President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama with Ali Bongo Ondimba, President of Gabon in the Blue Room during a U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit dinner at the White House, Aug. 5, 2014.
Before his removal in a military coup, Gabon’s hopelessly corrupt President Ali Bongo was courted by Obama and feted from Washington to Davos. The US war on Libya which destabilized the region may not have succeeded without him.
When a military junta arrested President Ali Bongo Ondimba on August 30, Gabon became the ninth African nation to depose its government through a military coup. As citizens of Niger, Burkina Faso and Mali did before them, crowds of Gabonese poured into the streets to celebrate the removal of a Western-backed leader whose family flaunted its lavish lifestyle while more than a third of the country’s population languished in destitution.
“Irresponsible and unpredictable governance has led to a steady deterioration in social cohesion, threatening to drive the country into chaos,” a leader of Gabon’s junta, Col. Ulrich Manfoumbi, declared upon seizing power.
⚡️🇬🇦Hundreds sing and celebrate in apparent support of coup as they take to streets after Gabonese military ousts incumbent pro-French Prez Ali Bongo.
As of now, Rothschild-funded mining company has suspended operations in Gabon and internet services are reported to have been… pic.twitter.com/8EWzapbpuj
— Angelo Giuliano (@Angelo4justice3) August 30, 2023
President Bongo’s arrest was met with indignant condemnations from Washington and Paris, which had propped him up as he pillaged his country’s vast oil wealth. His ouster represented a particularly sharp rebuke of former President Barack Obama, who groomed the Gabonese autocrat as one of his closest allies on the continent, and leaned on him for diplomatic support as he waged a war on Libya that unleashed terror and instability across the region.
So close was the bond between Obama and Bongo that Foreign Policy branded the Gabonese leader, “Obama’s Man in Africa.”
With Obama’s help, Bongo attempted to fashion himself as a reformist modernizer. He traveled repeatedly to Davos, Switzerland to attend the World Economic Forum, where was appointed an “Agenda Contributor.” There, he pledged to accelerate the Fouth Industrial Revolution in Africa by implementing lucrative digital identification and payment systems among his country’s heavily impoverished population.
Bongo’s bio on the WEF website lists him as a “spokesperson for Africa on biodiversity” and “composer of musical pieces” whose interests include “history, football, classical music, jazz and bossa nova.” The self-styled renaissance man managed to hit it off with Obama, kibitz with Klaus Schwab, and press the flesh with Bill Gates. But at home, he found few friends among the struggling Gabonese masses.
A “global citizen” meets his fate at home
Ali Bongo rose to power as the son of the late Gabonese autocrat Omar Bongo Odinmba, who ruled the country from 1967 to his death. In 2004, a year after discussing a $9 million image-washing deal with disgraced Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff, Bongo secured a meeting with President George W. Bush. When he died five years later, he left behind a $500 million presidential palace, over a dozen luxurious homes from Paris to Beverly Hills, and a country overrun with inequality.
Following a brief stint as a disco artist, Bongo studied at France’s Sorbonne and prepared to lead his nation. When he was installed as president in 2009, he picked up where his father left off, pillaging public funds to pay for a Boeing 777 airliner and a fleet of luxury cars while signing hefty contracts with international PR firms. Bongo’s sister, Pascaline, blew over $50 million on jetset vacations and expensive homes, according to a lawsuit, while her family cultivated influence in Paris by siphoning funds stolen from the Bank of Central African States into the campaign coffers of former French Presidents Nicolas Sarkozy and Jacques Chirac.
Yet nothing on the Bongo family’s lengthy and well-documented record of corruption seemed to bother President Barack Obama when he embarked on a regime change operation in Libya ironically justified as an exercise in “democracy promotion.” With Washington’s help, Gabon was rotated into the UN Security Council, where it functioned as a rubber stamp for US resolutions demanding sanctions and a No Fly Zone on Libya in February 2011.
Bongo’s cooperative spirit earned him a visit with Obama in Washington four months later. There, while staying at the president’s personal residence, he became the first African leader to call for Qaddafi to give up power.
“They could call any African leader with private cell numbers,” then US Ambassador to Gabon Eric Benjaminson remarked to Foreign Policy, referring to Bongo’s staff. “They knew Qaddafi and they knew his chief of staff very well, and we were trying to work through the Gabonese to get Qaddafi to step down without military action.”
Benjaminson added, “Obama sort of liked him.”
The US-led regime change war on Libya swiftly transformed the previously stable, prosperous nation into a despotic hellscape ruled by Al Qaeda-affiliated and ISIS warlords. With virtually unlimited access to the former arms depots of the Libyan military, jihadist gangs began to rampage across the Sahel region. Covert assistance for their onslaught arrived from Qatar, the Gulf monarchy which partnered with France and the US to remove Qaddafi, enabling a jihadist coalition to establish a de facto Caliphate in northeastern Mali in 2012.
“The violence that has plagued once-stable Mali since late 2011 should have come as no surprise to Western governments, for it is a direct function of NATO’s Libyan intervention,” the Council on Foreign Relations noted.
Despite the growing French and US military presence – or perhaps because of it – jihadist attacks were multiplying across the region in 2014. That August, Obama rewarded Bongo with an invitation to attend his US-Africa Leaders Summit in Washington. During the summit’s gala dinner, Obama emphasized Bongo’s pivotal role in his Africa strategy by sitting beside him as they were regaled by pop legend Lionel Richie.
Just a month after winning re-election in a dubious 2016 vote, Bongo was summoned back to the US, this time by the notoriously shady, NATO-sponsored Atlantic Council to receive a “Global Citizen Award” at the think tank’s black tie gala in New York City. But as questions persisted back home about the rigging of Gabon’s election, including a 95% vote reported in his favor on a near-100% turnout in one area, he was forced to cancel the trip.
“The Atlantic Council respects Gabonese President Bongo’s decision to forego receiving his Global Citizen Award this year due to the overriding priorities he has in his country,” the think tank announced in an absurdly canned statement published on its website.
Meanwhile, in the Malian capital of Bamako, a group of citizens calling themselves “Patriots of Mali” had begun gathering millions of signatures demanding the removal of all French diplomatic and military personnel from their country. They called on Russian troops to replace the French, urging them to drive out the Islamist bandits that had plagued their society since the Obama-led war on Libya.
The simmering anger of average Malians ignited a popular military coup in 2021, and set the stage for another one in the neighboring Burkina Faso the following year, where citizens were seen celebrating the junta with homemade Russian flags in hand.
When the putsches engulfed Gabon’s government this August 30, ending the reign of one of Washington’s favorite kleptocrats, Bongo recorded a video message from an unknown location, desperately appealing to “all the friends we have all over the world to tell them to make noise.”
By that point, however, it was unclear whether Obama was listening, or if there was much he could do to bail out his “man in Africa.”