Russian or Wagner bogeyman to blame; no Jihadist threat menacing rural villages. There was no one in the US, China or the UAE who gave a damn.

It was just Ali Bongo, an ailing leader rigging an election in which he was clearly beaten by his opponent, Albert Ondo Ossa, a 69-year-old economist who managed to hold together under one banner the fractious opposition groups.

Bongo silenced

Everyone knew that Bongo was long past it. He suffered a stroke in 2018 and was hospitalised in Saudi Arabia for 15 months. The government ran on semi-automatic pilot while Bongo’s French wife Sylvia, who was said to have three different lovers in key positions, took control.

Since his return Bongo has hardly been able to walk. Last time he came to Paris, 18 months ago, he stumbled going up the stairs at the Elysée and grabbed onto Emmanuel Macron’s jacket to stop himself from falling.

General Brice Oligui Nguema, the head of the Presidential Guard and a former member of the Bongo team, led the coup. He read the national mood and decided enough was enough.

There were bitter memories of the last election in 2016 when a helicopter bombed the headquarters of Bongo’s opponent, Jean Ping, setting it on fire and killing an estimated 60 people.

Nguema’s decision to act, in the early hours of Wednesday, has transformed him into a national hero, and he is now heading the “transitional” government.

There have been hundreds of arrests of Bongo administration members, mainly by unarmed civilians.

Among those arrested are Bongo’s wife Sylvia, who has made piles of money in local business; Nur-ed-Din Bongo Valentin, the extremely wealthy son of Bongo; and Marie-Madeleine Mborantsuo, President of the Electoral Commission.

Bongo himself was seen in a pathetic video pleading with his friends in the outside world to “make noise”.

The hatred of the regime seems almost universal. Despite the African Union, France and other bodies rather laughably calling for the “restoration of democracy”, there is no going back to the age of the Bongos in Gabon.

No less a journal than Le Monde recognised this in an editorial on Thursday. It called the Bongo regime “corrupt and predatory” and said Paris had always turned a “blind eye to its turpitudes”.

The big fear of international organisations is the spread of coup contagion.

Most vulnerable to this possibility are the relics of Françafrique that are still knocking about such as 90-year-old Paul Biya, who has been President of Cameroon since 1975. It’s no surprise that Biya rearranged his security on Thursday and appointed new military leaders.

In Congo Brazzaville 79-year-old Denis Sassou Nguesso, whose daughter was married to Omar Bongo, and who has been in power for 38 years, must also be sweating.

Au revoir, à la prochaine

As for the French, they appear to be out of answers in Africa. President Emmanuel Macron has spoken about launching a “new software” in Africa and pledged to stop posing as a “saviour”, but he often contradicts himself. On Monday he raged against the putschists at a meeting of all the French ambassadors.

Macron also seems to be out of step with other major Western powers in Africa such as the United States and Germany who are adopting a more low-key pragmatic stance in Niger, and are prepared to let France take the heat.

The US is quietly supporting the diplomatic initiatives spearheaded by Ecowas chairman, Nigerian president Bola Tinubu, which appear to be bearing some fruit. The major sticking point is the period of transition ahead of fresh elections.

The coup leaders have proposed a transitional period of three years; this week Algeria, proposed a timeline of six months. The answer probably lies somewhere in the middle.

What such a settlement — in which the French are playing no major part — and the coup in Gabon point to is that it’s practically game over for the French in Africa.

Michael Shurkin, a fellow at the Atlantic Council in Washington, says it’s time for France to close its bases in Africa and concentrate on other priorities such as Europe and the Indo-Pacific where France maintains the world’s second-largest exclusive economic zone. These regions are of much greater economic value to France.

“The problem, as has been made clear by recent events in Niger, is that whatever France does, good or bad, provokes an allergic reaction from populations long conditioned to be suspicious of French motives and assume the worst,” he wrote in Politico.

Le Monde in an editorial this week called for introspection. It’s a sign of how rapidly things are changing that a large slice of French opinion is willing to let go of Africa. DM

Phillip Van Niekerk is the editor of Africa Unscrambleda newsletter covering the continent in a way you won’t read anywhere else. Get unscrambled by signing up right here.

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