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The Bongo System

The New York Times’ Adam Nossiter has written a terrific article about kleptocracy and corruption in Gabon (here). Here’s how his account begins:

LIBREVILLE, Gabon — In the airport duty-free store, the wine is upward of $400. The service at the fancy French restaurants in the chic Louis district is immaculate, and at the luxury hotel on the sea the call girls dress like fashion models.

The futuristic government palaces on Omar Bongo Triumphal Boulevard, with their flying-saucer and rocket-ship outcroppings, marbled interiors and expanses of plate glass, would make the pedestrian feel humble, if there were any. It is almost as if you could be in a prosperous city in Texas.

But you are in Gabon, and behind the late ruler’s palaces, which line the wide empty boulevard, are shacks and shanties stretching to the horizon, dirt roads and street vendors eking out a living selling cigarettes and imported vegetables. Most live on less than $2 a day in this little Central African country, rich in both oil and poor people. Evidence of the gulf between the haves (Mr. Bongo’s extended clan) and the have-nots (everybody else) is always just around the corner.

This is the late Mr. Bongo’s legacy: Libreville as a pop-up book representation of his regime of “ill-acquired goods,” as the French good-government activists who sued him last year call it.

The “Bongo system,” as people here refer to it — forsaking roads, schools and hospitals for the sake of Mr. Bongo’s 66 bank accounts, 183 cars, 39 luxury properties in France and grandiose government constructions in Libreville — is etched in the streets of this languid seaside capital, where he ruled for 41 years, and also in the minds of its inhabitants. . . .

In June we reported President Bongo’s death. He had ruled the country since 1967. When he died of a heart attack at 73, he was the longest-serving head of state on the African continent. A month earlier, our post C’est Magnifique! reported a French investigation into how President Bongo and two other African rulers had managed to buy numerous luxury homes in posh Paris neighborhoods and along the Riviera.

Gabon ranked 96th on the 2008 Corruption Perception Index, tied with Benin, Guatemala, Jamaica, Kiribati and Mali. On the 2008 Freedom of the Press World Ranking, it ranked a dismal 153rd.

In March we reported the civil lawsuit filed against President Bongo in Gabon by Marc Ona Essangui, a 45-year-old Gabonese anti-corruption campaigner. Ona Essangui, who’s confined to a wheelchair, claimed damages after being stopped from leaving the country four times last year, once on route to an anti-corruption conference in New York. In December 2008, he was arrested and jailed for ten days, charged with possessing a seditious document. It turned out to be an open letter to President Bongo that accused his government of mismanagement and corruption.

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