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USA/Gabon: Blind Eye for Corruption
Jun 30, 2011 (110630)
(Reposted from sources cited below)
The White House was brief in an official statement after the
June 9 visit of the President of Gabon. The statement concluded
by noting that "President Obama urged President Bongo Ondimba to
take bold steps to root out corruption and to reform the
judiciary and other key institutions to ensure the protection of
human rights, and he welcomed the reforms that Gabon has taken
under President Bongo Ondimba to bring more transparency and
accountability to government. Both leaders agreed to continue
to work together to promote peace and security, as well as
advance good governance in Gabon."
Journalists as well as civil society activists in Gabon,
however, saw the meeting in itself, and the ongoing good
relations between the United States and Gabon, as a signal that
reform was hardly at the top of the list in U.S. relations with
the oil-rich state which has played important diplomatic roles
in both the African Union and the United Nations. Prior to the
meeting, representatives of Gabonese civil society released an
open letter to President Obama, calling on him to live up to the
inspiring words of his speech in Ghana in 2009, and noting that
"Gabon today is trapped in a predatory and corrupt system which
steals billions of dollars in state resources."
This AfricaFocus Bulletin contains the text of that letter,
courtesy of Pambazuka News (http://www.pambazuka.org). It also
contains excerpts from an extensive 2010 report from the U.S.
Senate as one of four case studies of U.S. involvement with
funds from corruption in African countries.
For a blog summary of coverage of the visit in the United
States, see http://africasacountry.com/2011/06/15/ali-bongo-takes-america/
The brief official White House statement is at
http://tinyurl.com/6d39uco, and the response to questions by the
White House press spokesman Jay Carney is at
On protests suppressed in Gabon earlier this year, see the Feb.
17 article in Pambazuka (http://www.pambazuka.org/en/category/features/70961) and
additional coverage in Global Voices at
For previous AfricaFocus Bulletins on Gabon, see
For recent issues on illicit financial flows more generally, see
++++++++++++++++++++++end editor's note+++++++++++++++++
Gabon in ruins: A democracy devastated
Open letter to US President Barack Obama
Marc Ona Essangui
2011-06-23, Issue 536
* Translated from French by Ifeoma Morah.
Gabonese President Bongo Odimba's visit to the US from 6-9 June
has generated an outcry in Gabonese civil society. Its members
sent a letter of inquiry to President Barack Obama asking him to
take stock of a country with a democracy devastated by ruinous
governance, but also to remind him of the meaning of his speech
in Accra, which must be the basis of relations with African
Excellency, Mr President
It is in the name of the cardinal democratic values that are the
foundation of the United States of America that Gabonese civil
society comes to you as you prepare to receive Mr Ali Bongo
Odimba, President of the Republic of Gabon, in order to expose
to you, who presides over the Security Council of the United
Nations, the catastrophic situation of governance and democracy
in Gabon. Independent since 1960, Gabon suffers from two
principal pathologies which affect all segments of society.
1. The Sick State of Democratic Governance
The main characteristic of this disease lies in the state's
refusal to allow any democratic change, through the confiscation
of power by fraud; rigged elections; the results of elections
being known in advance; the housing of the electoral list in the
Ministry of Interior, where it is subject to systematic
manipulation; and trafficking of all kinds in order to maintain
a corrupt system hated by the people. Ballot results are thus
reversed in favour of the Gabonese Democratic Party (PDG), the
party-state, in power for 44 years and one of the last remnants
of political monolithism in Africa, which has been responsible
for the widespread bankruptcy and ruin of the country.
Yes, Mr President, Gabon is in ruins; democracy is devastated.
Institutions as a whole have no credibility because they are
ideologically and politically loyal to the Gabonese Democratic
Party. Their sole purpose is the survival of the regime. The
last constitutional amendment, decided upon unilaterally by the
PDG, was for the sole purpose of strengthening the unlimited
power of, and creating a life presidency for, Mr Ali Bongo. This
is a perfect example of the democratic stagnation of Gabon.
Similarly, the Constitutional Court is one of the obstacles
keeping Gabon from a real march towards democracy and the rule
of law. This institution, headed by the lovely mother of Ali
Bongo and composed of former chiefs of the ruling party, firmly
blocks democracy. She stubbornly refuses the establishment of
legal mechanisms for holding reliable, transparent and
democratic elections with the direct involvement of civil
society in all phases of democratic elections (pre-electoral,
electoral, and post-election) in the country. The Constitutional
Court has consistently opposed the introduction of biometrics in
the electoral system, whereas all political actors and the civil
society have unanimously made the providential choice in favor
We make the bitter report that the actions, methods, and
practices of the Gabonese government are contrary to
international norms and standards of democracy.
Journalists are imprisoned and threatened with death simply
because they expose corruption and anti-democratic actions and
accuse people from the government or the president's family. The
journalist Desire Ename, managing director of the weekly 'Voices
of the North', was abducted and detained by the police, an act
instrumentalised by a relative of the president, Frederik Bongo.
Thanks to the rapid mobilisation of the civil society, Desire
Ename was released.
Every day, the freedom to unionise is threatened. Trade
unionists defending their rights have been imprisoned. Some
trade unionists, members of CONASYCED, saw their salaries
suspended for several months for demanding that the government
respect the commitments made to them.
Newspapers that are heavily critical of those in power are
suspended or destroyed by agents in the service of power.
Meanwhile, the two public television channels conduct a
shameless manipulation of public opinion.
Forms of democratic expression such as peace marches are banned
or brutally suppressed by security forces, whose treatment of
the civilian population is similar to forces of occupation and
The opposition parties are also marginalised, and their
activities subject to numerous disturbances. Several members and
supporters of a dissolved opposition party were removed from the
public service or prosecuted.
As can be seen, Gabon is not a democracy. Political power is
dictatorial, based on fraud and the repression of democratic
forces, as the mechanisms used for sustaining political power
are at odds with the democratic values on which the United
States are based. It is indeed this same family which
confiscates power and diverts public funds for the sole benefit
of its small barony.
2. The Corruption of the Ruling Elite, who enrich themselves
indefinitely, and the extreme poverty of the growing population
Since the arrival of Mr Ali Bongo Odimba, many decisions to
improve the management of the state have been announced, but the
implementation of these initiatives is still pending.
Meanwhile, corruption, particularly related to public
procurement and management of revenues from extractive
industries, is affecting all segments of the Gabonese
government. The most significant example this year concerns
deals for the 2012 CAN football tournament: The companies who
have secured the largest contracts, SOCOBE and Entraco, both
belong to the president's family. Similarly, oil revenues are
completely in the hands of the president's family or relatives.
In the same trend of diversion, these rotating festivals, a true
financial drain which has absorbed more than 500 billion CFA,
have allowed various political barons and deans to shamelessly
use the state's coffers with impunity. Most recently, the
president has even built, at the taxpayer's expense, a sumptuous
building in Paris worth Euro 100 million, while Gabonese
children suffer from poor education and social inequality
continues to grow.
Additionally, audit measures undertaken by the National Audit
Office show the extent of embezzlement and economic crimes
attached to festivals in Gabon. At the institutional level, the
National Commission for the Fight Against Illicit Enrichment
lacks effectiveness, independence, and the means of action to
match its ambitions, for lack of political will. While the
barons of the regime empty the coffers of the state, poverty is
increasing by leaps and bounds. The country lacks everything.
The work of the Extractive Industries Transparency Initative
(EITI) has come to a halt and the government does not seem to
attach importance to this noble venture, whose last conciliation
report was conducted in 2006.
Mr President, as you see, Gabon is in ruins. Gabon is strongly
affected by these two conditions -- bad governance based on a
fraudulent electoral system, and the corruption of the regime.
The country was recently ranked highest among African countries
in a corruption index.
Faced with this situation, civil society denounces in the
strongest terms the intention to organise the next elections
under the current fraudulent and anti-democratic conditions. It
recommends on the one hand, the return of two rounds of voting
for all elections, and on the other hand, the establishment of
limitations for presidential mandates, the legislature, and the
constitutional bodies of the state.
Armed with this, consider your historic speech to Africa in
Accra, where you said: 'Governments that respect the will of
their people, who govern by consent and not coercion, are more
prosperous and more stable than those who do not.'
'It is not just a matter of holding elections; we must see what
happens between elections. Punishment takes many forms and too
many countries, even those that hold elections, are experiencing
problems that condemn their people to poverty.'
'Nobody wants to live in a society where the rule of law gives
way to the law of the jungle and to corruption. This is not
democracy; this is tyranny, and even if we occasionally sow an
election here and there, it is time that this style of
government disappears.' You added that 'a strong democratic
country is based on the stability of its democratic institutions
and not politicians.'
Your speech in Accra resonates in our ears and was favourably
received from those Gabonese who aspire to live in a country
freed from tyranny and corruption; a country where citizens can
express their views freely; a country that will see the advent
of reliable and democratic institutions. Gabon today is trapped
in a predatory and corrupt system which steals billions of
dollars in state resources.
Mr President, such a system should no longer prosper. You must,
on behalf of democracy and freedom, tell Mr Ali Bongo Odimba of
your opposition to the militarisation of Gabon, to the
installation of a reign of terror where the forces of the second
and third categories are deployed on the street daily, like in a
country under seige!
With this in mind, kindly send a clear message to Mr Ali Bongo
Odimba on democracy and freedom and committing to:
- Organising impartial democratic elections with the involvement
of the civil society and under the supervision of the
international community to ensure a peaceful transition to
democracy, desired by the entire population of Gabon.
- Adopt the institutional reforms proposed by the civil society
to strengthen democracy through international standards of
responsible governance specific to democratic systems.
Libreville, 8 June 2011
For Gabonese civil society:
- Ona Essangui, President of Brainforest, Goldman Environment
Prize 2009: (241) 07294140: firstname.lastname@example.org
- Georges Mpaga, Chairman of the Board of Directors Network of
Civil Society Free for Good Governance in Gabon (ROLBG): (241)
- Alain Moupopa, President of African NGO Horizons of Human
Rights: (241) 07751503
- Dieudonn? Minlama Mintogo, President of the National
Observatory of Democracy: (241) 07948719: email@example.com
- Joel Celestin Mamboundou, President of the NGO Governance
Democracy and Environmental Health (DILDOS) and TAI Network
Coordinator: (241) 07943034
Keeping Foreign Corruption Out of the United States: Four Case
United States Senate
Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations
Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs
Staff Report for
February 4, 2010 Hearing
[Short excerpts only. Full report available on the Committee
website at http://hsgac.senate.gov/public/ (click on hearings
and go to the appropriate date)]
This Report examines how politically powerful foreign officials,
their relatives, and close associates ??" referred to in
international agreements as "Politically Exposed Persons" or
PEPs ??" have used the services of U.S. professionals and
financial institutions to bring large amounts of suspect funds
into the United States to advance their interests. Using four
case histories, this Report shows how some PEPs have used U.S.
lawyers, real estate and escrow agents, lobbyists, bankers, and
even university officials, to circumvent U.S. anti-money
laundering and anticorruption safeguards. This Report also
offers recommendations to stop the abuses.
IV. Bongo Case Study: Using Lobbyist, Family, and U.S. Trust
Accounts to Bring Suspect Funds into the United States
El Hadj Omar Bongo Ondimba, the President of Gabon for 41 years
until his death in June 2009, was long suspected of having
accumulated his wealth through corruption. His eldest son, Ali
Ben Bongo, assumed the office of the President of Gabon on
October 16, 2009. For the ten years prior, he served as the
Minister of Defense in Gabon.
This case history shows how President Omar Bongo used a U.S.
lobbyist to bring over $18 million in suspect funds into the
U.S. financial system to purchase U.S.-built armored cars and to
obtain U.S. government authorization to purchase U.S.-built
C-130 aircraft to support his regime. President Omar Bongo also
brought substantial amounts of cash into the United States,
including $1 million to support his daughter, Yamilee BongoAstier,
who deposited the cash into U.S. bank accounts or safe
deposit boxes. On occasion, Ms. Bongo-Astier also used her U.S.
accounts to transact business for her father. Three different
banks, HSBC, Commerce, and J.P.Morgan Chase Bank, provided her
with banking services for several years without being aware of
her PEP status. President Ali Bongo's first wife, Inge Lynn
Collins Bongo, also kept substantial funds in the United States,
at times using a U.S. trust to open accounts that masked her
connection to the Bongo family.
Gabon. Gabon, a country on the west coast of Africa about the
size of Colorado, is the third largest oil producing state in
Africa. It has a population of over 1.4 million.
Gabon declared its independence from France in 1960, but
continues strong ties with that country and has adopted French
as its official language. According to the CIA World Fact book,
while Gabon enjoys a per capita income that is four times that
of most of sub-Saharan African nations due to its oil resources,
there is a significant disparity in incomes within the country
and a large proportion of its population remains poor. The CIA
estimated that, in 2006, Gabon's unemployment rate was 21
The U.S. State Department presents a mixed view of Gabon. On the
one hand, the State Department applauds Gabon's willingness to
work with the United States:
"Relations between the United States and Gabon are excellent. In
1987, President Omar Bongo made an official visit to Washington,
DC. In September 2002, Secretary of State Colin Powell made a
brief but historic visit to Gabon to highlight environmental
protection and conservation in the Central Africa region. This
was followed by a visit to the White House by President Omar
Bongo in May 2004.
The United States imports a considerable percentage of Gabonese
crude oil and manganese and exports heavy construction
equipment, aircraft, and machinery to Gabon. Through a modest
International Military Education and Training program, the
United States provides military training to members of the
Gabonese armed forces each year. Other bilateral assistance
includes the funding of small grants for qualified democracy and
human rights, self-help, and cultural preservation projects.
U.S. private capital has been attracted to Gabon since before
On the other hand, in its 2008 Human Rights Report, the U.S.
State Department condemns Gabon's use of torture, imprisonment,
and restrictions on free speech, as well as the country's
"widespread government corruption":
"The country's human rights record remained poor. The following
human rights problems were reported: limited ability of citizens
to change their government; use of excessive force, including
torture toward prisoners and detainees; harsh prison conditions;
arbitrary arrest and detention; an inefficient judiciary
susceptible to government influence; restrictions on the right
to privacy; restrictions on freedom of speech, press,
association, and movement; harassment of refugees; widespread
government corruption; violence and societal discrimination
against women, persons with HIV/AIDS, and noncitizen Africans;
trafficking in persons, particularly children; and forced labor
and child labor."
Bongo Family. President Omar Bongo, born Albert Bernard Bongo,
was one of 12 children from a farming family in southeast Gabon.
He joined the French Air Force, was appointed to the staff of
then Gabon President Leon Mba, and was elected Vice President of
Gabon in 1967. He assumed the office of the Presidency later
that year, when President Mba died in office from illness.
President Omar Bongo ruled the country for the next 41 years,
until his death on June 8, 2009.
Omar Bongo was elected President of Gabon six times, in
elections held in 1975, 1979, 1986, 1993, 1998, and 2005.
According to Freedomhouse in 2006:
"President Omar Bongo, already Africa's longest-serving ruler,
won another seven-year term in a flawed November 2005 election,
which was marred by a lack of competition and continuing
military influence over the electoral process. Poor fiscal
management and declining oil revenues have lowered the living
standards of many Gabonese, though new oil discoveries and
higher prices on the world market bolstered an economic
turnaround in 2005. Three decades of autocratic and corrupt rule
have made Bongo among the world's richest men, although some
money has trickled down to rural areas and contributed to higher
Ten years ago, in 1999, the Subcommittee held a hearing and
released a report which included a case history examining
President Omar Bongo's use of U.S. private banking accounts.578
Materials released by the Subcommittee showed that, from 1985 to
1999, President Omar Bongo had used accounts opened by Citibank
Private Bank in the United States to deposit, invest, and
transfer over $130 million in funds suspected to be the proceeds
of corruption. These documents showed that, in 1985, Cititrust
provided President Omar Bongo with a Bahamian shell corporation
called Tendin Investments, and Citibank Private Bank then opened
a number of bank accounts in the name of that shell corporation
as well as several accounts in Paris under the name of a second
shell corporation, Leontine, Ltd. In addition, in 1995, Citibank
Private Bank opened an account for President Omar Bongo in New
York under the name "OS," a word which was simply the title of
the account and not a corporation or other legal entity. The
documents showed that Citibank Private Bank provided President
Omar Bongo with extensive investment and banking services as
well as tens of millions of dollars in loans.
The Subcommittee released copies of a number of Citibank Private
Bank documents discussing the source of President Omar Bongo's
wealth. A 1996 client profile, for example, noted that he did
not come from a wealthy family and provided the following
explanation of President Omar Bongo's source of wealth:
"Head of State for over 25 Years - Source of Wealth/business
Background: Self-made as a result of position. Country is oil
A 1997 client profile elaborated further:
"Self-made. President of African oil producing country for 30
years. Wealth created as a result of position and connection to
French oil companies (Elf) since country is a major oil
[supplier] to France. Wealth invested in real estate locally and
in financial instruments overseas. It is believed that subject
through affiliated [entities] retains ownership in many oil
related ventures in the country which over the past 30 years
resulted in significant accumulation of wealth estimated at
Internal Citibank Private Bank emails dated April 9, 11, and 14,
1997, reported that certain "security" or "political" funds were
set aside in the Gabon budget, in the range of $111 million per
year, which were "understood to be used at the discretion of the
Presidency" and were "at the disposal of the Presidency, without
any limitation." The 1999 Report concluded: "The plain
meaning of these documents is that the private bank was
identifying Gabon government funds as a primary source of funds
in the Bongo accounts."
Over the course of the following ten years, President Omar Bongo
has continued to be the subject of corruption allegations. In
March 2007, as explained in the prior section, three nonprofit
anti-corruption organizations, Sherpa, Survie, and the
Federation of the Congolese Diaspora, filed a legal complaint
before the French Public Prosecutor alleging the ruling families
of Gabon, Equatorial Guinea, Angola, Burkina Faso, and Congo
owned millions of dollars worth of properties in France "that
could not be the fruits of their official salaries ' but would
have likely required the use of stolen public assets." The
complaint attached articles and reports with alleged information
about property and vehicles owned by the Heads of State and
their relatives, including the Bongos. The complaint alleged,
for example, that President Omar Bongo was involved in the Elf
oil corruption scandal, had private banking accounts with
millions of dollars, and multiple expensive properties in
France. According to a later legal pleading filed in the case, a
police investigation was launched in response to the complaint
in June 2007, which confirmed most of the allegations and
uncovered additional luxury properties, vehicles, and bank
accounts belonging to the cited Heads of State and their
relatives. The police allegedly confirmed, for example, that the
Bongo family owned 39 luxury properties in "the wealthiest
districts of Paris," and the President's wife bought an
automobile "paid for by direct transfers from the Gabonese
In November 2007, the police investigation was halted by the
French Public Prosecutor. Since then, additional litigation has
ensued over whether a nonprofit organization such as
Transparency International France ("TI France") has standing to
file a complaint against foreign officials and obtain an
official investigation. In October 2009, a French appeals court
ruled that TI France did not have standing to file the petition
and dismissed it.
During his tenure in office, President Omar Bongo had several
wives and is reported to have fathered over 30 children. His
eldest son, Ali Ben Bongo, born Alain Bernard Bongo, served in
various posts in the Gabon government, including ten years as
the Minister of Defense from 1999 to 2009. On August 30, 2009,
after his father's death, Ali Bongo won a contested election to
assume office as President of Gabon, with 42 percent of the vote
split among 17 candidates. Riots protesting his election
occurred in Libreville, Gabon's capital, and Port Gentil,
Gabon's second largest city. On October 16, 2009, President Ali
Bongo was sworn into office. In 1994, Ali Bongo married Inge
Lynn Collins, a U.S. citizen who is now estranged from him and
living in California. He is also married to a Gabonese citizen,
Sylvia Ajma Valentin Bongo.
President Omar Bongo's daughters include Pascaline Bongo, who
was his chief of staff, and Yamilee Bongo Astier, a Canadian
citizen who has lived at times in the United States.
[The remainder of the report includes extensive details from
bank records on large transactions by a lobbyist and by Bongo family
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