Googling Gabon

Really Rich Real Estate is a new “reality series” airing on cable channel VH1. I tuned in to find out what the truly wealthy consider to be “really rich” properties in today’s real estate market and became intrigued by a client, Inge Bongo, who was referred to as the wife of a government official in an oil-rich African country, who if handled gingerly by the Westside Estate Agency realtors, would be a commission gold mine. This is how she’s described on VH1’s website.

The Fabulous Life: Really Rich Real Estate

Inge Bongo, the heiress to a very rich country in Central Africa, is in town to purchase a home. WEA co-owner Kurt Rappaport shows her a $25,000,000 property in Malibu’s exclusive Broad Beach area, but she feels the home “lacks grandeur.” Co-owner Stephen Shapiro shows her a stately $25,000,000 Beverly Hills mansion that turns out to be just what she’s looking for. Will Kurt and Stephen close the deal?

Heiress to a very rich country? Not quite.

Inge was shopping for a new place to hang her tiara mainly because most of the rooms in her current residence are stuffed to the ceilings with shoes and other purchases. She was thrilled that the $25,000,000 Beverly Hills mansion could not only neatly accomodate her burgeoning inventory of stilletoes (she was particularly proud of a lucite pair with heels designed to look like matchsticks) but that her husband would finally have elbow room for his daily constitutional.

Inge’s husband is the Defence Minister of Gabon, Ali-Ben Bongo Ondimba. He is the son of Gabon’s president, El Hadj Omar Bongo Ondimba, in power since 1967, “the longest-serving African head of state,” thanks to fabulous friends in high places and a country slightly smaller than Colorado that is rich in uranium, oil, and timber, a geopolitical gem that Bongo has swindled for decades.

FrançAfrique m’a tué | Translation

In February 1964 Léon M’Ba was deposed by a coup d’etat. But on February 19, 1964, French parachuters reinstated the deposed president, Léon M’Ba, by force. Bongo was appointed to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and then to the cabinet of Léon M’Ba. Very quickly, Bongo became close to the lord of the French neo-colonies Jacques Foccart, while President Charles de Gaulle described him as a “stand up guy.”

At which point Jacques Foccart, counselor to Charles de Gaulle, thought of him to succeed Mba, who was wasting away with cancer. This is how, in 1967, after the death of Léon M’Ba, and following some constitutional tinkering, the 32 year-old “stand up guy” became the youngest head of state in the world. Moreover, it is in Paris, in the bowels of the Gabon embassy, that the swearing in ceremony of the French protege takes place. Bongo is a purely neocolonial creation, put in power in Gabon by Jacques Foccart, with the blessing of General de Gaulle, to take over militarily for the French in the war of Biafra that would result in 1 to 2 million deaths.

Foccart Parle by Jacques Foccart and Philippe Gaillard is the book cited by Howard French in the following excerpt from his article, How France Shaped New Africa, 28 February 1995, The New York Times:

In the book, Mr. Foccart, 81, says that African leaders who were seen as insufficiently friendly to French interests were simply frozen out, as in the case of Guinea’s President, Sekou Toure, who sought and gained independence in 1958, before Paris was ready to relinquish control. Others were eliminated, as with Felix Moumie, a Cameroonian opposition figure who was assassinated in Geneva in 1960. It is the first time a French official has acknowledged a French role in the killing.

With an air of nonchalance, Mr. Foccart tells the interviewer who wrote the book how in 1968 he literally auditioned Omar Bongo, a young politician in the Central African nation of Gabon, before Mr. Bongo could become the country’s President. Other African leaders who were made and often broken by France, he said, had telephone hotlines to the bedrooms of the French ambassadors in their countries, or signed blank authorizations of French intervention in case of political trouble.

This system failed in at least two cases, Mr. Foccart said, because he was out hunting or fishing in the French countryside when an African coup began and could not be reached in time to mobilize a response.

Dr. George Ayittey, president of The Free Africa Foundation, on Omar’s reign:

After assuming power in Nov 1967, President Bongo ran the country as his own personal fiefdom. Opposition parties were banned in 1970 and the country declared a “one-party state.” Bongo won successive 7-year president terms in 1973, 1979 and 1986 in elections — each with 99.98 percent of the vote. His personal fortune, estimated in the billions, include real estate and bank accounts in France, Switzerland and the U.S. as well as a multitude of companies and hotels in Gabon.

Gabon’s human rights record and political freedom has been appalling. According to State’s 1993 Human Rights Report, “Gabonese law and security enforcement officials use beatings as part of the interrogation process of detainees to obtain confessions.”

Prisoners are reportedly forced to march on their knees over stones. Opposition leaders are routinely harassed. The leader of the Gabonese Progress Party, Joseph Rendjambe, was found dead in a Bongo-owned Hotel Doweon the seafront of Libreville on May 23, 1990. His corpse bore the marks of hypodermic needle wounds which caused his family to suspect poisoning. Within hours of the news of his death, demonstrators packed the streets of the capital and Gentil, denouncing President Bongo as the murderer and demanding his overthrow. During the siege of Gentil, angry Gabonese held a French consul and 10 expatriates hostage, demanding that France withdraw its support for Bongo. The Bongo government responded with such ferocity that its patron, France, was even embarassed. Deploying tanks, armored cars, multiple grenades launchers and automatic weapons, the government gained control of Gentil and Libreville but with at least 5 civilians dead. In June 1990, Auguste Ambourouet and Guy Nang Bekale, both members of the opposition Gabonese Progress Party were detained without charge. During a peaceful demonstration by opposition groups in March 1992, police opened fire with rubber bullets, killing a teacher named Martine Oulagou Mbadinga.


The French, more interested in Gabon’s oil, have cast a blind eye to the oppression, plunder and megalomaniac antics of Bongo. In 1964, French troops intervened to restore the country’s first president Leon M’Ba to power and have maintained a presence since then to shore up Bongo. They were peeved when Bongo made a 3-day state visit to the U.S. in July 1987, during which he had luncheon with President Ronald Reagan on July 31 — an event which was broadcast and given full play in the Gabonese state media. To win back Bongo, the French dispatched their Interior Minister, Charles Pasqua, to Libreville to stress to Bongo France’s traditional ties with Gabon. In a further appeasement move, France expelled Pierre Mamboundou, exiled opposition of Union du Peuple Gabonais to Senegal in May 1990.

Welcoming Leader of Gabon, Reagan Promises Investment
1 August 1987 Associated Press

President Reagan saluted Gabon’s President, Omar Bongo, today as a ”champion of African development” and a promoter of peaceful solutions to regional disputes.

After an Oval Office talk and a luncheon with Mr. Bongo, Mr. Reagan said the United States and Gabon would work to increase United States investment in the central African country, which has the highest per capita income on the continent. He also said the United States would sign a debt restructuring agreement with Gabon.

A Crude Awakening- How Angolan state corruption and the lack of oil company and banking transparency has contributed to Angola’s humanitarian and development catastrophe (.pdf)
Case Study: Elf Aquitaine – A disgrace within the European Union? (p.11)

More than any other oil company in Africa, France’s Elf has for years played the game of African politics not only to win control over coveted oil licences, but as an arm of French diplomacy and intelligence. It has come to typify dubious multinational company activities in Africa – mixing politics with corporate gain. Oil has been the motive for many French policies in Africa, and it is no coincidence that France’s diplomatic focus along this stretch of coastline is shifting quickly southwards from Gabon, where oil production is now declining, towards Angola, where Elf has made a set of huge oil discoveries. A visit by French president Jacques Chirac to Angola in June 1998 was prompted, above all, by Elf’s efforts at the time to secure as good a position as possible in the recent attribution of ultra-deep licences 31-33. Elf was eventually awarded operatorship of block 32.

Investigations in France and Switzerland by examining magistrate Eva Joly into the financial affairs of Gabon President Omar Bongo, who is alleged to have channelled payments from the presidency through the accounts of senior Elf officials, have uncovered some of the deep political channels that have connected Elf with its counterparts in African governments and with its mentors in Paris. In a recent interview in Le Monde, Elf’s ex-Africa supremo Andre Tarallo, who is under investigation by French authorities explained the system of bonuses handed out to African heads of state:

“In the petroleum field we talk of bonuses.There are official bonuses, which are anticipated in the contracts…; the petroleum company which wants an exploration permit agrees, for example, to finance the construction of a hospital, a school or a road, or to pay a sum of money, which may be a considerable amount if the interest in an area is justified….This practice has always been used by Elf as well as numerous other companies.”

Elf is now a private company, but the old political channels still run deep, and the company continues to use its expertise in African politics to gain access to markets such as Angola’s. The company is now merging with France’s TotalFina, to form what will be the world’s fourth largest oil giant. TotalFina, which has a strong presence in the Middle East and is widely regarded as a more efficient company than Elf, will effectively be the senior partner in the new company. It is also likely that some of the cosy old ‘political networks developed by Elf over the years, which are now regarded as liabilities and have trapped the company in embarrassing disputes with African governments, will be dismantled. At the instigation of the Green Party in France, the National Assembly is investigating oil companies and the recently deposed head of Elf, Philippe Jaffre has appeared before its committee. But though Elf has been privatised, the French government still retains a “golden share” in the company, giving it an effective right of veto over possible takeovers and other management issues. It is certain that old habits will die hard.

In West African Visits, Powell Seeks to Prime Oil Pumps
By James Dao, 6 September 2002, The New York Times

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell visited a group of girls orphaned by the civil war in Angola and a new rain forest preserve in Gabon today to underscore Washington’s efforts to strengthen ties to two West African countries that are significant oil exporters to the United States.

Angola is one of the top 10 oil providers to the United States, and its ranking could rise as its offshore reserves are tapped. Those reserves could become more important if unrest in the Middle East or an American invasion of Iraq cause upheavals in the oil market.

For that reason, maintaining stability and improving Washington’s relations with Angola have become high priorities for the State Department. As a sign of Angola’s growing importance, Secretary Powell broke ground today for a new embassy in Luanda, the capital.

Secretary Powell, on the final day of a three-nation African trip, also met privately with Angola’s president, Jose Eduardo dos Santos. During most of Angola’s 28-year civil war, which formally ended earlier this year, the United States supported Mr. dos Santos’s chief rival, Jonas Savimbi. After the end of the cold war and the collapse of the Soviet Union, who had backed Mr. dos Santos, the United States ended its backing for Mr. Savimbi. In 1993 Washington established relations with Mr. dos Santos’s government.

Mr. Savimbi was killed in February, and an agreement to end the long conflict between Unita and the government was signed April 4.

Angola, a former Portuguese colony, has one of the largest oil reserves in the world, but widespread corruption and the civil war combined to ruin its economy, as well as killing as many as one million people and displacing nearly two million more. The armistice has left 80,000 former Unita fighters and their families interned in 36 relocation camps waiting to return home.

Angola’s Elusive Oil Riches
15 June 2004, The New York Times

Desperate for loans, Angola has repeatedly agreed to carry out the reforms required by the I.M.F., then violated its promises. When the oil company BP announced in 2001 that it would publish what it paid Angola, the government threatened to cancel its contracts.

Today there is some hope that Angola will begin to use its oil receipts to benefit its people. The end of a 27-year civil war in 2002 deprived the government of its perennial excuse for not improving wretched living conditions. Once dependent on the Soviet Union and Cuba, Angolan officials are now trying to establish relationships with more countries and world institutions. In addition to announcing the ChevronTexaco figure, Angola also released some reports by an international accounting firm hired to track oil revenue, an I.M.F. requirement.

But it should release all the reports in full, audit its state oil company and disclose all information related to its oil income. The I.M.F. has been admirably firm in insisting on these changes. The United States, a buyer of one-third of Angola’s oil, has not. When Jose Eduardo dos Santos, Angola’s president, went to Washington last month, Bush administration officials said disappointingly little in public about the need for more transparency. In December, Washington even deemed Angola eligible for trade preferences, based on a set of criteria that are supposed to include corruption-related policies. That was a mistake. Change will come to countries like Angola only if outsiders are resolute about accountability.

Conflict Timber: Dimensions of the Problem in Asia and Africa VOL. III
USAID (.pdf) (pp. 121-122)

Grand Corruption. The legacy of persistent endemic corruption plays a continuing and fundamental role in Gabon’s money laundering vulnerabilities and its lack of capacity to respond to the problem. Political officials in Gabon remain the country’s most successful launderers of funds, engaging both in smuggling currency out of the country, and electronic techniques used by money launderers to conceal funds raised through illegal logging. A Citibank client profile of President Bongo from 1996 describes him as “head of state for over 25 years … self-made as a result of position. Country is oil producer.” The Citibank memo concluded that Bongo’s “compensation must be enviable,” (Newsday, 1999). Bongo, president of Gabon since 1967, is alleged to have laundered more than $130 million from bribes and funds looted from the state. Swiss prosecutors uncovered one account held at the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce in Geneva that was opened in the name of Bongo’s adviser, Samuel Dossou-Aworet. The immense sums of money laundered has been exacerbated by the dependence of Gabon’s economy on a small number of natural resources, including timber and oil, which has provided a significant source of revenue to be laundered by corrupt officials.

Increased Trafficking of Illegal Timber Products. With as much as 70% of the logging operation defined as “illegal,” high-ranking political figures continue to siphon off profits from the timber trade (World Watch Institute, 2002). Accordingly, much of Gabon’s timber industry will remain vulnerable to corruption and financial crimes. Especially troubling is the effect that laundering illegal logging (and oil) profits have on other economic sectors. Among affected sectors are:

* Financial services, which face rampant abuses of trust, understaffing, poor remuneration, fraud, theft, bribery, and corruption;

* International trading and import and export businesses, which frequently engage in or are victimized by forms of false invoicing, fraud, and theft;

* Construction, which often involves corruption, bribery, false bookkeeping, fraud, and theft;

* Government procurement, which affords opportunities for payoffs, graft, and self-dealing; and

* The transportation sector, which involves smuggling, frauds, thefts of goods transported, and bribery.

Other Ongoing Deficiencies. Probably the single most important deficiency in Gabon is the lack of a culture of lawfulness that would sustain a civil service in the law enforcement sector. Other notable deficiencies include Gabon’s corrupt, inefficient, and politicized judicial system; lack of interagency cooperation against financial crime; limited experience in and commitment to international cooperation against financial crime; and poor compliance by the private sector, including by some of Gabon’s most prominent banks.

Expectations that Gabon will meet any of its commitments to improve probity in financial management by enacting and implementing new laws should remain modest. In the past, Gabon has typically responded to foreign pressure by passing new laws, then utterly failing to implement them, while senior officials pretend that the problem has been completely solved, with the result that Gabon has little credibility regarding reforms. Accordingly, Gabon’s progress in combating money laundering must be measured by results, rather than formal legal changes and rhetoric. These deficiencies, which might be partially alleviated with assistance from USAID, could include:

* Demonstrating Gabon’s willingness to use laws by undertaking actual investigations, arrests, prosecutions, and convictions for money laundering;

* Revising banking legislation to create and enforce a unified licensing system and systematic requirements that all Gabonese financial institutions (bank and non-bank) report large transactions in currency and suspicious transactions;

* Creating mechanisms for oversight of Gabon’s customs authority, which remains a primary mechanism for currency smuggling, false invoicing, and other frauds that involve or facilitate money laundering;

* Promptly providing reliable information on money laundering investigations to foreign regulators and law enforcement agencies when requested;

* Securing judicial reforms to ensure that properly presented money laundering cases cannot be frustrated by corrupt judges; and

* Developing transparency in Gabon government procurement and disbursement.

Lobbyist Sought $9 Million to Set Bush Meeting
Philip Shenon, 10 November 2005, The New York Times

Bongo meets Bush – 26 May 2004

Mr. Abramoff’s ties to Gabon were first revealed in a letter that was among hundreds of pages of documents from Mr. Abramoff’s files that were released last week by the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, which has conducted a yearlong investigation of his lobbying for Indian tribes.

When he first approached Gabon, Mr. Abramoff was not new to issues involving West Africa.

He had been a Washington lobbyist for President Mobutu Sese Seko, the repressive leader of neighboring Congo, called Zaire at the time. He also had connections to Gabon through a former business partner, David Safavian, who was a registered agent in Washington for President Bongo. Mr. Safavian, a former White House budget official, was arrested in September on charges of lying about his ties to Mr. Abramoff.

The three-page letter released by the Senate panel was written to Mr. Bongo on Greenberg Traurig stationery and dated July 28, 2003; Mr. Abramoff suggested that he had unusual influence to arrange a meeting with President Bush.

“Without advance resources, I have been cautiously working to obtain a visit for the president to Washington to see President Bush,” Mr. Abramoff wrote. “As you know, we were, in advance of the war in Iraq, able to secure a tentative date for this meeting; however, the war canceled all such scheduled visits.”

Mr. Abramoff said he was willing to travel to Gabon to meet with Mr. Bongo to discuss the contract if the government would arrange for a private plane.

“It must be on the basis by which I travel anywhere, being in a private aircraft, which bears a substantial cost unfortunately,” he said. “I am confident that we will have a long, productive and warm relationship, but good relationships are built on firm understandings at the outset.”

Other documents obtained by The New York Times show that Mr. Abramoff and his colleagues prepared two draft agreements, both dated Aug. 7, 2003, that outlined the lobbying plan for Gabon.

One called for GrassRoots to receive $9 million in lobbying fees; the other called for Greenberg Traurig to receive $1 million, all of it in 2003.

Foreign Military Training: Joint Report to Congress, Fiscal Years 2005 and 2006
Released by the Bureau of Political-Military Affairs September 2006
III. State Foreign Policy Objectives–Africa Region

IMET in FY 2005 focused on improving the English language capability of Gabonese military personnel and increasing the level of professionalism in the military, enhancing peacekeeping capability and increasing maritime security. By fostering effective relations between the Gabonese and the U.S. military, and by exposing the Gabonese participants to U.S. professional military organizations, procedures and the manner in which the U.S. military functions under civilian control, Gabon’s military efficiency and effectiveness should be enhanced. This in turn will support the goal of regional stability, particularly in peacekeeping operations in which the Gabonese participate. Training programs included twenty-one students sent to the United States in FY 2005, as well as the visit by the USS Emory S. Land, which provided training to Gabonese naval personnel in maintenance and operations. Three Gabonese naval officers were embarked on the vessel for a month for more intensive training. Gabon initiated its participation in the African Contingency Operations Training Assistance (ACOTA) program in 2005, including field training for 100 Gabonese soldiers and computer-assisted staff training for 55 officers. Gabon also participated in a medical outreach program with the United States Navy. During the two week exercise, U.S. and Gabonese medical personnel treated over 8000 patients in seven villages.

Participation in the Africa Center for Strategic Studies (ACSS) also supports democratic aims in Gabon by reinforcing the relationship between the military and its civilian leaders. Eight members of the Gabonese military participated in 2005; further invitations are expected in 2006. In addition, creating military-to-military contacts will increase the likelihood that Gabon will remain willing to serve as a staging area for evacuation operations in the region. Following a successful ship visit in FY 2005, a ship visit is tentatively planned for February 2006. Prior to the planned opening of a new Gabonese Military Medical Center, EUCOM sponsored the visit of the Gabonese Military Health Service Surgeon General to Washington DC, including tours of Bethesda Naval Medical Center and Walter Reed Army Medical Center.

The President has waived the prohibition, in 2007 of the American Servicemembers’ Protection Act, of the provision of military assistance to the Gabonese Republic, a State Party to the Rome Statute, for as long as it is party to an Article 98 agreement with the United States.

Gabon, the country where Joseph Wilson served as ambassador from 1992-1995 after being appointed there by President George H.W. Bush, has been prominent in the headlines for at least one other reason, aside from a prostitution scandal that implicated Omar Bongo which led him to shut down the publications in Gabon printing the reports.

On their transport to a country of destination:

After I waited five months in Nigeria, a man came and took me to a boat. On the boat, there were over 100 other children, Togolese, Nigerian, and there were some adults, but more children than adults. I talked to some of them, and all the girls were going to Gabon to work. It took three days on the boat to get to Gabon. They gave us gari [a dough made of manioc] and sometimes bread to eat.

*Dansi D., age sixteen, trafficked to Gabon when she was thirteen

The boat was very full . . . . There were no toilets. There were girls defacating on each other and vomiting in the boat. It was impossible to vomit into the sea without falling off the boat.

*Atsoupé S., fourteen, trafficked to Gabon when she was thirteen

A CASE STUDY – THE ETIRENO (2001) (.pdf -pg.17)

Over Easter weekend in April 2001 a story flashed around the world about a ‘slave ship’, the Etireno, off the coast of Nigeria in West Africa. Journalists reported that several hundred slave children were on board. The reality turned out to be different and was a classic case of trafficking in West Africa, where young children are routinely employed far from home as domestic servants and in other menial jobs, sometimes paid, and sometimes not. Hundreds are taken each year from countries in West Africa such as Bénin* and Togo across the sea to Gabon, a richer oil-exporting country. They are usually taken across a land border to Nigeria and then on by canoe to Gabon, across 500 kilometres of open sea. In most cases, they work for other West Africans in Gabon’s capital, Libreville.

When the ship, the Etireno, arrived back at its port of departure, Cotonou in Bénin, on 17 April 2001, 43 children disembarked: 23 were aged between five and 14, and were taken to Terre des Hommes’ Oasis accommodation shelter in Cotonou, while 17 older boys over the age of 14 were placed under the protection of another NGO, SOS Children’s Village; three babies remained with the women accompanying them. Western journalists reported that there were far fewer children than expected and that they did not look like slaves.

Among the 40 children aged between five and 17, 16 were girls and 24 boys. The children were cared for at the two transit homes and by October 2001 23 had been reunited with their families in their respective countries. Once safe, the children were questioned about their experiences and a report was passed to the police about what had happened to each of them. The following facts came to light:

• All 16 girls, along with seven of the 24 boys, were under 15;

• 17 of the 24 boys were older teenagers (aged 15 to 17);

• Nine children had been travelling with one of their parents, while 31 were unaccompanied;

• 13 thought they had one or both parents already in Gabon;

• 13 of the 40 were from Bénin, eight from neighbouring Togo and 19 from much further afield: 17 from Mali, one from Guinea and one from Senegal;

• All but two of the 40 knew they were going to Gabon to work there;

• Five were aware that a financial transaction had taken place before they left home; a further eight reported that they had been accompanied by an adult they did not know, who was taking them to work in Gabon;

• Four accompanied by an adult from their village in Bénin were expecting to work for at least eight years in Gabon to pay off the costs of their trip;

• Two girls and two boys said they had paid between 100,000 and 250,000 CFA Francs (US$215 and US$535) each to make the trip from Togo.

The conclusion was that 35 out of the 40 children were being trafficked to Gabon (18 of the 23 under 15-year-olds and all 17 older boys). By the time the facts were known, media interest had waned. In the same year, the Oasis shelter took in 304 other children who had been trafficked within Bénin, without going abroad. Meanwhile, hundreds of children continued to be imported into Gabon by the traditional route. Two years later, in September 2003, the shelters in Bénin were once again hard at work: more than a hundred Béninois children, aged from seven to 16, were found working in granite quarries near the Nigerian city of Abeokuta, and required accommodation after the authorities brought them back to Bénin.

*The Republic of Benin, once known as Dahomey, is referred to throughout this book as ‘Bénin’, to distinguish it from the city of Benin in neighbouring Nigeria (the capital of the pre-colonial Kingdom of Benin), which has also achieved some notoriety as a result of teenage girls and young women being trafficked into prostitution in Italy and other European countries.

Is Inge Bongo shopping for domestic help as well?

Mike Sheil/Black Star
Pelagy and Jocelyne – Libreville, Gabon

Eight-year-old Pelagy and six-year-old Jocelyne are sisters. Pelagy was trafficked from Benin by lorry, through Nigeria and Cameroon to Gabon. Jocelyne was transported by boat. Both were being taken to work as domestics for the same family in Libreville, Gabon. While the children of the family went to school, the sisters laboured at home, washing, sewing, cooking, and cleaning. They were also forced to work outside the house to make money for their employer.

Pelagy was beaten if she didn’t sell her daily quota, and sometimes her employer tied her up. She learned to live with the physical abuse, but when she saw her younger sister being tied up and beaten it was more than she could stand. They fled to the police and are now at the Centre d’Accueil in Libreville awaiting their return journey home.

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