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.
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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.