Betrayed by the ‘mother country’

Monday June 15 2009

Spanish soldiers carry the coffin of Gabon’s

Spanish soldiers carry the coffin of Gabon’s late president Omar Bongo during a farewell ceremony at El Prat airport in Barcelona June 11. Picture: Reuters 

By Gitau Warigi

AS A LIFE-LONG FRANCOphile, Gabon’s Omar Bongo met his death probably still puzzled at the drastic turn of his fortunes in the mother country he loved just as much as his native one.

Perhaps that is the reason he opted to go for treatment in Spain rather than Paris, which was his second home.

Earlier this year, a French judge had opened a money-laundering investigation that brought to light 33 real estate properties worth an estimated $190 million owned by Bongo in the cities of Paris and Nice.

In the typical fashion of old-style despots who never quite comprehended that times have changed, Bongo to the last could not understand how an independent investigation on his person could happen unless approved by the very same French political establishment he had cultivated throughout his time in office.

To make matters worse, he had just lost his beloved second wife, Edith Lucie, whose demise may well have accelerated his own journey to the grave.

As it happens, the other target of the French investigation is Congo-Brazzaville President Denis Sassou-Nguesso, the father of Edith Lucie.

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If longevity alone is the measure of political success, then Bongo who ruled for 42 years remained unsurpassed. He assumed the position of the world’s longest serving government leader following the official retirement of Cuba’s Fidel Castro last year.

The French properties are believed to be a mere fraction of Bongo’s accumulated wealth.

When, in 2003, the French government filed bribery and corruption charges against top officials of the oil giant Elf Aquitaine, one of the defendants revealed that the company had opened several Swiss bank accounts where they channelled “commissions” for Bongo.

The reward for Elf was in lucrative oil concessions.

Gabon is the fifth largest oil exporter in Africa but remains quite poor.

The country has more oil pipeline — 1,425 kilometres — than paved roads – 936 kilometres — and only 1 per cent of its land is cultivated for food.

By an odd quirk of fate, Bongo died on the same day — June 8 — that Nigerian dictator Sani Abacha met his demise in 1998.

The parallel is apt because the two men shared an embarrassing weakness separate from the universal tag they acquired as strongmen.

Abacha expired at the relatively young age of 54 from what was officially said to be a heart attack. But an unending story has it the heart condition was complicated by an overdose of Viagra while in the arms of two Oriental prostitutes.

THE MUCH OLDER BONGO HAD the misfortune of having his indiscretions exposed while he was still alive. In April 1995, a Paris-based Italian fashion designer called Francesco Smalto who was standing trial for running a prostitution ring sensationally claimed that he had for years been running what amounted to a call-girl service to Bongo in order to protect a tailoring business worth $600,000.

Whenever he travelled to Gabon with suits for Bongo, he would bring along the girls, he said. The case provoked massive anti-French protests in Gabon’s capital, Libreville.

However, Bongo’s Francophilia never dimmed, nor his cultivation of French leaders. It was only to be expected that he would readily appropriate quotations from France’s greatest post-war leader, Charles de Gaulle.

When asked to explain his wooing of the ideologically noxious, often racist far-right French leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, the Gabonese leader asked Jeune Afrique magazine: “Am I of the right, or the left, or the centre? No, I have friends everywhere.”

That quotation was borrowed almost word-for-word from de Gaulle’s haughty but celebrated putdown of fractious French parties who sought to own him: “De Gaulle is not of the right, nor of the left, nor of the centre. De Gaulle is above.”

But in the post-Cold War world, Bongo rapidly discovered who was calling the shots.

In 2003, he was reported to have paid $9 million to the US lobbyist Jack Abramoff (who has since been disgraced) to arrange a meeting with president George W. Bush.

Bongo met Bush 10 months later in a meeting the White House curtly described as “routine.”