‘Obama’s Man in Africa’

The ouster of the hopelessly corrupt Ali Bongo represents a particularly sharp rebuke of Obama, who groomed the Gabonese autocrat as one of his closest allies on the continent, writes Max Blumenthal.

Aug. 5, 2014: President Barack Obama, third from left, with Gabon’s President Ali Bongo Ondimba seated on his right during the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit dinner in Washington, D.C. (White House, Pete Souza)

By Max Blumenthal
The Grayzone

When a military junta arrested President Ali Bongo Ondimba on Aug. 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. 

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 during the World Economic Forum on Africa in Cape Town, South Africa, May 4-6, 2011. (World Economic Forum, Matthew Jordaan, Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

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.

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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.

The Bank of Central African States and surrounding area in Yaounde, Cameroon, 2015. (Albert Bergonzo, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0)

Yet nothing on the Bongo family’s lengthy and well-documented record of corruption seemed to bother 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 U.N. Security Council, where it functioned as a rubber stamp for U.S. 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 U.S. 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.”

March 28, 2011: Obama delivering an address in Washington, D.C., to update the American people on the situation in Libya, including the transition to NATO command and control. (National Defense University, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 2.0)

The U.S.-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 U.S. to remove Qaddafi, enabling a jihadist coalition to establish a de facto Caliphate in northeastern Mali in 2012.

[Related: How the West’s War in Libya Spurred Terrorism in 14 Countries]

“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 U.S.-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.

The Obamas and Bongo, right, watching Lionel Richie perform at the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit dinner at the White House in 2014. (White House, Pete Souza, Wikimedia Commons, Public domain)

Just a month after winning re-election in a dubious 2016 vote, Bongo was summoned back to the U.S., 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 percent vote reported in his favor on a near-100 percent 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 on Aug. 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.”

The editor-in-chief of The Grayzone, Max Blumenthal is an award-winning journalist and the author of several books, including best-selling Republican GomorrahGoliath, The Fifty One Day War, and The Management of Savagery. He has produced print articles for an array of publications, many video reports, and several documentaries, including Killing Gaza. Blumenthal founded The Grayzone in 2015 to shine a journalistic light on America’s state of perpetual war and its dangerous domestic repercussions.

This article is from The Grayzone.

The views expressed are solely those of the author and may or may not reflect those of Consortium News.

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5 comments for “‘Obama’s Man in Africa’

  1. Mike
    September 6, 2023 at 17:58

    The very forgettable EU foreign policy chief Josep Borell (?), interviewed recently about his efforts to persuade uncommitted countries in the South to support the Western line on Ukraine/Russia, smirked as he explained (paraphrased): “Diplomacy of persuasion is a combination of discussing justice and self-interest …..”.
    We all know which wins out in international diplomacy. The support for the Iraq war was achieved by bribery, threats and, in at least one case, sycophancy, – even Syria gave an ok, despite knowing it would be next.

  2. Lois Gagnon
    September 5, 2023 at 20:38

    And the ICC charges Putin with war crimes while ignoring Obama’s and his predecessor’s rampage across the Middle East and Africa. Not to mention meddling in Latin America to topple democratically elected governments. At least it’s encouraging to see the countries suffering under the boot heel of Western imperialism throwing off their shackles to create a multipolar world that if all goes according to the plans that have been publicized, will create a world where sovereignty and self determination will be respected.

  3. September 5, 2023 at 17:55

    As usual….many thanks to CN for giving relevant informed journalism a dependable venue, especially during this time of the destructive intrusion of corporate private advantage over the weakened ‘Fourth Estate’ and the informed public it is supposed?to serve.
    Also, a special thanks to Max Blumenthal and his excellent Greyzone publication for this timely reminder that the current corruption and wide-spread misfeasance still permeating our society’s political and corporate leadership deserves public understanding and corrective action.
    As Usual,

  4. September 5, 2023 at 15:23

    Obama, the villain who keeps on giving. His legacy? Libya, Syria, the Ukraine and now ….

    • J Anthony
      September 6, 2023 at 06:52

      And, as Max makes note of here, Obama is an expert at posing as a progressive reformer while in fact being a staunch enabler of imperialism and corporatism. Little wonder he was able to give Bongo and others like him advice on how to do likewise.

Comments are closed.