The Enrichment of Africa's French Allies

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French President Nicolas Sarkozy (L) stands with his Congolese counterpart Denis Sassou-Nguesso (R) at the beginning of a state dinner at the presidential palace in Brazzaville on March 26, 2009.

President Nicolas Sarkozy may have promised on the campaign trail to clean up the less than savory relationship France maintains with various strongman leaders in its former African colonies, but that's proved to be easier said than done. So, France's judiciary is looking to step in where diplomats have been leery to tread, by filing corruption charges against three African heads of state.

This week, France's senior investigating magistrate, Françoise Desset, ruled that a case brought by the anticorruption organization Transparency International against three African leaders had sufficient merit to warrant a full judicial investigation. The complaint accuses the trio — Gabon's President Omar Bongo, President Denis Sassou-Nguesso of the Republic of Congo, and Equatorial Guinea leader Teodoro Obiang Nguema — of pillaging their impoverished nations and treating state money as their personal wealth to finance acquisitions in France. The ruling means Desset can use her judicial authority to examine banking and other records to determine the origins of funds maintained by the three in France, and used to buy property here. (See pictures of the Pope in Africa.)

All three leaders fit the stereotype of the African "Big Man," having seized and maintained power by force. Each one, Transparency International alleges, has also used his position to enrich himself. That, French foreign-policy specialists say, has been done with the complicity and connivance of successive French governments maintaining the traditional Françafrique policy of retaining influence among former colonies. French lawyers for each of the leaders have flatly refuted the allegations. In Gabon — where Bongo is in temporary seclusion to mourn the death of his wife — government spokesman Alain Akouala Atipault assured that "there's nothing concrete in this affair, and there will be nothing legally concrete." Though French officials initially refused to comment on Desset's ruling, Paris prosecutor, Jean-Claude Marin, announced Thursday he had appealed her decision to investigate the claim.

"Françafrique is a Gaullist creation that integrated leaders from France's African sphere as virtual members of the French political and strategic élite," explains Antoine Glaser, a specialist on Franco-African relations, and author of the recent book Sarko in Africa. "That relationship has been based on French recognition of services rendered, and meant the interests of African leaders and their families that make up the first circle of power have come before the actual populations they're supposed to represent."

France's coddling, critics have long complained, has allowed its client regimes in Africa to quash political opposition, shackle democracy and siphon off untold fortunes from the national coffers for their personal use — even donations to French political parties of all stripes. According to the Transparency International complaint that Desset has decided to investigate, the Bongo and Sassou-Nguesso families hold 70 and 111 bank accounts in France respectively, and own a total of 31 pricey homes or buildings in and around Paris. They also boast entire fleets of cars in France. Listed in the Obiang Nguema family's holdings are two luxury automobiles and a $44.2 million private jet (though the Equatorial Guinean first family has snubbed Paris' real estate market in favor of a $45 million property in Malibu).

What's wrong with that? Nothing, according to Sassou-Nguesso — who publicly pooh-poohed a 2007 French corruption complaint against him, noting that "leaders from around the world have châteaux and palaces in France, whether they're from the Gulf, Europe, or Africa." (See pictures of South Africa.)

But where the previous investigation failed, Desset has chosen to officially investigate the embezzlement charges raised by Transparency International — and braved the anticipated appeal by France's top prosecutor against the investigation. Indeed, if the investigation makes it all the way to court, some observers say it could be the first blow that eventually brings the understandings of Françafrique crashing down.

"No matter the merits and competencies of these leaders," Transparency's lawyer William Bourdon ironically noted, "no one can seriously believe that their holdings could have been obtained as the fruit of their labor alone."

Still, the African leaders under investigation in France aren't quaking just yet. Aware that the Paris prosecutor's office twice previously rejected Transparency's request as legally unfounded, they were among the many expecting that Desset's decision to investigate would be appealed. Many observers note that the prosecutor's office is filled by officials appointed by politicians that may be reluctant to see Paris' relations with African leaders aired. Some of France's less-than-savory clients in Africa have previously threatened to bring down political heavyweights in Paris who also benefited from Françafrique if the situation were to change to their disadvantage.

Still, Glaser believes the case may eventually be allowed to proceed once efforts to stop it have been rebuffed by the courts. That would allow Sarkozy plausible deniability before vulnerable African allies, yet help him to jettison Françafrique policies that he has tried to end as promised, but was instead forced to fall back on in crisis situations.

"When France moved to save Chad's government from surging rebels, its forces came in from Gabon — just one example of how Sarkozy found himself chained to the realities of old Françafrique," says Glaser. "But France no longer has the money, forces, or desire to pay the price to be able to act unilaterally in Africa. Meanwhile, I think Sarkozy sees Françafrique is dying whether people like it or not. This legal case suggests he's not the only one recognizing that, and turned to a new order of affairs."

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