Gabon: Keep the petrol flowing to French tanks
Gabon’s former President Omar Bongo Ondimba is remembered for a particular turn of phrase: “Africa without France is like a car without a driver. France without Africa is a car without gasoline.” From the Elf oil scandal to the Paris court investigation into the property holdings of the presidents of Gabon, Congo-Brazzaville and Equatorial Guinea, these events speak to the elite ‘Françafrique’ networks which allow French and African politicians and businessmen to have undue influence in each other’s domains.
The relationship was perfected by former President Félix Houphouët-Boigny of Côte d’Ivoire and expanded by President Bongo Ondimba. Bongo was respected by his peers as the longest-serving of the African heads of state and often hosted Central and West African politicians seeking advice. With Bongo’s death, many are left asking what is left of Françafrique, since new generations of French and African leaders have risen to the pinnacles of power.
With Bongo gone, French politicians felt that they could talk more candidly about his role in domestic politics. Former President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing said that Bongo had financed former President Jacques Chirac’s 1981 presidential campaign. Bongo is not around to deny the claim, but even so, no other leader was able to play such an important role across the political spectrum in France. There is no one set to replace him as either the elder statesman or the linchpin of Franco-African politics. New leaders like Togo’s Faure Gnassingbé or old hands like Cameroon’s Paul Biya are all ill-suited to the task and its diplomatic rigour.
Politics was and continues to be business on both sides of the Franco-African scene. While President Nicolas Sarkozy has promised fundamental change in France’s relationship with Africa, the more things change, the more they stay the same. While Gabon elects a new leader, one thing is certain: a car without petrol will not get very far.