France, the UN, the EU, and the US summoned to sort out a family squabble in sub-Saharan Africa

Something like a deja-vu occurred in Gabon on September 2, 2016 when Jean Ping called a press conference at his Libreville home to declare himself the rightful president of Gabon, before official results of the presidential election held on 27 August 2016.  A few years earlier, André Mba Obame had done the same following the 2009 presidential election, hoping to receive the support of the international community. However, until his mysterious death in exile in 2015, this former adviser to Omar Bongo and government minister never recovered from the fact that despite a wealth of evidence indicating that the election had been rigged in favour of Ali Bongo (Omar Bongo’s son), France (and others such as the US) accepted the inverted election results which declared Ali Bongo winner. History is stuttering this time around as the main protagonists of the recent presidential election (Jean Ping and Ali Bongo) are maneuvering exactly like their political godfather, Omar Bongo, had taught them.

Omar Bongo singlehandedly ruled the small but oil-rich central African nation of Gabon for 42 years until his death in 2009. Just a few months before his death though, the frail and ill-stricken dictator was to pull a hitherto rarely seen feat of African politics by requesting – and obtaining – the sacking of a French government minister. The culprit, state minister of cooperation Jean-Marie Bockel, had angered the aging Gabonese president with his literal interpretation of Sarkozy’s 2007 presidential pledge to overhaul France’s ties with the African continent. In fact, Bockel had enthusiastically proclaimed in the media that he was ready to bury “Françafrique”[1] — referring to the old-style dubious relationship with leaders of former French colonies in Africa.  Nicolas Sarkozy quickly complied with Bongo’s request to get rid of Bockel, and even sent the replacement minister Alain Joyandet to Libreville to apologise for the sacked minister’s impertinence.

Just as this was not the first time (nor the last time for that matter) that a French leader has declared Françafrique as dead, this was not the first time Bongo had successfully attempted to influence national politics in his country’s former colonial capital – Jean Pierre Cot was also once put aside by François Mitterrand at Bongo’s demand – the Bockel episode marked a major shift in the unidirectional workings of Françafrique. Where the alleged “envelopes of cash and suitcases of diamonds secretly transferred between the political, business and military elites on both sides of the Mediterranean”[2] served primarily as token contribution for a “pay to play” scheme, belittling African leaders of French former colonies who desired to stay in power in aeternum, Omar Bongo was tapping into an emerging pattern of proclaimed France’s foreign policy being altered to satisfy African dictators. Having made sure that most French politicians owed him something or pampered him lest he break some secrets[3], he was now able to turn the tables holding the upper hand in the new political game.

Bongo’s death did nothing to alter the momentum of this new trend. If anything, his sons are proving themselves able to use not just France, but other superpowers in their game. Bongo’s political heritage was in fact divided up between two camps of former collaborators:  those who manoeuvred successfully to keep hold of the state apparatus on the one hand; and the dissatisfied who retreated into so-called political opposition on the other hand. It therefore appears very imperative to disabuse some people of the notion that Ping’s hypothetical election as President of Gabon would “put an end to 50 years of the Bongo dynasty”.  All major politicians in Gabon, regardless of their camp, have worked with the late dictator to build the system they pretend to be fighting today. One senior adviser to Jean Ping confessed that their alternative political programme was to “share the cake”[4] amongst members of the opposition coalition. Not surprising for members of the same political family, who have been bred in the caricature of one the most scandalous African neopatrimonialistic regimes. They are not just related through ideology; blood ties are what makes the current post electoral situation in Gabon ludicrous, especially for international observers who are quick to spout their grand rhetoric about democracy, transparency, change and progress for the Gabonese people.

Apart from the web of direct blood ties amongst all major political players in Gabon, belonging to one camp or the other is of such a transience that external observers are often at a loss to keep tab of who’s who in Gabonese politics.  This all stems from late Bongo’s strategy to “seduce rather than reduce” political dissidents.  Oil money was used to heavily corrupt every significant dissident, in addition to government positions. To seal things off, Bongo would deploy his own version of the aged-old bonds of kinship to restrain aggression. For example, Jean Ping who declared himself winner of the presidential election against Ali Bongo, was encouraged by late Bongo to marry and bear children with Pascaline Bongo, Omar Bongo’s daughter and therefore Ali Bongo’s sister.  Pascaline Bongo herself was her own presidential father’s chief of cabinet while her partner Jean Ping was Bongo’s Minister of Foreign Affairs. Confused? Let’s just add that the constitutional court head judge, on whose mouth apparently lingers the fate of the nation, is related to Pascaline Bongo (Jean Ping’s former partner) and Ali Bongo as ex-stepmother – she has had children with the late dictator. Just in case you are confused, the word “ex” means nothing in such a context with high stakes. As the saying goes in Africa, money knows no grudge.

Essentially, people who have recently died in Gabon in election-related violence, have died for a reason:  a simple family dispute. A family succession battle to which the international community has now been summoned to take sides or at least to act as referee. While Ping is activating the influential network he nurtured during his time as international political figure and ultimately Chairperson of the African Union Commission from 2008 to 2012, Ali Bongo is also exploiting the contacts he has made as President, and before that as Bongo’s beloved son. In any case, Ali and Jean Bongo [name confusion intended] are proud sons of late Omar Bongo.  They are pretty much set in their ways and have succeeded in mobilizing the whole international community into a family crisis, a brotherly power struggle that has nothing to do with democracy worthy of this level of international attention.

Whatever the outcome of this family quarrel, and despite chants of democracy and development trumpeted by a helpless international community observing this election, the Gabonese people will end up with an extension of the Bongo regime or dynasty. Poverty will continue to bring mourning to families excluded from the Bongo/Ping clan; Gabon’s natural resources will continued to be plundered. For all those superpowers and international organisations who are now barely able to conceal their “outrage”, it shall be business as usual.

Dieunedort Wandji

[1] Rue89 Nouvelobs “Virer un ministre ? C’est simple comme un coup de fil de Bongo” 07/09/2009


[2] Caroline Boin.  Portland | The Quarterly: The Africa Edition | The end of Françafrique? French relations with Africa under Hollande


[3] Expactica (8th June 2009). France loses chief ally in Africa.


[4] Marc Ona Essangui said this in a TV on Wednesday 17 August, 2016.