Gabon and the Enduring Legacies of France’s Françafrique System in Francophone Africa
This is part of our special feature, Beyond Eurafrica: Encounters in a Globalized World.
Something extraordinary happened in France on September 21, 2016. On this day, Nicolas Sarkozy was holding a campaign rally in Marcq-en-Barœul in an (ultimately failed) bid to win the primaries of his rightist coalition ahead of the French presidential election. The rally was suddenly interrupted by a dozen Gabonese activists chanting, “Sarko, viens chercher Ali!” (“Sarko, come get (your) Ali!”). To which Sarkozy responded: “Here it’s France, it’s not Gabon. If you want to go back to Gabon, be my guests!” Through the subtext of this extraordinary moment that opposed a former French president to activists from the former French colony of Gabon, the debate over the Françafrique system was, suddenly, reignited. Gabon, indeed, had just held a presidential election on August 27, 2016, in which Ali Bongo was fraudulently reelected to a second seven-year term. In 2009, he had succeeded his late father Omar Bongo, who died in office after forty-two years of an autocratic rule that left the country in tatters. The Gabonese have generally contended that it was Nicolas Sarkozy who, as the president of France during the 2007-2012 period, masterminded the quasi-dynastic ploy that brought Ali Bongo to power. This paper, therefore, offers insights into key moments in Gabon’s history that have epitomized the enduring ability of France to shape the political destiny of its former colonies after almost six decades of so-called independences.
History owes the term “Françafrique” to François-Xavier Verschave, the late French human-rights activist who enshrined the notion in a number of groundbreaking books that provide an extensive background to France’s neocolonialist policies towards Africa. These books have remained the best sources for understanding what he called the “longest scandal of the Republic,” which he contends was plotted in the late 1950s by Jacques Foccart and General Charles de Gaulle in a ploy to maintain France’s economic and geostrategic grip over its soon-to-become former colonies. Verschave sees the “Françafrique system” as a criminal organization that functions as “a nebula of economic, political, and military actors in France and Africa organized into networks and lobbying groups bent on appropriating […] natural resources as well as public development aid.” Gabon, Verschave shows, has been a central pillar of this “nebula” since its inception, especially after the country became a major oil producer in the 1970s, and this in a context that saw Elf-Gabon, a subsidiary of Elf Aquitaine, become, for decades, a quasi-shadow government in charge of France’s extra-constitutional meddlings in Africa.
Like most of France’s colonies in sub-Saharan Africa, Gabon became independent in 1960 with Léon Mba at its helm, first as Prime minister (1959-1961) and thereafter as the country’s first post-independence president (1961-1967). But, as early as 1964, France was already displaying an interventionist attitude that left no doubt as to its intent to continue to influence political life in this former colony. Indeed, Léon Mba’s gradual drift towards autocracy inevitably led to a military coup in the night of February 17-18, 1964. By February 20, the 2,000 French troops who were dispatched to Gabon from Dakar and Brazzaville had quelled the revolt and restored president Mba.
The most immediate consequence of this state of affairs was that, between 1964—year of the coup—and 1967—year of Leon Mba’s death—Gabon was in the quasi-state of a protectorate ruled directly from Paris by Charles de Gaulle and Jacques Foccart. And in 1967, indeed, the then known as Albert-Bernard Bongo inherited power in a controversial manner that has been widely attested, not only in the seminal writings of Verschave, but also in books by Péan and Glaser and Smith. Confidences by the main artisan of the Françafrique system himself, Jacques Foccart, have come to complete the picture of, perhaps, the darkest, yet also the most controversially successful neocolonialist policy ever developed towards Africa. What transpires from these accounts is that France took advantage of president Mba’s disease—an alleged cancer—to propel Bongo to the presidency of Gabon thanks to a carefully plotted amendment to Gabon’s constitution. This amendment was commandeered from Paris—where president Mba was hospitalized since August 1966 and remained for more than a year until his death on November 27, 1967—with the goal of creating a post of vice president that was specifically tailored for Bongo. The intent, in Foccart’s own words, was to ensure an American-style automatic succession. The early presidential and legislative elections that were held under the new constitution on March 19, 1967 thus saw Léon Mba literally run for president from his hospital bed in Paris. The Mba-Bongo ticket, which had naturally run unopposed due to the repressive political climate that had developed in the country following the 1964 coup, went on to win more than 99 percent of the votes. Albert-Bernard Bongo, who changed his name to El Hadj Omar Bongo in 1973 after converting to Islam, was thus to become Gabon’s second president for the next forty-two years. At the time of his death, he was the longest-serving head of state in the world.
The 1990s marked another period when France’s influence in determining the political course of the country was felt. Until 1990 indeed, Gabon had lived under Omar Bongo’s dictatorship for a little more than two decades. This is because, as early as 1968, Bongo had suppressed all opposition parties and instituted the one-party regime that was to assert unchallenged suzerainty over Gabon until unexpected political upheavals forced the dictator to agree to a National Conference that restored political pluralism in the country.
These upheavals, however, came as a shock to all, including François Mitterrand. In his La Baule speech of June 20, 1990, Mitterrand found himself, some three decades after the so-called “decolonizations,” forced to grapple with the question of France’s still incomplete disengagement from its former colonies. In political terms, the La Baule speech has been hailed as one in which the longest-serving French president (1981-1995) was inviting “all francophone countries to engage themselves on the path to democracy.” It would however be inaccurate to credit this speech, as Jeune Afrique’s François Soudan does, with triggering the cataclysms that brought multiparty politics back to most of the former French colonies of sub-Saharan Africa. Rather, as Verschave more rightly suggests, the socialist president simply accompanied the movement as opposed to directly triggering it. Glaser and Smith further this view when they describe France as a country which, in the space of two generations:
. . . finds itself in the same–bad–contradictory posture: just as it did in the aftermath of World War II, the victory of the ‘free world’ in 1989 causes, in [France’s] (neo)colonial backyard, an after-effect of emancipatory demands. France is once again on the defensive in the margin of the world in which it asserts its ‘rank’. The fall of the Berlin Wall forces it to concede to Africa, as the USSR did in Eastern Europe, a ‘Paristroïka’ of its policy of presence.
Indeed, in such Francophone countries as Benin, Madagascar, Gabon, and Côte d’Ivoire, popular uprisings clamoring for democracy had preceded the La Baule speech. Benin’s Mathieu Kérékou, for instance, was forced not only to abandon his Marxist-Leninist ideology in December 1989, but also to organize, some five months before La Baule, a National Conference on February 19-28, 1990 that led to the birth of the only true democracy to emerge from the political upheavals of the 1990s. Internationally, thus, the Benin experiment was “held up as a model of political reform by the Paris-based journal, Jeune Afrique. […] The lessons of Benin’s National Conference were not lost. Between March 1990 and August 1991, the rulers of Gabon, Congo, Mali, Togo, Niger, and Zaire faced the demands of pro-democracy forces and convened national conferences.” The national conferences held in Africa between 1990 and 1993 thus became a truly African political innovation spearheaded by Benin, and the model itself has remained a mostly Francophone phenomenon.
There are, however, aspects of the La Baule speech that cannot be ignored in the analysis of France’s unabated forays into the affairs of its former colonies. Verschave, for instance, dismisses the speech as “a short-lived opening,” whereas Glaser and Smith conclude that, more than half a century after General de Gaulle’s speech at the Brazzaville Conference of 1944, “François Mitterrand, in turn, stops, at the La Baule France-Africa summit of June 1990, short of the emancipatory expectations [of the Africans] . . .” In fact, France’s strategic interests in Africa were such that:
In spite of his promise of another policy, François Mitterrand satisfied himself with simply managing the existing status quo. He made use, as his predecessors did, of secret diplomacy . . . Ironically, as he opened his last France-Africa summit on November 8  in Biarritz, François Mitterrand was surrounded by [dictators] Marshal Mobutu and General Eyadema, the two heads of State whose demise the Socialist Party had sworn it would seek.
And, indeed, a report issued in 2006 by France’s Senate Commission on Foreign Relations, Defense and the Armed Forces on the Management of Crises in Sub-Saharan Africa showed that France was still, sixteen whole years after La Baule, wrestling with Françafrican realities. The report observed, rather controversially, that, “disengagement not only is not possible, Africa being our “intimate alien,” but also undesirable. […] A French disengagement would be somewhat paradoxical at a time when other actors are seeking to reinforce their positions.”
Which brings us back to Gabon.
The political upheavals that shook the country between January and May 1990 find their origin, not only in the people’s thirst for democracy after twenty-two years of a Bongo dictatorship, but also in the economic crisis of the 1980s. At the time, Gabon had (and still has) one of the highest per capita incomes in Africa. Yet, despite the country being abundantly rich in various types of natural resources—and boasting a population estimated at just about a million souls—wealth redistribution was unequal, and a majority of the Gabonese still lived under the poverty line. By 1989, general dissatisfaction with the regime was such that the debate about democratization that Bongo was trying to suppress became inevitable. The student revolts of late 1989 and early 1990 as well as the union strikes of the same period dealt the regime its first mortal blow. These developments, combined with the return to Gabon of exiled opposition leader Paul Mba Abessole in 1989, quickly led to Bongo reluctantly accepting the principle of a national conference.
But 1990 also saw, on May 23, riots erupt after the body of Joseph Rendajmbé, an opposition leader who proved influential during the national conference debates, was discovered in a hotel room in Libreville. These riots quickly left the Bongo regime with no adequate response, forcing France to send in troops. France explained the move as one meant solely for the protection of French nationals and economic facilities. Be that as it may, the direct result of this “soft intervention” was nevertheless that it discouraged the rioters and, thus, contributed to a return of calm in the country that saved the Bongo regime from sudden collapse.
France’s influence on the political destiny of Gabon was, once again, asserted during the (first) multiparty presidential election that followed the National Conference. According to Péan, the real but never-published results gave 41 percent of the (already fraudulent) votes to Omar Bongo and 39 percent to Paul Mba Abessole. The 1991 constitution, in such a situation, required that a run-off election be held. In view of Omar Bongo’s unpopularity at the time, the country was stunned when, in December 1993, Bongo declared himself the winner. Péan reports that Bongo’s “victory” was, in fact, fabricated through a French ploy that deprived the Gabonese, and Paul Mba Abessole, of a second round of elections that would have inevitably led to a Bongo loss. The certainty of this second-round loss was such that France was forced to initiate secret talks between the two camps to prepare the country for a possible alternation of power. It is in this context that Péan, who was in Gabon to support Mba Abessole’s candidacy, became his middleman in charge of negotiating the terms of Bongo’s inevitable second-round loss with French ambassador Louis Dominici. But Dominici apparently took advantage of their naivety to plot a plan that would ignore the ballot box and simply lead to Bongo declaring an outright victory in the first round. This fabricated result, naturally, caused the indignation of Pierre Péan, who writes:
The ambassador tells me his assurance for what’s coming next and suggests I take the plane back to Paris. Paul [Mba Abessole] believes, also, that France is going to force Bongo to abide by the solution that was agreed upon [to postpone the run-off] . . .
Friday, December 9: Around 9:30am, the ambassador calls my home in Bouffémont [France] to ask me to urge “the priest” [Mba Abessole] to “stay above the fray.” I am confused right away as to what is going on. I later learn that not long after I had boarded the plane, Bongo had declared himself the winner. I will later learn that this declaration was suggested to him by the French ambassador in person, and that Michel Roussin [France’s Cooperation Minister] had called Bongo that same evening. I was fooled! By Bongo, by Dominici, and by those who, in the [French] cohabitation government, and with Charles Pasqua in the lead, decided to impose Bongo at all costs, in spite of the verdict from the ballot box.
This was all happening, of course, under François Mitterrand, through whom Gabon became the incontrovertible symbol of the resurgence of a Françafrican system that many thought was being dealt its final and fatal blow in the wake of the political upheavals of the 1990s.
Then came 2009 and Ali Bongo’s dynastic ascension to the presidency of Gabon.
Two issues do indeed arise from the transitional process that followed Omar Bongo’s death in 2009. The first issue was that, upon the announcement of Omar Bongo’s evacuation to a hospital in Barcelona, Spain, and the realization by many that he would probably not be coming back to Gabon alive, secret negotiations were held among members of the “Bongo clan” that basically decided to impose Ali Bongo as the successor to his father. The second issue was that France, with Nicolas Sarkozy at its helm, relentlessly pressured the Bongo entourage to come up with a choice, and this in a way that suggested the French government was even more eager than the Bongo clan itself to have the succession addressed immediately. Péan, thus, reports that:
Aware of the evolution of Omar Bongo’s disease, Claude Guéant [the Secretary General of the French presidency under Sarkozy] lays siege [to Ali Bongo] to address the succession question. Libreville is rife with rumors alleging that [Ali Bongo’s hospitalization in Neuilly, France] was just a pretext concocted by Ali to go and negotiate with the French. Sarkozy seems indeed to become increasingly impatient . . .
What was troubling in both instances, however, was the extraconstitutional nature of the negotiations. At no time did the Bongo clan or France point to the constitution or even to possible intra-regime primaries as a deciding factor. Instead, they made it a blatant family affair and, thus, were basically deciding who was going to be the president of Gabon before even the elections were held, and before even Omar Bongo was officially declared dead. Under the very eyes of the people, thus, the Gabonese republic was being transformed into a quasi-hereditary monarchy. In this monarchical republic, elections were now being morphed into a meaningless formality in which the Bongo clan, in complicity with France, could blatantly decide to ignore the results from the voting booth and proclaim, as they did in 1993 and probably in all subsequent elections, arbitrary results that had nothing to do with how people actually voted. In other words, Nicolas Sarkozy did indeed manage to impose “his Ali” to the Gabonese despite the fact that “several inquiries testified that the results had been rigged.”  In fact:
In a documentary broadcast on the France 2 TV channel in December 2010, Mr. Michel de Bonnecorse, former Africa advisor to President Jacques Chirac, accredited this version of events (3). A few months later, in February 2011, the WikiLeaks cables confirmed it: “October 2009, Ali Bongo reverses the count of votes and declares himself president,” wrote the US ambassador to Paris, Mr. Charles Rivkin, in a telegram sent in November 2009 to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who immediately advised Mr. Barack Obama not to recognize the victory of Mr. Bongo (4) . . . Without success. The US president even received his counterpart in 2011. This January 16, on the set of the show “On n’est pas couché” (France 2), Prime Minister Manuel Valls inadvertently let go that in 2009 Mr. Bongo was not elected “as one would understand it” . . .
Ali Bongo’s controversial “win” was indeed facilitated by the fact that his father, fearing his own inability to obtain absolute majority in future elections, changed the constitution in 2003 to allow for an outright victory by relative majority. This served Ali Bongo well in 2009 when he declared himself the outright winner with just 41.73 percent of the votes following ballot manipulations in his provincial fief of Haut-Ogooué. Except that the results had simply been reversed in a way that deprived the real winner, André Mba Obame, of his victory. And, of course, Nicolas Sarkozy was quick to congratulate his “friend” Ali Bongo for his victory well before the Constitutional Court had certified the results.
And since old monkeys never forget their old tricks, Ali Bongo repeated the feat in the 2016 election. This time around, he upped the ante much further by blatantly concocting a Stalinian participation rate of 99.93 percent in his provincial fief of Haut-Ogooué, with 95.46 percent of the votes cast there inexplicably, if not miraculously, going to himself. The European Union’s elections monitoring mission to Gabon was, as a result, forced to conclude that, “Without the results of Haut-Ogooué, Jean Ping has 59,396 votes ahead of Ali Bongo Ondimba, with a turnout of 54.24 percent. With the [concocted] results of Haut-Ogooué, Ali Bongo Ondimba is ahead of Jean Ping by 5,597 votes.” In other words, Ali Bongo “won” only thanks to a combination of electoral fraud and a murderous spree that saw his army assault protesters and attack his challenger’s headquarters in a bid to crush the burgeoning riots that began to shake the country in the aftermath of the election.
It is worth noting that throughout the political crisis that followed the August 2016 election in Gabon, French president François Hollande (2012-2017) suspiciously avoided the debate over Ali Bongo’s controversial “victory.” Meanwhile, however, the same François Hollande was in nearby Congo-Brazzaville, “killing” the democratic process. There, he had bluntly declared that dictator Sassou Nguesso had the right to organize a referendum in order to amend the constitution of his country. Except that, in this case, Sassou was doing so in order to circumvent the age and term limits that, in the 2002 constitution, prevented him from seeking a third term. Thus encouraged by Hollande, Sassou promulgated the new constitution and went on to “win” a third term on March 2016 that, at age seventy-two, guaranteed him the presidency for life. This position by Hollande, naturally, left many dumbfounded. It also brought back suspicions about the resurgence of the types of Françafrican realities that, as Sarkozy himself has acknowledged in a recent book of confidences, led France to plot the overthrow of Laurent Gbagbo in Côte d’Ivoire in 2011 and, thus, have systematically blunted all attempts at creating truly democratic states in France’s (post)colonial chasse gardée since the late 1950s.
Daniel Mengara is a native of Gabon and has been a professor of French and Francophone Studies at Montclair State University (New Jersey) since 1996. As a political activist who has been in exile virtually since 1998 due to his staunch opposition to the Bongo dictatorship, he has been very active promoting democratic change in Gabon. As such, he is one of the first few people in the world to inaugurate the practice of cyber-activism leveraging the Internet as a tool for liberation movements. As a scholar and novelist who has studied in Gabon, France, and the United States, Daniel Mengara is interested in ancient, precolonial, pre-Islamic African political and thought systems. He has published four books, including La Représentation des groupes sociaux chez les romanciers noirs sud-africains, Images of Africa: Stereotypes and Realities, Mema (A novel in English currently being used in Ugandan O’level curriculum), and Le Chant des chimpanzés (A novel). He is currently revising a manuscript on the political history of Gabon under the Bongo regime to be published with L’Harmattan later this year. He is also currently finalizing the translation of a traditional Fang epic tale into English.
Photo: Grunge textured flag of Gabon on vintage paper by Nicolas Raymond | Flickr
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 François-Xavier Verschave, La Françafrique: Le plus long scandale de la République (Paris: Stock, 1998; reprint Paris: Stock, 1999) and Noir silence: Qui arrêtera la Françafrique? (Paris: Les Arènes, 2000).
 Verschave, La Françafrique.
 Ibid., 175. My translation.
 Moïse N’Solé Biteghe, Echec aux militaires au Gabon en 1964 (Paris: Editions Chaka, 1990), 44-46.
 Florence Bernault, Démocraties ambiguës en Afrique centrale: Congo-Brazzaville, Gabon, 1940-1965 (Paris: Karthala, 1996).
 N’Solé Bitegue, Echec aux militaires.
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 Antoine Glaser and Stephen Smith, Comment la France a perdu l’Afrique (Paris: Calmann-Lévy, 2005).
 Philippe Gaillard, Foccart parle: Entretiens avec Philippe Gaillard, vol.1 (Paris: Fayard/Jeune Afrique, 1995).
 Philippe Bernard, “Omar Bongo, président du Gabon,” Le Monde, June 9, 2009, accessed August 5, 2017, http://www.lemonde.fr/afrique/article/2009/06/09/omar-bongo-Président-du-gabon_1204722_3212.html. See also Ngoma, “Léon Mba.”
 Gaillard, Foccart parle, 275-281.
 Ngoma, “Léon Mba.”
 Jean-Pierre Foirry, L’Afrique: Continent d’avenir? (Paris: Ellipses, 2006), 118. My translation.
 François Soudan, “Il était une fois La Baule,” Jeune Afrique, March 15, 2004, accessed December 2017, http://www.jeuneafrique.com/Article/LIN14034iltaieluaba0/Il-etait-une-fois-La-Baule.-Actualite_Info.html.
 Verschave, La Françafrique, 56.
 Glaser and Smith, Comment la France, 107. My translation.
 Pearl T Robinson, “The National Conference Phenomenon in Francophone Africa,” Comparative Studies in Society and History 36, no. 3 (July 1994): 576.
 Robert Buijtenhuijs, La Conférence nationale souveraine du Tchad: Un essai d’histoire immediate (Paris: Karthala, 1993).
 F. Eboussi Boulaga, Les Conférences nationales en Afrique noire: Une affaire à suivre (Paris: Karthala, 2009).
 Robinson, “The National Conference,” 575-610.
 Verschave, La Françafrique, 56.
 Glaser and Smith, Comment la France, 107-108. My translation.
 Christian Hoche, “François Mitterrand: Le testament africain,” L’Express, November 10, 1994, accessed January 14, 2018, http://www.lexpress.fr/actualite/monde/afrique/le-testament-africain-de-francois-mitterrand_498735.html. My translation.
 Glaser and Smith, Comment la France, 154-155. My translation.
 Sénat français. Commission des Affaires étrangères, de la défense et des forces armées. Rapport d’information n° 450 (2005-2006). La France et la gestion des crises africaines: Quels changements possibles? Session ordinaire (2005-2006), edited by André DULAIT, Robert HUE, Yves POZZO di BORGO and Didier BOULAUD, Senators, 10, 3 juillet 2006, accessed September 20, 2009, http://extranet.senat.fr/rap/r05-450/r05-4501.pdf. My translation.
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 “Incident Port Gentil,” INA, May 28 1990, accessed February 9, 2018, http://www.ina.fr/video/CAB90020110/incident-port-gentil-video.html.
 Péan, Nouvelles affaires, 77-92.
 Ibid., 91. My translation.
 Ibid., 121-183.
 Ibid., 135-136
 Ibid., 136
 Ibid., 136; 162-164.
 Andy Moses, La République monarchique (Paris: EdiLivres, 2015).
 Olivier Piot, “Au Gabon, la mécanique du népotisme s’enraye,” Le Monde diplomatique (octobre 2016): 4, accessed October 25, 2017, https://www.monde-diplomatique.fr/2016/10/PIOT/56406.
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Published on March 1, 2018.