France loses chief ally in Africa

8th June 2009, Comments 0 comments

The end of one of France's closest relationships with an African leader comes to an end with the death of Omar Bongo Ondimba.

Paris – The death of Omar Bongo Ondimba, according to a French government source, brings to an end one of France's closest relationships with an African leader, even if the murky ties had recently become frayed.

For more than 40 years, the leader of Gabon was considered an unflinching ally in west-central Africa for a string of French presidents, from Charles de Gaulle to Socialist Francois Mitterrand and recently, Nicolas Sarkozy.

"He was the keeper of half a century of secrets about the French presence in Africa," commented journalist and Africa hand Antoine Glaser in describing Bongo, who died Sunday in Spain, according to a French government source. There was no official announcement late Sunday of Bongo's death.

"Energy deals, mercenaries, secret operations.... From the 60s to the 90s, he served to further French influence in Africa. France's headquarters as the 'gendarme' of Africa was Libreville," said Glaser.

Gabon was the first African country to host oil giant Elf in the 1960s, from where it operated as a state within a state, serving as a base for French military and espionage activities.

The trial in 2003 of former Elf chairman Loik Le Floch-Prigent revealed the extent of the corruption and shady dealings in Gabon's booming oil business under Bongo.

"Gabon without France is like a car with no driver. France without Gabon is like a car with no fuel," is how Bongo described the relationship between France and its former colony.

Africa's longest-serving ruler, Bongo came to power in 1967 with French support and with the blessing of Paris ruled over a one-party state during his 42 years in power.

The close relationship between Paris and Libreville withstood several changes in Paris and Sarkozy stopped over in the Gabonese capital on his first Africa trip after taking office in 2007 on a pledge to overhaul France's ties with the continent.

But the relationship became frayed when Sarkozy's state minister for cooperation, Jean-Marie Bockel, proclaimed he was ready to bury "Francafrique" -- referring to the old-style relationship with African states.

Bongo insisted Bockel be sacked and the minister was then ousted in a government reshuffle in March 2008 with French diplomats stressing that Sarkozy wanted to "avoid problems" with African partners.

"All African heads of state have had dealings with Bongo and owe him something," a diplomat said.

Tensions ran high after French public television ran a report on Bongo's luxury properties in France and claims by anti-corruption activists that these were acquired with embezzled state funds.

A French court decision in February to freeze Bongo's bank accounts added fuel to the fire and Bongo's government accused France of waging a "campaign to destabilise" the country.

Bongo's ruling party, the Gabonese Democratic Party, called for a review of the country's relations with France.

Sarkozy's government is also considering dismantling its 1,000-strong army base in Libreville as part of a broad shakeup of its military presence in Africa.

Perhaps one of Bongo's most telling actions was to opt for medical care in Spain instead of Paris, where his predecessor Leon M'Ba died in 1967.

Favourite to succeed him is his 50-year-old son Ali Ben Bongo.

AFP / Expatica

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