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Gabon: a Neo-Colonial Enclave of Enduring French Interest

  • Michael C. Reed (a1)
Extract

French culture, economy, and polity have long dominated the small African country of Gabon. The French control of the colonial era, which reached its nadir in the 1898–1930 period of the brutal ‘concessionary companies’, has been replaced, since independence in 1960, by an insidious rapprochement with Paris, fashioned by Gabon's leadership. A French journalist long familiar with the continent has written, ‘Gabon is an extreme case, verging on caricature, of neocolonialism ’.

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1 Péan, Pierre, Affaires africaines (Paris, 1983), p. 20. This journalist offers a scathing analysis of franco-Gabonese collusion in high places.

1 ‘Gabon: Bongo's security’, in Africa Confidential (London), 26, 30 10 1985, p. 7.

2 Lamb, David, The Africans (New York, 1984), p. 99.

3 Nevertheless, it was reported that Bongo borrowed $1.2 million from Citibank in 1979 to purchase a Beverly Hills mansion for his two daughters studying in Los Angeles at the University of California; Gabon: Bongo's worries’, in African Confidential, 21, 13 02 1980, p. 7.

4 Most experts believe that the Government's 1981 figure of 1.3 million is inflated. The population has been put at 800,000 by a recent United Nations census, and at only 645,000 according to the World Bank in 1980. See ‘Gabon: three different population figures’, in Africa Diary (New Delhi), 21, 22–8 10 1981, pp. 10707–8.

5 Michaud, Paul, ‘Gabon; dynamic television’, in West Africa (London), 3590, 1986, p. 1308; and Péan, Pierre, ‘Le Gabon à l'heure du pétrole’, in jeune Afrique (Paris), 755, 27 06 1975, p. 22.

1 See Bessis, Sophie, ‘Gabon: une crise de croissance’, in Jeune Afrique, 1094, 23 12 1981, p. 25;Doyle, Mark, ‘Daily Coffee With President Bongo’, in West Africa, 3408, 29 11 1982, pp. 3073–4; and Gabon: much ado about nothing’, in Africa Confidential, 24, 13 04 1983, pp. 78.

2 Péan, Affaires africaines, pp. 129–65, discusses Le Clan in detail. See also Gabon: French disconnection’, in Africa confidential, 23, 17 03 1982, p. 6.

1 Jackson, Robert H. and Rosberg, Carl G., Personal Rule in Black Africa: prince, prophet, autocrat, tyrant (Berkeley, 1982), pp. 143–5 and 156–9. Though their analysis of Bongo is brief and makes little use of available sources, they understand him well. Other ‘autocrats’ considered are Félix Houphouët-Boigny of Côte d'Ivoire, Ahmadou Ahidjo of Cameroun, Kamuzu Banda of Malawi, and Mobutu Sese Zeko of Zaïre.

2 Ibid. pp. 143, 156, and 159.

3 I am particularly indebted to Gardinier, David E., Historical Dictionary of Gabon (Metuchen, N.J., 1981), for the long period preceding Bongo's Presidency. See also Thompson, Virginia and Adloff, Richard, The Emerging States of French Equatorial Africa (Stanford, 1960), pp. 343–84;Ballard, John, ‘Four Equatorial States’, in Carter, Gwendolen M. (ed.), National Unity and Regionalism in Eight African States (Ithaca, 1966), pp. 321–35;Weinstein, Brian, Gabon: nation-building on the Ogooue (Cambridge, Mass., 1966);Darlington, Charles F. and Darlington, Alice B., African Betrayal (New York, 1968);Comte, Gilbert, ‘La République du Gabon: treize années d'histoire’, in Revue française d'études politiques africaines (Paris), 06 1973, pp. 3957; and M'Bokolo, Elikia, ‘French Colonial Policy in Equatorial Africa in the 1940s and 1950s’, in Prosser Gifford, and Louis, Wm Roget (eds.), The Transfer of Power in Africa: decolonization, 1940–1960 (New Haven, 1982), pp 173210.

1 See Gardinier, op. cit. for his useful discussion of the missions, education, and early political figures.

1 Although relatively little has been written about the history of twentieth-century Gabon, the nineteenth century has received considerable attention, notably by three Gabonese scholars: Ambouroue-Avaro, Joseph, Un Peuple gabonais à l'aube de la colonisation. Le Bas Ogowe au XIXe siècle (Paris, 1981);M'Bokolo, Elikia, Noirs et Blancs en Afrique Equatoriale. Les Sociétés côtières et la pénétration française (Paris, 1981); and N'Nah, Nicolas Metegue, L'Implantation coloniale au Gabon. Résistance d'un peuple (Paris, 1981). See also Birmingham, David and Phyllis, M. Martin (eds.), History of Central Africa (London, 1983);Chamberlain, Christopher, ‘Competition and Conflict: the development of the bulk export trade in Central Gabon during the nineteenth century’, Ph.D. dissertation, University of California, Los Angeles, 1977;Coquery-Vidrovitch, Catherine, Brazza et la prise de possession du Congo: la misslon de l'ouest africain (Paris, 1969);Gaulme, François, Le Pays de Cama, un ancien état côtier du Gabon et ses origines (Paris, 1983);Martin, Phyllis M., The External Trade of the Loango Coast, 1576–1870 (Oxford, 1972); and Patterson, K. David, The Northern Gabon Coast to 1875 (Oxford, 1975).

1 Gardinier, op. cit. p. 128.

2 M'Bokolo, loc. cit. p. 174.

1 For Gabon's often harsh colonial history, see Balandier, Georges, Sociologie actuelle de l'Afrique noire (Paris, 1955); Weinstein, op. cit.; Coquery-Vidrovitch, Catherine, Le Congo an temps des grandes compagnies concessionnaires, 1898–1930 (Paris, 1972); and Fernandez, James W., Bwiti: an ethnography of the religious imagination in Africa (Princeton, 1982).

2 See Weinstein, Brian, Éboué (New York, 1971), for a description of this era.

1 Péan, Affaires africaines, p. 40.

2 Comte, loc. cit. p. 41.

1 M'Bokolo, loc. cit. p. 201.

2 Gardinier, op. cit. p. 161.

3 Mbokolo, loc. cit. p. 203.

1 Ibid. p. 201.

2 Comte, loc. cit. p. 42.

3 See ‘Gabon: putsch or coup d'état?’, in Africa Report (New York), 03 1964, pp. 1215; and Gardinier, op. cit. pp. 58–61. It is reported that several hours before the coup began the Cabinet Director, Albert-Bernard Bongo, became aware of abnormal activity among the military, but apparently not even M'Ba took his warnings seriously. Comte, loc. cit. p. 45, offers this interesting note.

1 Gardinier, op. cit. pp.59–60.

2 Comte, loc. cit. p. 46.

1 Germain Mba spent some years in Europe working as a journalist until 1971, when Houphouët-Boigny persuaded Bongo that he should be forgiven. Mba was first made Gabonese Ambassador to West Germany, but while in Libreville prior to leaving for Tokyo to become Ambassador to Japan, he was mysteriously murdered (it is assumed, because his body was never found) on the night of 16 September 1971. Houphouët-Boigny was reported to be furious about Mba's death, which fuelled the controversy about Bongo's connections with Le Clan des gabonais. See ‘Gabon: l'assassinar de Germain Mba’, in Jeune Afrique, 560, 28 09 1971, p. 27; and Péan, op. cit. pp. 5–17.

2 Vieyra, Justin, ‘Quand Léon Mba s'en ira’, in Jeune Afrique, 301, 16 10 1966, p. 18.

1 Joachim, Paulin, ‘Le Président Léon Mba à Paulin Joachim: “J'ai les mains blanches et ma conscience n'a rien à se reprocher”’, in Bingo (Paris), 165, 10 1966, p. 28.

2 Jackson and Rosberg, op. cit. p. 156.

1 Joachim, Paulin, ‘Le Gabon fait peau neuve’, in Bingo, 171, 04 1967, pp. 26–7, and Gabon: coûte que coûte’, in Jeune Afrique, 651, 30 06 1973, p. 19.

2 Comte, loc. cit. p. 57.

3 Alima, Jos-Blaise, ‘Gabon: la route de fer’, in jeune Afrique, 644, 12 05 1973, p. 51, and ‘Gabon: deputés et ministres’, in Ibid. 637, 24 March 1973, p. 20.

1 ‘M. Bongo est mécontent des forces de l'Ordre et appelle ceux qui critiquent le régime gabonais des aveugles’, in Afrique nouvetle (Dakar), 1246, 24–30 06 1971, p. 7. See also ‘Institution d'un parti unique au Gabon par le President Bongo’, in Ibid. 1076, 21–7 March 1968, pp. 6–7.

2 Bernetel, Paul, ‘Foccart, est-ce fini?’, in Jeune Afrique, 733, 24 01 1975, p. 22; and ‘Gabon: Bongo seeks Bonn investment’, in Africa Diary, 12–18 March 1978, p. 8911.

3 ‘M. Bongo est mécontent’, loc. cit. p. 7; ‘Gabon: Bongo defends “Open Door” policy’, in Africa Diary, 24–30 September 1971, p. 5645; Alima, loc. cit. p. 29; and ‘Gabon; coûte que coûte’, p. 20.

1 Péan, Pierre, ‘Gabon’, in Jeune Afrique, 693, 20 04 1974, p. 6. Péan's articles were notable for their candour.

2 Le Président Bongo s'apprête aussi à nouer relations avec l'Afrique du Sud’, in Afrique nouvelle, 1134, 1–7 05 1969, p. 7.

3 See Gabon and Rhodesia’, in Africa Confidential, 16, 20 06 1975, p. 8;Gabon: violation of trade embargo on Rhodesia alleged’, in Africa Diary, 15, 23–9 07 1975, pp. 7523–4; and ‘Sanctions-Busting’, in The Economist (London), 11 03 1978, p. 64.

1 Gardinier, op. cit. p. 96.

2 Cameroonians Living in Gabon Evacuated’, in Africa Diary, 21, 13–19 08 1981, pp. 10619–20; also Cameroun-Gabon: un règlement sans tambour ni trompette’, in Jeune Afrique, 809, 9 07 1976, pp. 26–7.

3 Mounier, Frédéric, ‘Gabon-Cameroun: la guerre du football’, in Jeune Afrique, 1066, 10 06 1981, pp. 20–2.

1 The Football Fracas’, in West Africa, 3335, 29 06 1981, p. 1461–2.

2 Péan, op. cit. pp. 71–5.

3 Ibid. p. 76.

4 Gabon-Nigena: il suffit de faire le premier pas’, in Jeune Afrique, 497, 14 07 1970, p. 25; and les petits ex-Biafrais sont tous rentrés au Nigeria’, in Afrique Nouvelle, 1228, 18–24 02 1971, p. 6.

1 See ‘Gabon: Benin nationals to be expelled’, in Africa Diary, 17–23 September 1978, p. 9180; Les Victimes de Khartoum: Gabon-Bénin’, in Afrique nouvelle, 1518, 2–8 08 1978, p. 6; and Soudan, François, ‘Gabon-Bénin: la paix des ésprits’, in Jeune Afrique, 923, 13 09 1978, pp. 48–9. Péan, Afaires africaines, pp. 172–81, describes this aborted invasion.

2 Libreville, cité la plus chère du monde, lutte contre la hausse des prix au Gabon’, in Afrique nouvelle, 1191, 4–10 06 1970, p. 6.

3 Gabon: une vague de xénophobie’, in Jeune Afrique, 734, 31 01 1975, p. 25; and ‘Gabon; mobilisation contre la hausse’, in Ibid. 738, 28 February 1975, p. 27.

1 Jos-Blaise Alima, ‘Gabon: retrouver le paradis perdu’, in Ibid. 936, 13 December 1978, pp. 77–8.

2 Péan, Affaires africaines, p. 21.

3 Ibid. p. 40.

1 Ibid. pp. 35–6.

2 France: SAC and Gabon', in Africa Confidential, 22, 2 09 1981, p. 8.

3 Ibid. 17 March 1982, p. 6.

4 Crozier, Brian, De Gaulle (New York, 1973), pp. 595–6.

1 Péan, Afaires africaines, p. 20.

2 Bernetel, loc. cit. pp. 20–1.

3 Africa Confidential, 13 February 1980, p. 7.

4 Soudan, François, ‘Les Éspions français en Afrique’, in Jeune Afrique, 1112, 28 04 1982, p. 24.

1 Guetny, Jean-Paul, ‘Gabon/France: réalisme oblige’, in Jeune Afrique, 1211, 21 03 1984, p. 33.

1 Gautrand, Jacques, ‘Gabon-France; la méprise’, in Jeune Afrique économie (Paris), 28, 8 12 1983, pp. 1516; and Lane, Charles, ‘American Baksheesh’, in The New Republic (Washington, D.C.), 1 09 1986, p. 16. In April 1984 the author of this JMAS article was told by a consultant for Tenneco in Libreville that it was standard procedure for foreign companies desiring to do business in Gabon to first make sizeable pay-offs to approprsate ministers.

2 Diallo, Siradiou, ‘Gabon/France: une crise de plus?’, in Jeune Afrique, 1196, 7 12 1983, pp. 41 and 43.

3 Africa Confidential, 30 October 1985.

1 Africa Confidential, 13 April 1983, pp. 7–8.

2 Diallo, Siradiou, ‘Mitterrand, a-t-il besoin de Bongo?’, in Jeune Afrique, 1090, 25 11 1981, p. 35; and Africa Confidential, 17 March 1982, p. 5.

3 Bessis, loc. cit. p. 25.

1 Gabon: Bongo's woes’, in Africa Confidential, 23, 28 04 1982, PP. 78.

2 Doyle, loc. cit. p. 3073.

3 ‘Stamping out Opposition in Gabon’, in West Africa, 6 December 1982, p. 3124.

4 ‘Gabon: Bongo's security’, op. cit. p. 6; and Cornevin, Robert and Mulvey, Rosamund, ‘Gabon: recent history’, in Africa South of the Sahara, 1987 (London, 1986), p. 8.

5 Gabon: amnesty granted’, in West Africa, 3618, 12 01 1987, p. 91.

6 Diallo, Siradiou, ‘Bongo parle à coeur ouvert’, in Jeune Afrique, 1353, 10 12 1986, P. 14. In fact, most chefs de village were non-hereditary leaders whose often fleeting power depended upon personal skills, charismatic oratory, and the fickle consensus of a council of elders. Such a society could be ‘democratic’ to the point of ineffectualness. Bongo's intepretation of tradition's precedents is not bound by mere facts.

1 Ibid. p. 20.

2 Gabon: Bongo to China’, in West Africa, 3623, 16 02 1987, p. 341.

3 Soudan, François, ‘Omar Bongo: le Tchad, Israël, la France et moi’, in Jeune Afrique, 1310, 12 02 1986, p. 42.

1 Diallo, Siradiou, ‘Bongo pane à coeur ouvert’, pp. 18–20.

2 Schissel, Howard, ‘Gabon: the ups and downs of an open economy’, in West Africa, 3504, 15 10 1984, p. 2078;Hackett, Paul, ‘Gabon: economy’, in Africa South of the Sahara, 1987 (London, 1986), p. 452; and Trail, Susan, ‘Boosting New Export Earners’, in West Africa, 3548, 6 08 1985, p. 1748.

3 Diallo, Siradiou, ‘Gabon: la baisse du pétrole menace l'économie’, in Jeune Afrique, 1316, 26 03 1986, p. 39; ‘Gabon: bid to find more oil’, in Africa Confidential, 12–18 November 1985, p. 12520; and Trail, loc. cit. pp. 1748–9.

4 Gabon: CFA 360 bn budget set’, in West Africa, 3618, 12 01 1987, pp. 91–2.

5 Schissel, loc. cit. p. 2078.

6 Trail, loc. cit. p. 1748.

1 Schissel, loc. cit. p. 2078.

2 Trail, loc. cit. P. 1749.

3 Schissel, Howard, ‘Gabon money in trees’, in West Africa, 3512, 10 12 1984, pp. 2516–17.

4 ‘Gabon’, in The Economist Quartery Economic Review. Congo, Gabon, and Equaiorial-Guinea (London, 1985), pp. 3940.

5 Hackett, op. cit. p. 449.

1 Pourtier, Roland, ‘La Crise de l'agriculture dans un état minier: le Gabon’, in Études rurales (Paris), 77, 0103 1980, pp. 44–5.

2 Ibid. p. 45.

3 Misser, François, ‘Risk— the Game of International Investment’, in African Business (London), 11 1986, pp. 57 and 59. The ‘Nord-Sud Export Consultants’ used the following seven-point scale for risks: 7, similar to western industrial countries; 6, very low; 5, moderate; 4, rather high; 3, very high; 2, dangerous; I, prohibitive.

4 In the category of ‘financial risk’, Cameroun with 4·5 was the best bet, while Gabon, South Africa, Kenya, and Zimbabwe were next, scoring 3·5. As regards ‘Business Environment Risk’, Gabon, Côte d'Ivoire, and South Africa were the most favoured, each scoring. In the critical category, ‘Risk of Expropriation and Nationalisation’, Gabon was, once again, the ‘best’, scoring 4·6, just above Côte d'Ivoire. Misser, loc. cit. pp. 57 and 59.

5 Although Bongo prefers to deal with the French droite, even l'extrême-droite– the French newspaper, Le Canard enchainé revealed that Jean-Marie Le Pen had solicited electoral funds — he burns no bridges, and has long maintained close relations with the socialists. See ‘Gabon: money for taking’, in Africa Confidential, 26, 12, 1985, pp. 78.

1 Remde, Achim, ‘The TransGabonais is Born’, in New African, February 1987, p. 36.

2 For the second stage of construction, the financial involvement of the member-nations of the consortium was as follows: France, 39·5%; U.K., 22%; West Germany, 16·8%; Italy, 12·1%; Belgium and the Netherlands, 4·8% each. See Perry, Alison, ‘Gabon: coming of the railway’, in West Africa, 3621, 2 02 1987, p. 197.

3 Remde, loc. cit. p. 36; Gabon: birthday present’, in Africa Confidential, 28, 2, 21 01 1987, p. 8; and Murray, Roger, ‘Dynamic Projects Keep on Course’, in African Business, June 1986, pp. 45 and 47.

4 Perry, loc. cit. pp. 198–9.

5 Schissel, Howard, ‘Gabon: the economic outlook’, in Africa Report, January–February 1985, p. 28.

1 ‘Gabon: birthday present’, loc. cit. p. 8; and Coup de colére d'Omar Bongo’, in Jeune Afrique, 1333, 23 07 1986, p. 23.

2 ‘Gabon: looting follows Bongo's speech’, in Africa Diaiy, 4–10 June 1985, pp. 12336–7. See also, ‘Gabon: les étrangers de Bongo’, in Afrique nouvelle, 1857, 6–12 02 1985, pp. 4 and 7; and Kpatindé, Francis, ‘Au Gabon on ferme la petite porte’, in Jeune Afrique, 1332, 16 07 1986, pp. 30–1.

3 Africa Diary, pp. 12336–7.

4 ‘Gabon: les étrangers de Bongo’, p. 4. It has been estimated that there were perhaps several dozen foreign prostitutes in Libreville, most of them from Cameroun and Equatorial Guinea.

1 Kpatindé, loc. cit. p. 30.

2 Jeune Afrique, 16 July 1986, p. 7.

3 Armah, Ayi Kwei, ‘Africa and the Francophone Dream’, in West Africa, 3582, 28 04 1986, p. 884.

1 Ibid. pp. 884–5.

* The author undertook fieldwork in Gabon during 1983–5, including one year in the small town of Ndjolé, a capitale départementale with a population of 3,000–4,000.

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