Chris Blattman

Little big man

Omar Bongo, longtime President of Gabon, died last month. I’ve been meaning to blog this article from The East African for some weeks.

It takes a certain genius to stay in office 42 years in Africa. Early signs suggested he had the gift.

One day Bongo, who had got a temporary job in a telegraph office in Brazzaville, noticed a telegram from a French general with instructions about which leader was going to be made to win which election.

Bongo was shocked, and leaked the information to local newspapers in Brazzaville, which feasted on the story. He was arrested and charged with revealing professional secrets, but he was acquitted because, as a temporary worker, he had not signed any secrecy clauses.

After that, Bongo used his contacts in Freemasonry to get a job in army intelligence. Once in, he donned his uniform and went to police headquarters and asked for the files on all the subversives. He found his own, slipped it under his clothes, and walked out.

“They tried to find my file,” he said with amusement, “and they never did!”

The article is cut from Nicholas Shaxson’s Poisoned Wells: The Dirty Politics of African Oil. I liked the excerpt enough to order the book. It offers one of my favorite Bongo quotes: “Africa without France is a car without a driver,” he said. “France without Africa is a car without petrol.”

Beyond Bongo, Shaxson throws light on the the dark shadow of French and American oil interests in Africa:

Elf would become de Gaulle’s strong arm in Africa — a vast offshore slush fund for channelling money secretly around the world, helping bend foreign leaders to his will, and an effective weapon against American and British companies competing with the French industrial giants.

“De Gaulle wanted a company under full state control, his secular arm in the oil world, to affirm his African policies,” a subsequent head of Elf later explained.

“Elf is not just an oil company but a parallel diplomacy to control certain African states, above all at the key moment of decolonisation. Alongside exploration and production, opaque operations were organised, to keep certain countries stable.”

Critics of China’s (dodgy) Africa resources ventures need not look long into the West’s own past to see deeds much worse.

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