Gabon: Françafrique’s pet project remains indispensable to Paris
Unlike the other coups in Francophone Africa, the August coup in Libreville appears to have been a change of guard rather than a revolt.
The coup’s real targets
With the arrest, on money laundering and corruption-related charges of the former first son, Noureddin Bongo Valentin in September, and the more recent conviction and jailing of his mother, Sylvia Bongo Ondimba Valentin, the real targets of Gabon’s August palace coup appear to have been identified and isolated away from the larger Bongo clan, clarifying the terms of the wider intra-familial power struggle. As well, the hand of influential French players also seems apparent in what may have also been an attempt to avert an anti-France putsch.
Maybe the coup was a case of familiarity having bred contempt, and thus necessitating the elimination of faces grown too old, unfit to rule, too corrupt, and altogether embarrassing. A change of guard, a refreshing of the pack was, therefore, required. Youthful, loyal faces more acceptable to French interests – and to a public tired of the Bongo clan’s 56-year-old stranglehold on power.
More specifically, however, former Ali Bongo insiders (as well as Bongo family members), acutely aware that the reins of power were held by Nourredin and Sylvia since Ali Bongo’s 2018 stroke, had become increasingly uncomfortable with their own isolation, and quietly seethed at the manner in which they wielded power. Among those Nourredin had ousted from Ali Bongo’s court was his half-brother, Frederic, who until the then president’s stroke had been head of intelligence. Another was Bongo’s cabinet chief, the politically savvy (and ambitious) Brice Laccruche Alihanga. Alihanga had previously been close to the Eton-educated pro-business Nourredin. After his father’s stroke, Nourredin and Sylvia closed off contact with the ailing president and surrounded themselves with quiet, efficient technocrats, dubbed the ‘Young Guard’.
Said to have been close to late president Omar Bongo, Brice Oligui Nguema’s isolation from the new regime’s inner circle was swift and predictable: as Ali Bongo sought to consolidate power after his accession in 2009, he pushed away several individuals close to his late father, including his older sister, Pascaline, formerly chief of the cabinet, and Nguema. A distant cousin of Ali Bongo’s from his maternal side, Nguema was first transferred from the presidential palace to Morocco, where he had received military training in the late ‘90s, and then to Senegal as a military attaché. It would be a decade before Nguema was back in Ali Bongo’s good books. In 2018, he replaced Ali’s stepbrother, Fréderic as the Republican Guard’s head of intelligence. Six months later, he was appointed head of the Republican Guard itself.
It might be the reason that some observers maintain that the coup was not targeting Bongo but rather, the power behind him. The coup was triggered by the rigging of the election – said to have been won by Albert Ondo Ossa, an economics professor who was the unified opposition’s candidate, in a landslide. However, in his first interaction with the media after the coup, Ossa characterized the putsch as a “transition of power” within the realm of the palace, aimed at sustaining Bongo’s family’s legacy and safeguarding their vested interests.
de Gaulle’s Monsieur Afrique and his post-colonial stooges
Gabon was not just the lynchpin of la Françafrique on account of the kind of mineral and financial resources it controlled (for French politics, at least), it was also la Françafrique’s neocolonial laboratory. From its notional independence in 1960, every Gabonese president has faithfully protected French interests – against the interests of his own country.
In 1964, following first president, Léon M’ba’s attempt to sideline his main political rival, Jean-Hillaire Aubame, the 150 soldiers (of the 600-strong armed forces) stepped in, staging a coup d’etat, dragging M’ba from his bed to the national broadcasting studios to apologise to the nation for his transgressions and then installing Aubame as head of state.
M’ba had been, in effect, France’s director of operations in Libreville, ensuring the smooth running of the mineral-rich post-colony on behalf of the Elysée, while keeping the natives in check. The trouble-free exportation of its oil, uranium, iron, manganese and timber ensured that the factories in France remained open, kept the workers busy and guaranteed metropolitan stability.
The coup action therefore brought a swift response from the Eysée. de Gaulle dispatched his Africa advisor, Jacques Foccart, to sort out. Within a day, French troops had flown into the country, captured and killed the putschists and restored M’ba to power. He was then surrounded by a French Republican Guard. His close relationship with Foccart was perhaps not as visceral and spontaneous as he imagined; Foccart was close with the oil conglomerate, Elf Aquitaine, for which Gabonese petroleum was a most valuable resource.
To ensure such threats were thwarted in future, Foccart established the ‘Foccart Network’, a clandestine crew of French intelligence people, Gabon-based expatriates and mercenaries. Their job was to detect, and deal with, threats to French interests. Together with the Republican Guard, they became a source of terror to the Gabonese people – and a template for French rule in Francophone Africa.
Albert-Bernard Bongo Ondimba had been M’ba’s chief of staff. Anticipating the transition, de Gaulle and Foccart had vetted him in Paris. Foccart had then visited a ailing M’ba and persuaded him to replace his vice-president with Bongo. Foccart then ensured that M’ba won the next election from his hospital bed. He died a few months later and was succeeded by Bongo.
The same script was meant to play out for the August 2023 elections. The real function of the elections was to ensure an ailing Ali Bongo obtained a third term, which would then act as his son, Nourredin’s coronation.
A tiff with the Elysée
Ali Bongo had fallen out with the Elysée in his final years in office. In June 2022, he joined the Commonwealth. He also approved a naval base for China – approval which, unsurprisingly, was among the first rescinded by the new junta. Ali had been unhappy with French investigations regarding real estate corruption allegations linked to his family. French prosecutors indicted at least nine half-sisters and half-brothers of Ali Bongo’s family in a 15-year-old case. It is alleged that several members of the late president Omar Bongo’s family have knowingly benefitted from a fraudulently acquired real-estate empire worth at least 85 million euros. They were charged with receiving misappropriated public funds, “active and passive corruption,” money laundering, and “misuse of social assets”.
In the early 2000s, the Gabonese government introduced new policies to add value to its natural resources. This resulted in the opening of the ‘Comilog Mining and Metallurgical School’ in 2016. Gabon’s goal was to boost the mining sector from representing 4–6% of its GDP to a double-digit position by 2025.
If the Elysée was wary of Libreville’s ambitions for greater autonomy over its own mineral resources, the dominance of French companies such as Eramet ensured ultimate French control. Of greater political significance was the relationships Paris had cultivated with various members of the Bongo clan, including one of its distant relatives, Brice Oligui Nguema,
General Oligui Nguema, the junta leader, freely talks to the French press; French channels, restricted since before the elections, had their bans lifted immediately after the coup. It is notable that France’s reaction to the coup remains mild, in contrast to that of Niger’s coup. Eramet, the French mining company which had suspended its operations following the coup is operating again. The junta has named Marcel Abeke, a former executive of Eramet, as the country’s new Petroleum Minister.
A day after the coup, Nguema reportedly met with the French ambassador to Gabon, Alexis Lamek. In the company of Central African leaders, Nguema promised to strengthen relations with Paris. A new interim Prime Minister, Raymond Ndong Sima, was appointed by the junta; the new cabinet he presented includes military figures and ex-ministers who served under ousted Bongo. In a departure from the Aubame coup script of 1964, none of the leading opposition figures has been appointed to government.
It is significant that Nguema freed Ali Bongo from house arrest and declared him a “retired Gabonese head of state [who] enjoys all his rights”.
“[Nguema] always considered himself loyal to the president, not to his wife and son, who were running Gabon by proxy,” observed a diplomat present at the meeting with Nguema.
Selling wealth to produce poverty
Despite its small population of 2.3 million, Gabon boasts immense natural riches: petroleum, natural gas, diamonds, manganese, uranium, gold, timber, and iron ore. It stands as sub-Saharan Africa’s fourth-largest oil producer, with a daily production of 200,000 barrels a day, and its oil reserves are estimated at about 2 billion barrels. In 2020, the oil sector accounted for 38.5% of GDP and 70.5% of exports. It is estimated that Gabon produces 8.5 million metric tons of manganese ore, 14% of global supplies. 81 French companies operate in Gabon, but Eramet is the most strategic player, in extracting, processing, and exporting manganese.
Manganese is one of the European Commission’s twenty-three critical raw materials. Before the introduction of new actors a decade ago, the extractive activity had been monopolized since 1962 by the Compagnie Minière de l’Ogooué (Comilog), a Franco-American joint venture which extracts 90 % of the ore. Comilog, is a subsidiary of Eramet. Energy giant TotalEnergies has been present in the country since 1928, which is sub-Saharan Africa’s fourth-biggest oil producer and a member of the OPEC cartel. Eramet’s Setrag unit, meanwhile, operates the Trans-Gabon Railway, the country’s only railway.
With a GDP of $32.34 billion (2021) and an above-average GDP per capita of $13,800 (2021 ), Gabon continues to face large income inequality. According to the World Bank 2020 Poverty Assessment, about one in 10 Gabonese live in extreme poverty. About 33.4% of the population lives below the national poverty line (set at $5.70 per day PPP in 2011). Yet over half (51%) of Gabon’s population identifies as poor.
‘France sans Gabon is a car without fuel; Gabon sans France…’
It is reported that the late Gabonese president, Omar Bongo, once said, “France without Gabon is like a car without fuel; Gabon without France is like a car without a driver.” The father, Omar Bongo, since 1967 (41 years) and his son, Ali Bongo, since 2009 (14 years) ruled the country for 55 years out of 62 years since independence, kept in power with the help of ten French presidents from the left and right who have ruled France during this period.
On July 15, 1960, France’s Prime Minister Michel Debré paternalistically pointed out , addressing the future President of the Gabonese State, Gabriel Léon M’ba (1961-1967): “Independence is given on condition that the State undertakes, once independent, to respect the cooperation agreements signed previously.” This attitude has continued to this day.
Like Father, like Son
Albert-Bernard Bongo was the second president of the country (1967–2009). He converted to Islam in 1973 after a visit to Libya and assumed the name Omar Bongo. He was declared a winner in the first multi-party elections in 1993 and kept winning until his death in 2009.
Ali Bongo succeeded his father Omar Bongo Ondimba in 2009 and was re-elected in August 2016 in a highly controversial election contested by the opposition. In 2018, Ali suffered a stroke while in Saudi Arabia and stayed for several months abroad. He has been partly incapacitated ever since.
The “Corruption Perceptions Index” for the public sector ranked the country in 2022, as 136th of 180 countries. After the coup, suitcases and bags filled with wads of banknotes, CFA francs, dollars, and euros were discovered with Nourredin Valentin’s chief of staff.
Gabon will remain a French enclave
The spontaneous jubilation of the public after the coup may have been premature and too optimistic, as happens after the fall of regimes that have stayed for too long. Macron told France’s ambassadors globally on August 28 that France must pursue its interests aggressively. “We’re living among madmen!” Macron added, referring to “weird alliance of so-called pan-Africans and neo-imperialists” who reject the French presence in sub-Saharan Africa.
Macron likes to remind his African audiences that he is the first French president born after independence swept the continent, and he took office vowing to reset relations with former colonies in Africa. In reality nothing has changed. He recently stated Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger would not exist without operations Serval and Barkhane.
There may be some cosmetic changes in Gabon, but money squandered by the dynasty will likely not be returned to the national treasury. There will be some scapegoats and some prosecutions for petty and perhaps even, grand corruption. But in the main, the channels through which Gabon’s wealth has been historically transferred to France will remain undisturbed. Exploitative policies and agreements with France won’t be abolished; privilege will be protected. La Françafrique, for which Gabon proved indispensable, will continue unabated. Ultimately, Gabon was too precious to let go.
The Gabonese people deserve better.