Omar Bongo; Little big man

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Gabon’s late president Omar Bongo with former French president Jacques Chirac at the French-African Summit in February, 2007. Bongo, Africa’s longest-serving president, died on Monday last week of a heart attack in a Spanish clinic. Picture: Reuters 

By Nicholas Shaxson

Posted  Monday, June 15   2009 at  00:00

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.

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