I WAS TRAVELLING IN FRENCH CENTRAL Africa when I got an unsolicited e-mail from Alain Autogue, a Frenchman who had heard from an editor at the Financial Times that I was to visit Gabon. He said he wanted to help me.
I knew little about Gabon except that it was a quiet, oil-rich former French African colony whose people consumed more champagne on average than anyone, including the French, and that its diminutive president, Omar Bongo, kept popping up in parts of the world that did not obviously concern him.
A couple of years earlier, there had been newspaper reports involving Bongo, some call girls, and an Italian couturier, but Gabon had then, like a crocodile in a swamp, sunk quietly back out of sight.
French newspapers were reporting Gabon’s role in some judicial investigations in Paris, but the stories were too complex to make much headway in the English speaking media…
I asked him: What did he have in mind? An emphatic message came back from Paris.
“Someone will pick you up at the airport. Don’t worry. Bon voyage.”
… Soon after Mr Autogue’s e-mail, I flew to Libreville.
At the airport a white man in aviator sunglasses met me and helped me carry my bags to a red sports car.
He was a French statistician working with the Gabonese government, and a business partner of the mysterious Mr Autogue.
We drove south down the Boulevard de I’independance, a six-lane coastal artery clotted with red-and-white taxis, Mitsubishi Pajeros in polished chrome, and police wagons with scowling men with black jumpsuits and pump-action shotguns sitting on benches in the back.
To the right ran a beach with palm trees, old canoes, and black and white joggers; inland from the road we passed high whitewashed walls hiding wealthy homes, which were framed by clean tarred roads leading up a shallow incline away from the sea.
Near the town centre the buildings grew taller and uglier in a progression that culminated in the vile Palais de Bord de Mer, a menacing hulk of grey cement that is President Omar Bongo’s main office.
We passed the town centre and the commanding Elf tower by the estuary, then, after the road had narrowed and became more ramshackle, we got to my hotel. I was told that Mr Autogue would join me the following morning.
I HIRED A TAXI TO GO EXPLORING. GABON straddles the Equator, between Cameroon and Equatorial Guinea to the north, and Congo-Brazzaville to the south.
It has fewer than one and a half million people, a third of whom live in Libreville. Gabon is slightly larger than Britain, with a fortieth of its population, so there is space for the inland oilrigs, and reports of friction with local communities are rare.
Spills do happen, but with few witnesses and an obsequious media, it is easy to hush them up. Inland from central Libreville the houses get smaller and soon you reach neighbourhoods filled with sewage, roaming piglets, corrugated iron, and children scampering among papaya trees.
The city then peters out and, after some patchy agriculture, you enter a forest as big as Western Europe, which extends far across the borders and contains nearly 200 mammals, including silverback gorillas, forest elephants, and hippos that swim in the Atlantic surf.
This forest hosts the deadly Ebola hemorrhagic fever, as well as iboga, king of hallucinogenic plants, which offers a route to the land of the ancestors and has a profound cultural importance here.
On geologists’ maps the oilfields, which started pumping in the late 1950s, are splashed like flecks of paint across this forest and out to sea.
Libreville is a bit like the capitals of some Gulf Arab states.
The working people who lug bricks or bend metal are usually foreign Africans: Ghanaians, Congolese, or Togolese, who collectively make up a quarter of the population.
Like Pakistanis or Palestinians in Arab oil states, these foreigners are sneered at and mistreated.
I saw a foreign taxi driver, stripped to his shorts, being forced by Libreville cops to do push-ups in the road.
When oil prices dipped in the mid-1990s, Gabon expelled 55,000 foreign Africans, though they soon trickled back for the oil money.
High wages also attract child traffickers who bring poor kids in from Togo and Benin and sell or rent them as house servants or prostitutes.
Oil, which accounts for 80 per cent of exports (the rest then mostly being manganese and timber), and a cloying French civil service tradition have fostered a sleepy bureaucratic lethargy among many Gabonese, who consider menial activities beneath their dignity.
They mostly aspire instead to be among the 50,000 or so Gabonese idling in the oil-fattened civil service, or even to break into the exceedingly wealthy top elites.
“The problem,” the foreign minister later told me, “is that many of us Gabonese just do not want to work.”
Atop the expatriate pile perch nearly 10,000 French, who shop in supermarkets for croissants and imported gourmet cat food; they and the Gabonese elites shampoo their poodles, employ foreign Africans to clean their swimming pools, and, in late November, wash down Parisian cheese with the year’s first Beaujolais wine.
PRESIDENT OMAR BONGO towers over his country, unchallenged. When he came to power in 1967 at the age of 32, he was the world’s youngest president, and today he is Africa’s longest-serving ruler.
With twinkling eyes and a neat moustache, he is short (and apparently self-conscious about it, sometimes wearing platform heels to compensate), impetuous, and often irascible, reportedly flying into rages when his, or Gabon’s, interests are threatened.
He lets local private media be critical, within limits. Human-rights organisations find relatively little to complain about in Gabon, which is less brutal than most countries in this troubled region. Bongo claims to have no political prisoners, and he tolerates a skewed kind of multiparty politics.
He no longer wins elections with over 99.5 per cent as he did in the 1970s and 1980s (later calling these results “perfect reflections of the truth”). In two elections since 1990, his share of the vote collapsed, to less than 80 per cent.
Bongo’s big splash recently was in a front-page New York Times story about Washington lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who reportedly asked Bongo for $9 million to arrange a meeting with president George W. Bush. Bongo has denied ever meeting Abramoff or paying him anything.
He is also reported to have a healthy sexual appetite.
“If you see old French guys at the airport accompanying attractive women, they are probably headed for him. His ex-wife is in a mansion in Beverly Hills now — there was a time when she would chase him around the palace with her shoe in her hand,” said a foreigner who knows him.
“He is a pesky little feller.”
There was a diplomatic row in 2004 when a 22-year-old Peruvian beauty queen was invited to a pageant in Gabon.
Soon after arrival she was ushered into a panelled room, where Bongo was waiting.
He pressed a button and some sliding doors opened, revealing a large bed.
A trickle of articles like this means that the rare news coverage about him in the English-speaking world portrays a clownish, sexually voracious little despot, otherwise of little interest.
A story about the beauty queen, for example, was entitled “Beauty and the Bongo.”
Another article called him “an obscure thug… an extraordinarily rich man.”
An American magazine described him as “the dictator of Gabon... a tiny, natty man, very black,” accompanied by a queenly wife in Gucci sunglasses and lashings of gold jewellery who towered over her petite husband, who was “exceedingly corrupt and exceedingly wealthy.”
These kinds of stories totally misrepresent Bongo. He’s much more than this. He’s not obscure, and of all the African leaders in the region, he’s possibly the least thuggish.
And, after all, what is corruption?
Many Africans would see what he does, judiciously allocating resources to shore up his power, as entirely normal in the African context, even as an essential tool for survival. Of all Africa’s leaders, he fascinates me the most.
He is a political magician who has projected secret influence around the globe with a force far, far out of proportion to his country’s tiny population.
In France, for decades, he has long known everyone who is anyone, and a few more besides.
France’s top politicians take his phone calls personally, Bongo has had more influence over French politicians than they would admit, and he is smarter than most of them — which, given the strange, quasi-meritocratic French political system, is saying something.
On his regular trips to Paris he prefers the Hotel Crillon, spending thousands of dollars per night, and when word gets about that he is in town, the foyer fills with furtive lobbyists, businessmen and politicians who come to wheedle favours from the little big man.
Bongo remembers everything and everyone he meets, and he has helped broker secret agreements between big political factions in France.
If you look carefully, you will see Bongo’s fingerprints all over past peace deals signed between governments and rebel movements around Africa. Pictures in his offices show him meeting all the world’s top leaders, from Mao, to Nixon, to Mandela.
He was born Albert-Bernard Bongo in a rural village near the eastern border with Congo, the favourite son of a farming village chief and the youngest of 12 children.
His father was polygamous; according to Bongo, celibacy was not condoned because the community tended to treat with suspicion men who were less than susceptible to feminine charms.
They lived in adobe huts with straw roofs, and as a small child he ran around naked or in a raffia loincloth.
“Nobody questioned the head of the family. The men did the heavy work like ploughing and went hunting; the women planted manioc and fished. When you came back from hunting or fishing, you shared the catch among everyone, starting with the handicapped. No one was left out.”
When he was seven his father died, and one of his brothers took him away to what is today Congo-Brazzaville in French Equatorial Africa, a French colonial territory that also included today’s Gabon, Cameroon, Chad, and the Central African Republic, and where Charles de Gaulle organised French resistance and set up his capital of “Free France” in World War 11 before becoming French president in 1945.
Bongo’s father, just before he died, entrusted the family’s ancestral artefacts and secrets to Bongo, since his eldest brother, who should have received them according to local custom, was away.
These gave Bongo a special role in the family giving advice, and settling disputes. This role surely prepared him for leadership in later life.
When World War 11 ended, Bongo went to school. He was bright, and was selected to be sent to France for further education, but his older brother refused to let him go.
Fuming at the missed opportunity, Bongo became rebellious; once, according to a memoir, he grabbed a cane from his teacher’s hands, and whipped him.
He was chased out of school, and left town.
At his next school, and at college, he organised strikes and protests, and on a visit to France he was inducted into the Freemasons.
At some point, the French colonial authorities began to take an interest in this charismatic, intelligent young socialist agitator. Nationalist sentiment was simmering, and as independence approached, it was essential to identify the future leaders.
For Britain, independence had been a matter of handing the colonies over to Africans, with as little fuss as possible.
Britain was not without its paternalistic streak — premature independence, a British minister had once warned, would be “like giving a child a latch-key, a bank account, and a shotgun.”
Nevertheless, many people in Britain, which had already granted independence to former colonies in Asia, saw the idea of eventual independence for the African colonies as an inevitability, and sought to build up universities, infrastructure, health, and education before handing over.
France had a more intimate (you might say incestuous) relationship with her colonies. They were not considered separate territories so much as they were considered part of greater France, and the idea was to bind them tightly to the mother nation.
“France wanted to buy time during decolonisation,” Bongo said.
“It offered French nationality to many young Africans. The idea of becoming a French citizen enchanted us. We were going to live like the whites!”
Some Africans could even elect representatives to the French parliament directly — a Senegalese became the first African elected to the French parliament in 1914, and he rose to become a French junior minister. Others followed.
THE AFRICAN COLONIES ALSO underpinned what many in France called (and still call) the “French cultural exception,” and what President de Gaulle called “a certain idea of France” — notions that embody a French worldview steeped in sepia images of wise philosophers, rustic winemakers in the Loire valley, and toiling peasants in Provence.
These visions have been a comforting refuge for French people over centuries, in the face of British imperialism, a rising Germany, then the Soviet menace, and now expanding American might.
Exceptionalism inspires French foreign policy and provides its leaders with a clear imperative: France must punch above its weight in the world.
Carefully nurtured African hatchlings like Gabon, helping France make its case for permanent membership of the United Nations Security Council after World War II, would continue to help France project her language, culture, and prestige abroad.
The colonies were a secure source of strategic minerals, of profits for her firms, and of markets for French manufactured goods. Independence threatened to upset this applecart.
If the main threat to French interests was from the Soviet Union, there also was a secondary threat (which in many French minds was the primary one) — predatory American companies, to be kept out at all costs.
By the late 1950s, as independence neared for many French and British colonies, oil was starting to be discovered in Nigeria, Gabon, and Angola, and the colonial powers were staking out huge oil exploration licenses for their companies — the modern equivalent, if you like, of the flag planting by European explorers in the early days of empire as a way of asserting claims to new colonies.
These licenses, embedded in international law, would be potent packages enabling the Europeans to keep a large degree of control after decolonisation.
For all the naked self-interest, French Africa policy had pragmatic, noble strands, too.
“At independence France supported and accompanied these African countries toward sovereignty,” the French superspy Maurice Robert wrote in his memoirs.
“Without this, their births would probably have been bloody, with terrible interethnic conflicts. This was much better than just letting them find their own way after independence.”
There is surely something in his words.
Indeed, President Felix Houphouet-Boigny of Cote d’Ivoire, in a speech before independence for his country, couched independence as “the challenge of the century,” a grand experiment to see whether Britain’s laissez-faire decolonisation, or France’s more intimate, controlling version, would turn out superior. As a committed Francophile, he fondly hoped the French model would triumph.
AS INDEPENDENCE APproached, the French secret services closely watched local agitators like Bongo, who had already made eight clandestine trips to Mao Zedong’s Red China.
“Dangerous element,” Bongo later discovered in his security file, “Watch him closely.”
The story he tells about how he obtained his file is revealing, too.
In 1958, French Equatorial Africa was being split into different countries, including Gabon, ahead of independence.
One day Bongo, who had got a temporary job in a telegraph office in Brazzaville, noticed a telegram from a French general with instructions about which leader was going to be made to win which election.
Bongo was shocked, and leaked the information to local newspapers in Brazzaville, which feasted on the story.
He was arrested and charged with revealing professional secrets, but he was acquitted because, as a temporary worker, he had not signed any secrecy clauses.
After that, Bongo used his contacts in Freemasonry to get a job in army intelligence.
Once in, he donned his uniform and went to police headquarters and asked for the files on all the subversives.
He found his own, slipped it under his clothes, and walked out.
“They tried to find my file,” he said with amusement, “and they never did!”
Independence came and went in 1960, and France installed as president Leon Mba, from the largest tribe in Gabon, the Fang, which spreads across the borders into Equatorial Guinea and Cameroon.
Three years earlier, Gabon’s first oil cargo had sailed for Le Havre in France, and exploration prospects were promising.
With a fifth of the world’s known uranium (Gabonese uranium supplied France’s nuclear bombs, which French president Charles de Gaulle tested in the Algerian deserts in 1960), big iron and manganese deposits, and plenty of timber, Gabon was already attracting unusual attention at the Elysee Palace of the presidency in Paris.
President de Gaulle dreamed of breaking the hegemony of the hated Anglo-Saxon “Seven Sisters,” the forerunners of today’s ExxonMobil, BP, Shell, and Chevron, and wanted a French champion or two.
While one French company (what would become Total) focused more on North Africa and the Middle East, de Gaulle set up another company, later to be known as Elf Aquitaine, with Gabon as its springboard.
Special contract terms for its subsidiary Elf Gabon, negotiated with compliant Gabonese rulers, would help the parent company catch up fast with its international rivals. Later, Bongo himself put the relationship neatly.
“Africa without France is a car without a driver,” he said. “France without Africa is a car without petrol.”
Elf would become de Gaulle’s strong arm in Africa — a vast offshore slush fund for channelling money secretly around the world, helping bend foreign leaders to his will, and an effective weapon against American and British companies competing with the French industrial giants.
“De Gaulle wanted a company under full state control, his secular arm in the oil world, to affirm his African policies,” a subsequent head of Elf later explained.
“Elf is not just an oil company but a parallel diplomacy to control certain African states, above all at the key moment of decolonisation.
Alongside exploration and production, opaque operations were organised, to keep certain countries stable.”
President de Gaulle’s schemer-in-chief was Jacques Foccart, a master manipulator who emerged from the shadow world of the French Resistance during World War II.
Having carried out undercover operations in Nazi territory — smuggling arms and money in, and Jews and spies out — the former Resistance fighters had developed considerable skills in building clandestine networks that they deployed to project power and influence into enemy territory.
After the war, de Gaulle had asked Foccart to deploy his formidable networking skills in Africa, to help keep the colonies bound to France.
Known as the White Sorcerer, Foccart spun intricate cat’s cradles of networks, or reseaux, to cocoon the former African colonies, and his spies rotated in and out of key posts in the secret services, diplomacy, and Elf Gabon.
The relationship was underpinned by secret defence accords, masterminded by Foccart; in his desk he kept letters requesting French military help, pre-signed by friendly African presidents; he needed only to add the date.
These accords — a bit like deals America has made with Saudi rulers — protected the African leaders, in exchange for free rein for French companies in their lands.
TODAY YOU CAN SEE THE remnants of this relationship off the airport road in Libreville.
There is Bongo’s mansion, preceded by Roman portals, tall black gates, and a long driveway.
Next door, linked to it by underground escape tunnels, there are cement buildings and half-pipe hangars with radio nests and white men with military fatigues and short haircuts.
This is Camp de Gaulle, a military base with several hundred soldiers from the French sixth marine infantry battalion, successors to the old colonial troops (the marine infantry is still sometimes called “la coloniale.”)
They drive Renault Clios into town, shop in the supermarkets in full uniform, and drink and pick up local women in the bars.
They also deter would-be plotters from scheming to topple Bongo.
With a fox’s instinct for the shifting currents of power in Africa, Foccart ran networks so effective that America and Britain grudgingly accepted France’s mighty grip, which robustly kept the Soviets at bay.
In 1965, the CIA asked the French secret services what was going on in Africa, to help co-ordinate the fight against communism.
“The Americans were floundering in unfamiliar lands and cultures,” said Maurice Robert, Foccart’s top spy in Africa (he later worked for Elf too), who was asked to lead the collaboration with the CIA.
He said the Americans (in a preview of American intelligence mistakes in Iraq four decades later), “accepted as fact the fantasies that opposition leaders spun them... They asked me a thousand questions... the Americans had an abyssal ignorance of African affairs.”
For France, it was crucial to have the right people in place. Gabon’s new president Leon Mba was so pro-French that he had proposed, ahead of independence, that Gabon should not be independent but should stay part of France; for a while after he took power, independent Gabon’s flag had a little French flag in one corner.
The Gabonese ministries and state companies had discreet white men toiling away inside them, pulling the strings.
Foccart also had a plan B: the very young and very ambitious Albert-Bernard Bongo, who was shinnying fast up Gabon’s political ladder.
“This lad was serious and intelligent and was destined for a great future,” wrote the spy Maurice Robert.
“He was a tireless worker who impressed me with his cool head, his aptitude to analyse situations quickly, and to act.” Bongo was, like Mba, excruciatingly pro-French, and deeply suspicious of America and Britain. He has remained so ever since.
“All those in Africa who speak French should mobilise to defend their values, to affirm their presence, if not to say their superiority,” Bongo said recently. “The English speakers stick together. They have formed a bloc against us.”
President Mba struggled to make the transition from African chief to statesman, and also found it hard to manage Gabon’s seething ethnic divisions.
To Foccart’s consternation, Mba became increasingly despotic, publicly flogging people who irritated him.
In 1964, not long after the discovery of the great Anguille Marine oilfield, some Fang soldiers launched a coup against Mba and captured Bongo.
Within hours, French paratroopers had landed at Libreville airport, liberated Bongo, and put Mba back in power.
The operation was led by a former French secret agent who had founded the oil company that became Elf.
PRESIDENT MBA, BY NOW paranoid and ill, tried to resign but was not allowed to.
An anonymous tract was circulated, revealing his secret traditional name, Mavego-Ma-Mididi: the Cat who can be Soft and Fierce at the Same Time. In this superstitious land, the exposure of his secret was a savage blow.
Mba became a fearful recluse, surrounded by French advisors who got him to open the door further to French companies, hungry for uranium, timber, manganese, and, of course, oil.
“Under Mba, Gabon was so much under the influence of France,” wrote one French author, “there was a risk that other countries would not realise it was truly independent.”
One day in 1965, Mba told the 30-year-old Bongo to go to Paris to meet President de Gaulle.
“For a young African, to be received one-on-one by General de Gaulle — that was quite something,” Bongo remembers.
De Gaulle quizzed him about everything — what he thought about the French, about politics, and about French international relations. “The country north of Gabon, is…?” de Gaulle trailed off, pretending to forget.
“Cameroon, Mr President,” Bongo replied, starting to see that this was some kind of test.
The next year, Bongo was anointed vice president, by which time Mba was in a Paris hospital dying of (what is officially recorded as) cancer. Mba died in 1967 and Bongo, at just 32, became the world’s youngest president.
THE DAY AFTER I LANDED IN Libreville in 1997, the mysterious Mr Autogue flew in from Paris first class on Air France, with a middle-aged female assistant with viciously plucked eyebrows.
He was in his late 40s, with khaki shorts, knobby white knees, and little rectangular-framed tinted glasses.
He met me by a jetty near my hotel, where a boat was waiting to take us across the estuary to Coco Loco, a paradise beach restaurant among coconut trees, where white people jet-skied off the beach and buzzed overhead in microlight aircraft.
I hadn’t wanted to go, since I was tired, but he insisted.
At Coco Loco he introduced me to a dazzling dirty-blonde woman in a bikini, who said she was an Air France stewardess. She sat beside me on a deck chair sipping cocktails, politely attentive.
In front of us a muscled fisherman in blue trunks hacked open a five-foot barracuda. “Voila!” Mr Autogue said with a sweeping hand gesture across this playground. “Libreville!”
A Coco Loco employee came to chat. She regaled Mr Autogue with the latest colourful corruption gossip from town.
He gestured at her as a teacher would to a rowdy class — eyes wide, both hands, palms down, rising and falling.
Shhhhh, shhhhh! We ate fish, the stewardess wandered off, and Alain got down to business. I should clear my calendar, he said.
He would set up any interview I wanted — anyone except Bongo.
He tried to get me to move into the Meridien Re’Ndama, a revoltingly expensive marble-lined hotel on the seafront, with expensive African art and jazz musicians.
I resisted that, even after he suggested unspecified help with the bill.
On a tight budget, and wondering what bugs might lurk in the Meridien’s rooms, I stayed put at my own cheaper hotel, despite the voluble racist opinions of its French manageress.
The beautiful stewardess, still in bikini and flip-flops, joined us for the trip back from Coco Loco, but I opted not to talk to her. She stared out to sea and said goodbye when we landed. She was really something.
From time to time I still wonder about her.
WHEN I HAD PLANNED this trip, I expected to struggle to get access to the politicians.
I remembered long, humiliating, pointless ordeals in Angola trying to get interviews with ministers; and besides, my surname Shaxson sounds a bit like the dreaded words “Anglo-Saxon” — surely a disadvantage in Libreville, where it might be a bit like being called Shaddam and trying to poke around politics in Washington.
Yet to my astonishment, it was effortless.
Mr Autogue pressed a cell phone into my hands (which I should probably not have accepted) and the appointments — every interview I had requested — slotted into place.
The oil minister, who was President Bongo’s son-in-law? No problem.
The finance minister? We shall have lunch with him.
I enjoyed a long chat over cocktails at the Meridien with Jean Ping, the powerful half-Chinese foreign minister (later to become president of the United Nations General Assembly), who even guffawed at one of my bad jokes.
Ministers received me exactly on time, and deferential secretaries had been expecting me.
It was bizarre, like surfing a wave.
In this land of fast cars, tropical spies, and gold trinkets, everyone I met was rich, and was grinning at me like Cheshire cats.
Mr Autogue clearly wanted to keep undesirables away; I did not mind much since I would have another week here after he left (when I did, the opposition parties treated me with suspicion; I felt that they suspected me of being a British agent).
But while Libreville seemed prosperous, it just seemed dull and expensive. I felt like Alice in an African Wonderland. What else might be down this rabbit hole?
Next week: Clan Gabonais, the network that controlled much of African as well as French politics
Reproduced with permission from Poisoned Wells: The dirty politics of African oil by Nicholas Shaxson, published in 2007 by Palgrave Macmillan.