Teodorin Nguema Obiang Mangue, the son of Equatorial Guinea’s leaders and one of the country’s vice-presidents, is under formal investigation in France for massive money-laundering. Obiang has used money plundered from his state’s oil-bolstered coffers, it is argued, to invest in Parisian property worth more than $100m, in addition to other luxuries.
Such practice is common amongst the kleptocratic political elite of Françafrique. (Whilst Equatorial Guinea was formerly a Spanish colony, it is a member of the Organisation internationale de la Francophonie (OIF) and has strong post-independence ties with Paris). Perhaps the best example from recent history is Omar Bongo, the long-serving President of Gabon.
Omar Bongo was only the second president of an independent Gabon, a former French colony. He ruled from 1967 until his death in 2009, during which time he accrued an enormous personal fortune through the embezzlement of government funds, particularly benefiting from oil revenues and profits from mineral extraction. He built-up an impressive property portfolio in Paris through his ill-gotten gains, owning at least 33 properties throughout France, in addition to a fleet of cars and luxury jets.
Throughout his rule, Bongo was unequivocally supported by the French authorities who found him a complicit accomplice in their goal to retain influence in West Africa, where most of their former colonies on the continent lie. Through showering patronage on a new generation of African leaders, turning a blind eye to their excesses (both at home and in France), and undermining opposition forces to their chosen leaders’ rules, the French managed to avoid accusations over the more distasteful elements of their colonisation, something they failed to achieve in North Africa.
Only in 2009, shortly before his death, was Bongo investigated for the questionable acquisition of his French wealth. By that time, after several spells in hospital away from Gabon, he was of little use to French politicians. Since his death, Franco-Gabonese relations have deteriorated.
Why then the change for France now? Both Obiang’s father and the President of Congo-Brazzaville face inquiries into their French estates. Perhaps the French have tired of their chosen dictators’ unpredictability. Maybe they wish to follow the American path of creating a grateful liberal democratic order, whose inclusiveness will provoke a debt of gratitude. Are they seeking to inspire a new generation of ‘honest’ West African politicians who will not be tempted by the promising advances of Chinese wealth?
Either way, Françafrique has not run its course but the stakes have changed. Ordinary Parisians have tired of living side-by-side with criminal African leaders. The presence of the likes of Obiang and Bongo is an embarrassment to a French government desperately trying to retain a sense of moral authority in the EU.
Whether their investigations amount to anything, and whether a new generation of West African leaders emerges, will have a bearing on the future of French neocolonialism.