It speaks much for the lack of realism in Gabonese politics that even when the country’s long-reigning president, Omar Bongo, died on 8 June after 42 years in power, the government he had left behind tried to conceal the death from the populace. In its desire to suppress news of Bongo’s death, the government cut the country off from the internet. And two local publications – Ezombolo and Le Nganga – were banned. The government apparently feared that the free flow of information would impede its desire to become God and reverse something that had happened naturally – death. Even if the government’s ambitions did not stretch that high, and the attempted suppression of the news was merely meant to enable it to carry out behind closed doors the inevitable infighting that would determine Bongo’s successor, it was an ineffectual measure. For the seriousness of Bongo’s sickness was known to all, signalled as it was by the fact that he was flown to a clinic in Spain to receive treatment. Normally specialist doctors would have been flown to Gabon to attend to him.
In African countries with totalitarian tendencies, a ruler’s health is the major news item discussed on the radio trottoir (the rumour mill) that thrives wherever a ruling group attempts to control the news. Thus, as soon as Bongo reached Spain, ears would have been pricked on a daily basis to receive news of how he was faring. News of his death would therefore have electrified the bistros of Libreville in the same way that the arrival of a particularly potent consignment of smuggled “hooch” makes itself known, not through speech but by winks and nods.
Let’s say it, but Africa has had its share of detestable rulers! One was Jean-Bédel Bokassa of the Central African Republic. He it was who imported special white horses from France to draw a special carriage – allegedly gold-plated and also imported from France – that took him to the hall where he put a special crown (imported from you know where, France) on his own head to proclaim himself emperor. Then there was Mobutu Sese Seko, he who spent an estimated one-third of Zaire’s annual revenue on building a “city” for himself in the deep Congo forest called Gbadolite. He built three palaces and a Chinese-style temple there, causing his subjects to wonder, when they looked on Gbadolite, whether it was not supposed to be a land-based version of his luxury yacht, the Kamanyola. Next, there was Houphouët-Boigny, who built himself a huge mausoleum at Yamoussoukro and disguised it as a chapel. He made sure that he did not annoy the Vatican with the size of his church by defining its dimensions to be a wee bit less commodious than those of Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome. The cost – a cool $200m – could not, fortunately for him, be measured against that of Saint Peter’s, since, of course, the two edifices were built in different eras, and “inflation” could be blamed for the escalation in the cost of the more modern structure at Yamoussoukro. And then, there was Omar Bongo. He didn’t have any Pope to worry about (re: his spending), by the simple device of changing his religion from Catholicism to Islam. Alhaji though he was, his penchant was for designer clothing. Every year, he chartered an aircraft and invited a leading French couturier to fill it with designer clothes, from which he would choose what snappy suits were to his taste.
A sappeur par excellence, he often cut a figure between a Congolese musician and an orchestral conductor who had forgotten to bring his white gloves along to the music hall. He even wore specially constructed high-heeled shoes. One lady who has an eye for such things, Ofeibea Quist-Arcton (formerly of the BBC and now of the US National Public Radio) described a Bongo turnout as follows: “I could swear I saw Bongo in Cuban heels – and I am convinced he wore built-up shoes to give himself a little extra height. He was shorter than me – and, believe me, Ofeibea Quist-Arcton is no giant.” The reason why Bongo took so much trouble about his appearance was that he was a ladies’ man. One of the French designers who flew clothes to him let it be known that each planeload of clothes was usually accompanied by a bevy of beautiful French models. Their official “duty” was to help in “fitting” His Excellency the President with the clothes he had selected. A designer who took ladies to Gabon and who would not allow His Excellency to have his way with them, might as well not have gone there. He wouldn’t get the “business” but would be told curtly that his designs were not to the taste of His Excellency.
Despite the vulnerability to which such peccadillos exposed him, Bongo had a rather sharp tongue. Once, in a moment of rare lucidity, he stated that: “[Francophone] Africa without France is like a car without a driver. But France without Africa is like a car without petrol.” The French have long protected Bongo. They used some quaint French laws to bring charges against publications that sought to impugn Bongo’s integrity. But they could not keep the lid on Bongo’s ill-gotten gains forever. In 2007, for instance, a police investigation into real estate owned by Bongo and his family in France found that they had 33 properties in Paris and Nice, worth an estimated $190m. In a rare show of anger against its African “charges”, France put a freeze on Bongo’s bank accounts held in French banks when Transparency International made allegations in a Paris court that Bongo and two other presidents in the vicinity – Congo-Brazzaville’s Sassou Nguesso and Equatorial Guinea’s Teodoro Obiang Nguema – had used their countries’ money to acquire properties for themselves in France.
Elsewhere, as long ago as 1999, a US Senate investigation into the secret practices of Citibank estimated that Bongo had $130m in personal accounts held at the bank. The Senate stated unequivocally that there was “no doubt that these financial assets were sourced in the public finances of Gabon”. In other words, Bongo stole the money. Bongo was also linked to the 1990s investigation of the French state-owned petroleum company, Elf-Aquitaine, which exposed a murky world of bribes by the company to top French politicians, and the company’s secret funding of French political parties. Bongo was fingered by the investigation as the final beneficiary of millions of dollars transferred into Swiss bank accounts by an Elf functionary.
In a much-publicised manifesto in December 2008, a Gabonese civil society network launched a scathing attack not only on Bongo, but also on his daughter Pascaline, who was his chief of staff, and his son Ali, who was Gabon’s defence minister and was thought likely to succeed his father – that is, if the vehicle in which he hoped to ride to power could get past his sister. In a book on the French foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner, an investigative journalist, Pierre Péan, revealed a number of business deals between Kouchner’s private consultancy in the early 2000s (before his appointment as foreign minister) and the Gabonese government. But Kouchner has denied any wrongdoing.
It is difficult to understand the mentality of Bongo, Mobutu, Abacha, Houphouët-Boigny and other African leaders who steal such massive amounts of money. Corruption among politicians is practically universal (as recent disclosures about the allowances claimed by British MPs show). What is hard to imagine is the extent of the greed of some African leaders. In every African country, one can see children dying of malaria, some without ever being seen by a doctor, because their parents do not have the money to take them to hospital – where hospitals exist. Others are unable to go to hospital because neither hospitals nor clinics can be found in the villages or city slums where they live. There are also millions of children who cannot go to school, or who go to school without being able to buy books and other materials needed to receive a proper education. Many people in Africa go to bed each night with the pangs of hunger biting at their intestines. They cannot tell whether the coming day will enable them to feed themselves and their children or not. Yet a single individual can amass wealth to the tune of millions of dollars and hide it in a foreign country. It is the people of these foreign countries who can borrow these stolen monies to invest in improving their countries, whilst Africa stagnates.
These thieves should be widely exposed, not so much to blacken their names as to awaken those who still wield power to the reality that if they steal, they will eventually be found out. If they don’t suffer disgrace themselves, their children will – in the end! Ask Mobutu’s children or those of Bokassa. Bongo is dead. Of what use, now, are his high-heeled shoes? Maybe Gabonese governments of the future will put them on display, in the same manner that the thousands of shoes bought by Imelda Marcos were put on show for the people of the Philippines. It is difficult, indeed, not to despair for the human race. The only thing that can help to stop such nonsense is, of course, a proper education. Those who escape the net of illiteracy which people like Bongo, through their thievery, impose on our people, owe the rest of the continent the duty of enlightening the people, so that no longer can utter fools who don’t mind spending thousands of dollars on women of easy virtue, when their countries need ordinary, good drinking water and electricity, can flourish in Africa.