Bring an End to Françafrique

November 9th, 2010

For the first time in its history, France has admitted a lawsuit brought by an anti-corruption agency against foreign nationals for money-laundering and embezzlement within the country’s boarders.  Transparency International (TI), a Task Force member and prominent anti-corruption campaign organization, launched the suit in May of 2009.  It brings money laundering charges against three African leaders: the Republic of the Congo President Denis Sassou Nguesso, Equatorial Guinea’s Teodoro Obiang Nguema, and Gabon’s late president Omar Bongo.  TI maintains each leader has used his position of power to enrich himself with the complicity of the French government under the Françafrique policy, which lets France retain influence among its former colonies.

Obiang has controlled Equatorial Guinea since he overthrew and executed his uncle in a bloody coup d’état in 1979. Obiang rules Equatorial Guinea with an iron hand and has been called Africa’s worst dictator. He also frequently projects his ruthless ego across the state-operated radio, which has declared him a God who “can decide to kill without anyone calling him to account and without going to hell.”  Obiang has also been implicated in extensive corruption charges.  In the mid-1990s U.S. based Riggs National Bank opened 60 accounts for Obiang and his family members, helping him hide $11.5 million in assets.  More recently, watchdog organization Global Witness showed Obiang was at it again—uncovering confidential U.S. government documents showing that Obiang’s son recently purchased a $33 million private jet, a $35 million Malibu mansion, speedboats and a fleet of fast cars.

Obiang’s antics, while shocking, don’t compare to the pillaging by his now-deceased counterpart in Gabon, Omar Bongo.  Bongo died in June of last year, after 41 years of rule, which made him Africa’s longest serving President.  In the words of the Telegraph’s obituary, Bongo “treated Gabon as a self-obsessed landlord treats his private estate. He considered everything inside its borders to be his personal property and elevated corruption to a method of government.”  Like other dictators, Bongo curtailed dissent, opposition and the press.  His political strategy combined with a boom in Gabon’s lucrative oil wells ensured his prosperity; he died in his $500 million presidential palace as one of the world’s richest men.

Unlike Obiang and Bongo, Denis SassouNguesso has not flaunted his pillaging as flagrantly, though his crimes nonetheless exist.  Nguesso came to power in the Republic of the Congo through a military coup in 1979 and as such is one of Africa’s longest serving leaders.  He has proved unwilling to relinquish that control—though he lost his position in the country’s first multi-party elections in 1992, he recaptured his seat five years later in a bloody civil war that lasted only four months, but resulted in 10,000 deaths.  Upon his return to power, Sassou-Nguesso immediately suspended the constitution approved in 1992.

Though French Presdient Nicolas Sarkozy promised to end the Françafrique policy, evidence has time and again proven that the policy is still alive and kicking.  While Françafrique certainly does not exist as it once did, it nonetheless manages to integrate African dictators with the French political elite in a mutually benefiting association.  As Bongo himself frequently declared “Gabon without France is like a car with no driver. France without Gabon is like a car with no fuel.”

This policy has had heartbreaking consequences for the citizens of many African countries ruled by entrenched dictators.  It has also allowed these dictators to siphon off millions in state funds into their personal coffers.  According to the TI complaint, the Bongo family holds 70 accounts in France, while Sassou-Nguesso and his relatives hold 111.  Collectively the families hold 31 homes or buildings around Paris and an entire fleet of cars.  Along with the assets uncovered by Global Witness in the United States, Obiang’s family holds two luxury automobiles and a $44.2 million private jet in France.

For these reasons I applaud TI’s success.  And it’s not only because these men and their families deserve to be brought to justice or because the people of the Republic of Congo, Gabon, and Equatorial Guinea deserve at least an effort toward reparation.  I also applaud TI’s stride toward exposing and ending Françafrique, at a time when fifty years after the end of colonial rule, French politicians seem unable or unwilling to desert this archaic and destructive policy.

Written by Ann Hollingshead

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