Gabon And Niger Coups Are A Wake-Up Call To Confront Kleptocracy In Africa
After a series of coups in West Africa, what will happen to the corrupt systems set up by past rulers — will they endure, or could reform be ahead?
PARIS — In a video captured more than 10 years ago, Cameroonian President Paul Biya can be seen surrounded by other heads of state, complaining to his peers about the so-called "ill-gotten gains" investigation in France.
He accused his opponents and the media of being behind the investigation, which stemmed from complaints that the president had embezzled public funds. He brushed off the allegations as a mere nuisance, if not the work of conspiracy theorists.
The "ill-gotten gains" case originated from a complaint filed in 2007 by non-governmental organizations in France against several African heads of state, regarding real estate properties in Paris allegedly purchased with embezzled funds.
This scene gains new significance in light of the recent coup that toppled President Ali Bongo of Gabon. The Bongo family is central to this extensive investigation launched in France into the origin of the funds that allowed several ruling families in central Africa to acquire real estate holdings in Paris.
Luxury in Paris
Personal enrichment is one of the natural attributes of power, and Central Africa is home to several leaders who were mentioned in the "ill-gotten gains" affair, and who had held power for decades. The fall of Ali Bongo may have serious repercussions among Gabon's neighbors.
The case of Equatorial Guinea, a small neighboring oil-rich country of Gabon and a member of the Franc Zone, is a prime example. In 2021, the son of Equatorial Guinean dictator, Theodorin Obiang Nguema, was ordered by the French justice system to hand over assets estimated at around €150 million, which were purchased with embezzled funds. These assets included luxury cars, jewelry, watches and a building on Avenue Foch in Paris — one of the most expensive streets in the world.
French law stipulates that the state retains the value of seized assets to eventually return it to the people of Equatorial Guinea. The regime was on the brink of breaking ties with France over this matter, even though it was initiated by NGOs, not the French government.
Two other neighbors of Gabon, Congo-Brazzaville, under the rule of Denis Sassou Nguesso for nearly 40 years, and Cameroon, led by Paul Biya for 41 years, are also mentioned in the investigations, which focus on dozens of apartments in upscale neighborhoods in Paris.
Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks to Congo President Denis Sassou Nguesso during Navy Day celebrations, July 30, 2023 in St. Petersburg, Russia.
Alexander Kazakov/Kremlin Pool/Planet Pix via ZUMA
With the fall of Bongo, the Gabonese are left to wonder at the extent of corruption. Yesterday, a video showed suitcases of cash seized from a regime dignitary.
And how can one ignore that the situation is roughly the same in other countries?
For a long time, many of the African governments involved in the affair have accused Europe of moralizing or of hypocrisy, arguing that this corruption had accomplices in Europe. But in assessing the Bongo years, how can one ignore this substantial portion of pillaged national resources?
And how can one ignore that the situation is roughly the same in other countries in the region, where power structures are similar, and sometimes interconnected? The daughter of the Congolese President was, for instance, one of the wives of Omar Bongo, the father of the overthrown president.
Two questions arise: will the new rulers merely exploit this system of plundering public funds for their benefit? And what will the people, as well as the militaries, of neighboring countries do, knowing full well that the same "kleptocracy" prevails in their own nations?
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