Power, Accumulation and Violence in Françafrique

by Douglas Yates, Ph.D.

Posted on October 21st, 2009

Of all the fashionable terms that have proliferated in the press to describe post-colonial relations between France and Africa, none is quite so français – with a 'ç' – as the pejorative 'Françafrique.'

Ironically, the word was first coined by Félix Houphouët-Boigny of Côte d'Ivoire to express his idealization of post-colonial Franco-African relations as a happy French Commonwealth where millions of people, speaking a common language, forged with that assimilated identity a strategic cold war military alliance, co-development, and military cooperation under the aegis of France. Today the largest French-speaking population in the world lives in Africa, and these Africans, or at least their states, are still formally allied with France. French African elites still receive their higher education in France, read the French press, listen to French radio, watch French television and movies, read French books, are shaped mentally by a French world-view. For their part, the French are highly conscious of African affairs. They are the only major European power to have a specifically African policy, and to maintain permanent military bases. They have also absorbed the most Africans on European soil.

But you who have run across the term in your readings on the scandals, like most recently the charges of embezzlement implicating Gabonese, Congolese, and Equatorial Guinean heads of state, have discovered instead a vast criminal conspiracy, a global organization of embezzlement, bribery, rigged bidding on licenses, kickbacks on lucrative arms deals, crooked construction contracts, and oil concessions, non-budgetary revenues, signature bonuses, oil-backed loans, nepotism, cronyism, patronage, unlawful deposits in secret offshore bank accounts, mysterious subsidiaries and holding companies in Switzerland, obscure assets in Luxembourg and Liechtenstein, and even-more-opaque deposits in Caribbean fiscal paradises, not to mention the vast personal fortunes, family apartments, and presidential palaces overseas. The word fric is French slang for 'cash,' so Françafrique in French sounds funny, like 'dirty money.' How did this term evolve into a buzzword for grand corruption? Can it explain the recent anti-corruption law suit in Paris? And can it predict the outcome of that case? For five decades a small number of influential French actors have assisted African presidents in channeling public wealth into private property. This money was not brought into France in suitcases, but was organized by French banks, businessmen, and government officials.

Let us begin with Ivory Coast, a country where the French are much hated. No greater irony exists than the poor state of diplomatic relations between Paris and Abidjan today. Nicolas Sarkozy did not even visit the Ivory Coast on his first voyage to Africa. How did France lose the Ivory Coast? African autocrats like Houphouët-Boigny from the first generation of leaders who came to power in 1960 tended to be assimilés, French-educated-and-culturally-assimilated African elites who were hand-picked by the French as compliant collaborators. They were pro-French, and basically status quo in their outlook. This first generation of francophone African leaders signed political, economic and military cooperation accords that established for their countries a French-style constitution (unitary republic, separation of powers, rights), institutions of government (president, prime minister, national assembly, senate), political forms (political parties, two-round majority elections, public protests, union strikes), monetary and banking systems (CFA franc, BEAC, BEAO), educational systems ( baccalaureate, license), and strategic-military alliances (French military bases, permanently stationed troops), all guaranteed by France. In exchange these African collaborators were protected by France, given some role to play in international organizations dominated by France, and accumulated vast family fortunes in France. They created an island of stability. But the longer France kept them in power, the more they were corrupted.

Some may say this was not very different from the way the other colonial powers in Africa acted. The British also left behind their Westminister parliamentary systems and their Commonwealth in Africa, and assimilated large black populations in Britain, and their fortunes. Margaret Thatcher once asked Houphouët-Boigny when she was invited to a gathering of francophone African heads of state, “What is it you like so much about the French?” “Simple,” he replied. “They made us Ministers.” The moral of the story is that French cooperation was deeper.

But as the recent Paris court case reveals, governmental cooptation was only the tip of the iceberg. For African heads of state who collaborated in the pillaging of their countries amassed billions of dollars. As heads of state, they enjoy diplomatic immunity. As the source of their funds has not been proven, none have been convicted, for without direct proof they can not be convicted of a crime. Nevertheless, the presence of their vast personal fortunes in France is circumstantial evidence, and perhaps may be sufficient for civil liability. The Paris case is a test.

After having its criminal charges thrown out of court for lack of sufficient evidence, Transparency International France filed a civil complaint in French courts in December 2008 concerning the circumstances by which President Bongo had acquired vast real estate holdings in France over the past four decades. The civil complaint also included the questionable holdings of Congolese president Denis Sassou-Nguesso, and Equatorial Guinean president Obiang Nguema. This legal action followed the leaking to the media of a French police investigation which found that Bongo and his family owned 39 properties in France including, most recently, an posh $18 million villa in Paris acquired in 2008. Bongo reacted through his lawyers, denying any wrongdoing, and threatened to sue the activists for defamation. But more troubling were his arrest and detention of Gabonese transparency activists Marc Ona Essangui of Publish What You Pay (Gabon), Georges Mpaga of the Network of Independent Organizations for Good Governance, Alain Moupopa of Afrique Horizon, and Gregory Ngbwa Mintsa, who joined Transparency International’s civil action. On December 31st, Publish What You Pay's offices in Libreville were illegally sacked and searched by Gabonese authorities who seized the organization’s computers and files, thereby making it impossible for the accused to defend themselves from charges of defamation. Under Gabonese law defamation of the president is a crime, rather than a civil action, punishable by imprisonment.

February 2nd, 2009, Bruno Jacquet Ossébi, a Franco-Congolese journalist engaged in the anti-corruption struggle, died in Brazzaville at forty-four years of age, under circumstances that have still not been well explained by the authorities. Ossébi was assisting the Paris law suit attacking his president. New York-based Committee for the Protection of Journalists noted 'reticence' by the Congolese authorities to release the results of their investigation into the journalists death, underlining the 'nebulous circumstances' surrounding it. Reporters Without Borders also published an investigative report on the death which said it was 'probable' he was the victim of 'a deliberate attack.' On January 20th a fire surprised Bruno Jacquet Ossébi in his home. His companion and her two children perished in the flames, and he suffered from second degree burns. Hospitalized, he started showing signs of recovery when, on the evening before his repatriation to France (which had been organized by the Quai d’Orsay) he suddenly died.

What were the motives for his murder?

Three days before the fire that killed him and his family, Ossébi had published in the online journal Mwinda-Press an article revealing that the national oil company, PetroCongo – directed by the son of President Denis Sassou-Nguesso – had solicited a French bank to loan Congo $100 million backed by future oil production. Ossébi accused the regime of 'indebtedness by facade' and blatant disregard for the engagements it had made with the IMF not to take any more oil-backed loans. Two days before the fire, he had contacted the World Bank committee responsible for governance of such matters, and he made everyone clear about his intention to help the Paris activist-lawyers from Sherpa to get the evidence they needed. To understand the problem of oil-backed loans in the Congo, read “The Riddle of the Sphynx.” by Global Witness.

The fact that the ashes of the journalist's burned house were raked a few hours after the fire, and that the authorities did not conduct either a serious investigation nor a proper autopsy, has cast doubt upon the official cause of his death: i.e. “cardio-respiratory attack.” The official report that does not even mention the burns from which he was suffering. Several times he had been menaced, but born to a mixed Franco-Congolese couple, he believed that he would be protected by his French nationality. He was wrong.

The affair is part of a series of intimidation tactics adopted by the françafricain despots who are now facing aggressive anti-corruption campaigns run by NGO activists, opposition politicians, civil society and investigative journalists. In Libreville, Gabon, three militants, who had signed the complaint in the civil suit filed in Paris, were subsequently arrested and incarcerated for twelve days last January. In Douala, Jean-Bosco Talla, direction of the Cameroon weekly Germinal was harassed after he had contributed to a June report on corruption by the Comité catholique contre la faim et pour le développement (CCFD). Then there was the strange fire of which Benjamin Tougamani, a Congolese activist living in exile in France, was the victim. His wife had also helped to file the complaint in the Paris case. This second mysterious fire, in his house of Saint-Ay, near Orléans, took place the same day as the incident in Brazzaville. Coincidence or conspiracy? As Roman Polanski said to Jack Nicholson in the movie Chinatown: “You know what happens to people who stick their noses where they shouldn't?” “They get their noses cut!”

Nothing paints a portrait of a system better than a gathering of its key actors. The recent state funeral of Omar Bongo of Gabon offers us snapshot of Françafrique in 2009. His death had been kept a official government secret for several days until his body was flown back to Gabon, and brought to his native region, then carried out in the coffin past teary eyed supporters. His family was there, or rather, his families. The older children from his first two marriages like the dauphin Ali Ben Bongo and his half-sister Pascaline were preparing for succession. The younger children from his marriage with Edith Sassou-Nguesso like Yacine Queen and Omar Denis Junior, looked vulnerable, like future victims of a palace poisoning. Their mother and father had just died mysteriously in the same year. Although he was 73, she was only 44. Dyanstic successions are so deadly.

The presence of so many foreign presidents and other international dignitaries made this funeral a revealing family portrait of Françafrique. Seated in the audience was French President Nicholas Sarkozy. So was former-French President Jacques Chirac. Not far away was President Denis Sassou-Nguesso of Congo-Brazzavile, who in a curious twist of fate, was also Bongo's father-in-law, and the grandfather of his youngest children. Then there was Equatorial Guinean President Teodoro Obiang Nguema. (They can probably rent a smaller room for his funeral.) He had been involved in a long dispute with Bongo over two oil-rich islands on their border, and therefore was not overcome by grief. There was Chadian President Idris Déby, and President Paul Biya of Cameroon, collaborators in the giant Doba-Kribi pipeline project. Then there was François Bozizé of Central African Republic, who had been helped so much by the doyen Bongo in recent years.

Not all of the world's presidents could attend this spectacle, but sent their deepest condolences. No heads of state said, however, as they might when Mugabe dies, “It's about time!” Somehow it had been agreed upon that despite stealing most of his country's mineral revenues for forty-two years, despite leaving some seventy percent of his people below the poverty line, despite never using that money for the development of his country ... here was a good man, and we'll miss him! Even President Obama, who should have done some homework, sent his sincerest regrets.

So do you think that if this was the international consensus, anything is really going to change in the Françafrique of which he was the oldest and most visible relic? No, they did not come to bury Bongo, but to praise him.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the Op-Ed section of this website are the views of the authors of the articles and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the American Graduate School in Paris as an institution.

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