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Opinion: Hints of light in a not-so-dark continent
But a telling drama just played out in Gabon, a slice of coast and forest in the West African armpit where Albert Schweitzer ran his legendary hospital.
In 1966, France picked an ex-postal clerk named Albert Bongo to be “elected” president. Albert became Omar in 1973 when he needed Muammar Khadafy’s help to explore for oil.
He was president for 42 years, a mean little man who amassed billions no one can find to count and built an $800 million palace, perhaps the showiest in Africa.
Bongo owned 45 properties, more or less, in France. His toys included a $1.5 million Bugatti, although beyond the capital’s freeways the country has few paved roads.
Many of Gabon’s 1.5 million are no better off than in Schweitzer’s time. Three-fourths fall below the poverty line. Some survive by picking through the garbage of 12,000 French expatriates.
Not long ago in Libreville, I snapped a picture of Bongo’s palace. Soldiers rushed out and hauled me in through an unmarked back door.
Just inside, I found a Frenchman in a white kepi, an officer in the Foreign Legion, which runs what counts in Gabon. His amused shrug was clear: You’re on your own, pal.
They let me go a few hours later, and no one beat me. Bongo liked to be known as benevolent.
Bongo had a genius for working the French power structure: a mix of sucking up, leveraging connections, and giving key Frenchmen a generous taste of Gabon’s resources.
Elf, later acquired by Total, dominated oil production despite continuing scandal. French companies extracted uranium and timber from rich hardwood forests.
Earlier on, Bongo spotted Nicolas Sarkozy as an up and comer, and then widened his network when his cultivated friend got to be president.
Recently, Transparency International started court action to investigate Bongo along with the dictators of Congo-Brazzaville and Equatorial Guinea.
French officials tried to stonewall, but TI kept pushing. Bongo was furious. Terminally ill, he went to Barcelona, not Paris, voicing bitter recrimination at how his beloved adopted fatherland stabbed him in the back.
Many of Bongo’s French connections went to his funeral, but the crocodile tears were not too convincing.
Gabon is just an example of changing times.