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Our Man in Libreville

(Our Man in Libreville)

Dateline Libreville, Gabon, August 30: Hours after being re-sort-of-elected, Ali Bongo is both the cause and victim of Africa’s latest coup. If you count coups-within-coups like the ones in Burkina Faso and Mali, that makes eight on the Continent in two-plus years. It begins to look like contagion. In former times, courageous citizens flooded the streets to denounce military takeovers. Now, they celebrate them.

After 56 years of this family’s control of the petroleum-rich nation, Ali Bongo did not exactly succeed his father in the latter’s 42-year reign, he rather inherited it. This seems oddly common with dictators obsessed with lavish toilets. In toiletry, Ali shows affinity with Saddam Hussein, Aleskandr Lukashenko, Petro Poroshenko, and a somewhat known American businessman. Could it be that “going to the throne” has only a single meaning for the control freaks? “Even the Tsar goes there on foot,” the Russian saying goes.

Ali Bongo won his third presidential term hours before his own military deposed him on August 30. I have no doubt the putchists came in believing they could do better. If they follow past practice, they will soon discover that “doing better” means doing better for themselves and never mind the others.

Until Gabon the contagion seemed concentrated in West Africa, which was already challenging enough. August 22 Komlan Avoulete posed the right question in these pages: “Can West Africa Survive?”

But wait, there’s more: Others are ready to pop in the neighborhood, likely in Central Africa, where fossilized regimes in Republic of Congo, Cameroon, and Equatorial Guinea could come next. Raphael Parens and Marcel Plichta make this abundantly clear in their September 11 FPRI posting. And DRC, I would add? Probably too sprawling for coherence either on behalf of the regime or against it.

It Gets Personal

Full disclosure: Nineteen years ago, I had my own run-in with Ali Bongo -- though in my defense I never met him. My ambassador in our mid-sized country went on a much-deserved vacation, and number two also was gone. So, I found myself running the shebang. I became something called Chargé d’Affaires ad interim, meaning, just keep a lid on things until I get back.

I got a communication from a U.S. firm losing equities in my part of the world. They were owners of small passenger aircraft, leased to charter companies in a system that worked pretty well for all.


“The company we’re dealing with in Gabon won’t pay their bills and won’t return our aircraft. Can you help?”

I said I would try. I knew gangsters run lots of things in the world, and that gangsters are usually smarter than I am. I realized that in this country my chances of success were about 40-60, maybe 50-50 tops. I looked forward to the challenge as a possible learning experience.

I was on good terms with the minister of transport and had his cell phone number. He always took my calls and was cordial and helpful when he did.

“I’ll look into it,” he promised.

The twenty-seater was stuck on a runway, the leasing charter company showing no sign of paying the fees or releasing the plane. I knew I wasn’t Batman but thought I might be able to find a way around this.

The owner of the charter company was Ali Bongo, at that time merely the son of his father Omar, president of Gabon. Clearly, sons of monarchs sometimes take liberties with counterparts and do not always play well with others. But we’re trained to see the best in people, and to imagine problems might have solutions. I also knew the limits of what persistence and good intentions could accomplish.

I called the minister again. “Yes, we are aware of the situation, and we’ll have it quickly resolved,” he said helpfully. I knew there could be “many a slip ‘twixt cup and lip,” but planned to pursue what I could so all could come out of this unbruised.

The plane was, shall we say, “sequestered,” with local constabulary positioned to make sure the plane did not disappear or fall into the hands of its owners. As the local saying went, “Even kola nuts can say thank you.” Meaning, get ready to pay a bribe if you want a problem solved.

The American owners of the plane had been around the block and were familiar with the financial risks of working in countries with rule of law issues. They didn’t ask for miracles, just wanted to see how they could get their plane back from a gangster who had, shall we say, stolen it. Theft is a time-tested method for increasing wealth from much to too much. It happens everywhere.

A week went by, then a second week. “How are we doing?” the American company asked me.

“The minister of transport says he has the matter in hand and will do the necessary.” I believed it when I said it.

I should mention that a few years after this contretemps Ali was magnanimous in accepting the inheritance of his oil-rich country when his father died. The father had taken power in 1967. If you were born that year, you have now exceeded your life expectancy, I just looked it up. By this I mean that he was president for a long time, forty-two years to be exact. A lifetime for some. Gabonese citizens, who never got the benefits of oil extraction in their country, understood that neither France, or the United States, nor the United Nations, nor the African Union, nor the various regional and commercial structures would make even a gesture in their favor. They looked forward to the death of their president as a possible way out. Omar obliged in 2009 but Ali turned out to be a chip off his father’s block.

Back to the tarmac. The plane sat for two, then three, then four weeks, the constabulary guarding it and (having been paid off) preventing any non-Bongo people from coming within fifty meters of it.

At one point the company worked up a James Bond type scenario, planning to send an “engineer” to inspect the aircraft and give it a routine check-up. The idea was to sneak him onto the aircraft under this ruse, then have him simply rev the engines and escape with the plane to some other airport.

No go. The constabulary well understood their task, which was to prevent anyone – anyone – from getting anywhere near the plane.

I had regular calls with the minister, who was always polite and gracious. I knew something was up when he began saying, “Oh that plane? I thought the matter had been settled.” I realized I was wasting phone calls. He was in on the deal; I should have known. To this day I don’t know how they all planned to profit from sequestering and never using an airplane, but maybe they have an answer to that.

On about the fifth week of waiting, the American company began to lose patience, and said they were thinking of sending someone across the ocean to look into this themselves. I welcomed them to try and assured them I hadn’t given up trying to help. I called the minister and a couple of times more, then the prime minister, then the airport security people. All responded with cooperative good humor.

It turns out that, like sharks, airplanes need to move around to stay alive. The owners in the United States made this point clear to me. They never became strident, but it was clear I was letting them down in trying to repatriate a stolen airplane.

On about the sixth week, they called and said, “Never mind. The plane is now useless, it’s not mechanically fit any more. We’ve just decided we’ll just walk away from the whole thing and write off our losses.”

“Write off” meant, declare the fiasco a loss for tax purposes, and hope to get some sort of benefit for negative capital gains. I’m not sure how this works legally, but if it does, I think it could qualify me for some hefty negative capital gains of my own over the years.

End of story. Nothing meriting media coverage or even much legal activity, just a reality of doing business in a part of the world where “rule of law” is only an abstraction.

The “Third Wave” Fizzles

French wags in the 1970s defined foreign aid: “Taking the money from the poor in rich countries and giving it to the rich in poor countries.”

Like Kabuki, Western governments lament, they issue strong statements, form crisis action groups, gnash teeth, write academic papers, then cash their own pay checks with our thanks. There’s a difference between Western Jeremiads and the self-absorption of overly wealthy heads of state gladly leaving their own people in misery: Westerners need not resort to corruption or feel bad about themselves. Instead of money under the table, they have contracts and a good chance of getting paid. I want to think this is really all anyone hankers for. Gangsters, by contrast, must improvise, and they do so in ways we might study and learn from.

Diplomats hired to “improve relations” are inclined toast, chat, spend lovely tropical evenings with them. That part I have never understood. Getting nowhere with white gloves and toothpicks? Possibly try another approach, like for example confrontation or genuine threats of expropriation? I never understood why these aren’t viable options.

If you were following democracy’s rise in Africa twenty years ago, the 1990s fueled optimism: The so-called “third wave” reversed the gloomy 1970s and 80s and lasted even two decades into this century. John Campbell, former U.S. Ambassador to Nigeria, wrote in 2021 that, “In 1989, two-thirds of African states were ‘not free,’ as measured by Freedom House. By 2009, two-thirds were considered ‘free’ or “partly free.’”

As early as 2021, Campbell foresaw deterioration of democracy in Africa, possibly linked to the Covid epidemic which left fertile ground for strongmen to prey on the fears of their people.

Back in 2015, public opinion survey Afrobarometer indicated that African public opinion was holding steady on being “pro-democracy.” However, growing numbers saw democracy as a mirage. A fine idea, but clearly Africa had a growing deficit of it in practice. Africans were disillusioned not so much with the idea of democracy as with their declining hopes of ever having a decent share of it. With democracy’s failures the many sham elections all over the Continent fooled no one. Why, many asked, even bother holding elections when they were too rigged to reflect public opinion? In particular their incapable and corrupt leaders took their legitimately elected positions as sinecures and to hell with others in their own countries.

Africans turned weary of these shoddy efforts to mimic Western parliamentary systems and saw them as neo-colonialist gaslighting. They look for other options, other models, but so far there aren’t any good ones. In past times, when elected leaders fell, citizens filled the streets to denounce the military. Now they do so to express their gratitude for those who promise (but seldom deliver) accountability and better governance. And to vilify Western powers -- France most of all.

A week after the recent coup in Libreville, in Defense One, Patrick Tucker noted that Russian military officers had visited Mali and Gabon shortly before the coups there. Correlation without causation? Maybe. Even if there was Roosky involvement, that could not in itself be the cause or impetus for an entire civil society to rejoice at a “democratic” overthrow Wagner and its heirs may have been able to seize opportunities of a shifting tipping point, but they alone could not have created it.

A week after Gabon’s coup August 30, a snappy and civilian-looking new prime minister, Raymond Ndong Sima, announced cheerfully that elections would take place “within two years.” BBC quoted him approving the General Brice Oligui Nguema, the country’s true leader and “transitional president” just hours after an apparent electoral victory for President Bongo.

“Two years” indeed seems to be the magic number for many coup leaders in the past 24 months. Memories fade, circumstances “demand” prolonged stays, and the country finds itself in the same fix as before, only this time with the one functioning sector of the country – the military – more established in its new position of power and control than any civilian could ever be.

ECOWAS (The Economic Community of West African States) threatens to reestablish civilian rule by force but doesn’t manage to do so. ECOWAS is mainly Nigeria, and Nigerians won’t have it, since the clashes would be with their own ethnic brothers and sisters across the border.

One searches for a scapegoat or explanation of why this would happen so frequently and now with such predictable scenarios. Indifferent and corrupt dynasties go tolerated or even emboldened by Western diplomats who toast them and praise them with faint damnation.

Judge a country not by the frequency of its elections. Judge it, rather, by Anne-Marie, the market lady at the end of the block. Every morning she sets up shop under a portable canvas for shade, with three pineapples for sale. At the end of the day, she returns home with one. Of the two others, one was sold for $1.50, the other stolen by the underpaid policeman who, coerced to steal in order to survive, did so. It was not his idea to do so, but the ruling class preferred it that way.

I don’t mean to sound bitter. To the freshly deposed Ali I say: Worthy adversary, God bless, have a long and fruitful retirement with the emoluments due to you. I hope one day we might meet and enjoy a beer and a laugh together.

Whitman is Templeton Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, and a former Foreign Service Officer. The opinions expressed here do not necessarily track with those of FPRI or with U.S. policy makers.

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