The Misuse of Oil Wealth in Gabon During 55 years of Bongo Rule
- The Bongo family resided in wealth while much of Gabon languished in poverty.
- Gabon is exceptionally prosperous, thanks to its reserves of oil and manganese.
- Unfortunately, the roads are in a dilapidated state, air travel is prohibitively expensive, and there is no passenger rail service.
The removal of Ali Bongo Ondimba marked the end of a 55-year rule by a family accused of amassing immense riches from Gabon’s significant oil reserves.
Shortly after being declared the winner of disputed elections, Bongo was abruptly ousted on August 30th.
Many viewed this as a liberation rather than a military coup.
Gabon, one of Africa’s wealthiest nations in terms of per-capita GDP, possesses abundant oil and other natural resources.
According to the World Bank, a small fraction of the 2.3 million population lives luxuriously while a third struggles below the poverty line.
Once known as “central Africa’s little emirate,” Gabon has been left in a sorry state after over half a century of Bongo rule, experts say.
Operated like a private estate
In the affluent Sabliere neighborhood of Libreville, many of the luxurious villas are owned by the extensive Bongo clan.
However, the distant suburbs lack running water, have minimal electricity, and suffer from open sewers.
Ali Bongo, aged 64, took over after the death of his father Omar in 2009, who had been in power for nearly 42 years.
“The major flaw of this regime was its inequitable distribution of wealth,” said sociologist Axel Auge.
He added that wealth was concentrated in the hands of the ruling elite and there were extensive “mismanagement” issues.
“Ali Bongo’s mistake was underestimating the economic and social frustrations of the population.”
Thierry Vircoulon, from the French Institute of International Relations, described it as a form of “family autocracy” with Gabon being “managed like the private property of a family”.
Due to the poor condition of the roads, traveling between towns is virtually impossible.
There is only one private airline that operates multiple flights at exorbitant prices.
The sole train line is often inaccessible to passengers as it is monopolized and frequently damaged by heavily loaded trains carrying manganese.
Depending on the concentration of the mineral, Gabon is either the second or third largest producer of manganese.
Manganese is primarily mined by a local subsidiary of France’s Eramet group and is used in steelmaking and batteries.
Public hospitals lack proper equipment and medicine, and the school system is in ruins. The new military rulers have identified these issues as priorities.
Gabon has failed to develop a genuine production or manufacturing sector.
Despite abundant rainfall and fertile land, the country relies heavily on imports, including fruits and vegetables.
Following independence from France in 1960, there was an oil boom, but today, according to the World Bank, “the country struggles to convert its vast natural wealth into sustainable and inclusive growth”.
Gabon has one of the highest unemployment rates in Africa, with one-fifth of the active population unemployed, rising to one-third among those under 25, as stated by the United Nations in 2020.
Under Omar Bongo, a close ally of France, Gabon played a significant role in “Francafrique” – a policy through which Paris pursued its interests through cronyism.
Transitional president General Brice Oligui Nguema announced an investigation into public works spending to uncover any irregularities or potential fraud.
Immediately after seizing power, he warned several hundred company owners to cease overcharging and accepting kickbacks in public works contracts.
In 2016, French investigators focused on properties owned by Omar Bongo’s family in France.
They suspected that several of his relatives knowingly benefited from a fraudulently acquired real estate empire worth at least €85 million.
Ten of Omar Bongo’s 54 children have been charged with concealing the misappropriation of public funds, according to a legal source in Paris.
Ali Bongo, as a sitting head of state, had immunity.
The empire includes properties in Paris and the Mediterranean resort of Nice, as well as a fleet of luxury cars.
A significant portion of the money came from “undue commissions” paid by French energy giant Elf, which is now part of TotalEnergies.
After Omar Bongo’s death, his children also acquired or inherited properties in Britain and the United States.
A small number of Gabonese people nostalgically long for the time under the elder Bongo when at least some oil revenues trickled down.
However, that source of income has since vanished.
Experts and coup leaders argue that Ali Bongo did not enjoy the same oil boon as revenues declined from 2014. They attribute this to Bongo being surrounded by “traitors” and “profiteers” while confined in an “ivory tower”.