“We cannot assure our development on our own,” stated France’s pet dictator and Africa’s longest-serving ruler, Omar Bongo. The Gabonese leader was talking about national economic development, but he might just as well have been talking about his own personal economic development. Transparency International’s French chapter singled out Bongo, who died this month at 73 after ruling his country for 41 years, for a spectacular misappropriation of state funds. The lawsuit, lodged via civil party petition, charges Bongo, Denis Sassou Nguesso of the Congo, and Teodoro Obiang of Equatorial Guinea of acquiring vast patrimonies in France including expensive real estate, capital, villas, and cars that cannot be justified by official income.

One example is the son of Equatorial Guinea’s dictator, who owns a $1.4 million Bugatti and a $35 million Malibu mansion, all on a $4,000 monthly salary. His father, meanwhile, has siphoned over $2 billion overseas, half of it housed in Washington’s Riggs Bank under multiple bank accounts. The suit lists Bongo’s assets, and those of his relatives, as 70 bank accounts and 39 luxurious apartments in Paris and Nice. Sassou Nguesso and family’s asset sheet revealed over 110 bank accounts.

The investigation, denounced by Sassou Nguesso as “neocolonialism,” was given the go-ahead by French magistrate Francois Desset in early May — much to the dismay of France’s public prosecutor. The case could result in the restitution of state wealth as well as initiate mandatory corporate country-by-country reporting, automatic exchange of information, and public disclosure as to state revenue.

There is indeed an air of neocolonialism to the investigation, but not for the reasons Sassou Nguesso suggests. Obiang, Bongo, and Sassou Nguesso have benefited enormously from the neocolonial relationships that France and the international financial system have set up with key African countries.

A Peak at Françafrique

The portrayal of Africa’s strong-arm leaders as lone rangers obscures the system underpinning the dictatorships and delinks dictators from their primary source of sustenance. The rhetoric of French-controlled development endorsed by Bongo is a subset of France’s postcolonial Africa policy — Françafrique — designed to create structural dependence and domination by reasserting geostrategic control over natural resources through the use of black “governors.” The pulse of the Françafrique ideology fric is slang for cash — is rooted in shadow economies sustaining respectable corporations, various intersecting shadow networks, secret services, private lobbies, and political and diplomatic relationships between the official and unofficial political elite. These forces are individually and collectively able to mobilize substantial economic, political, and military support.

This web of influence is itself dependent on Africa’s ambitious but compliant dictators and their respective armies. The policy of continuity is revealed in the number of French military interventions in Africa. Between 1997 and 2002, for example, France intervened over 34 times, 26 of which were conducted outside of the UN’s umbrella. During the past five years, French military troops in Gabon, Chad, Central African Republic, Senegal, and Cote d’Ivoire have either increased or remained the same. France’s Minister of Defense admits to 10,000 specialized soldiers active on the continent (2004-07).

France meticulously devised its decolonization policy to tie the vested interests of handpicked native governors with French national interest. France drew up secretive defense agreements, which are still active today, that authorized it to legally maintain military bases in Cote d’Ivoire, Gabon, Togo, Cameroon, Djibouti, the Central African Republic, Senegal, and other countries. These bases facilitated direct French military intervention, which dictators feared could be used for them as much as against them.

Clauses contained within the agreements also ensured that France was legally entitled to be informed of and maintain priority access to natural resources including uranium, oil, and gas. African governments were forbidden from engaging in military, trade, and other forms of cooperation with nations regarded as a threat to their former colonial overlord. France signed these Military Cooperation Agreements with 27 African countries from 1960s onward.

Insurance Policy

The network of agreements with African countries represent France’s de facto insurance policy. Following the example of Félix Houphouët-Boigny — the former French civil servant, first president of Cote d’Ivoire’s from 1960 to1993 African leaders have shaped and normalized the inherited legacy of colonialism. In doing so, they have also subsequently internalized the economic, cultural, and political imperialism and cultivated an atmosphere of compliance concerning French interests in Africa.

“The cause of poverty is very simple,” said François-Xavier Verschave, former president of the French NGO Survie. “We have illegitimate governments which represent external interests. A number of these presidents are paid by Elf [the former French oil company later merged with TotalFina], for example. They serve Elf and France but not their own country. They get their medical treatment in France, their children study in France: they therefore don’t concern themselves with health and education at home.”

Dictator Gnassingbé Eyadéma, for instance, ruled Togo for nearly 40 years until his death in 2005. But the country was really run by telephone, as Jacques Foccart, France’s chief advisor for Africa and the mastermind behind the Françafrique system, made all the key decisions. “They knew my telephone numbers and I knew theirs,” Foccart stated coyly. Houphouët-Boigny, another crucial instrument, was allegedly in the habit of conversing weekly with his close friend Foccart. When asked what Foccart’s role was in French policy, de Gaulle’s deputy Prime Minister Louis Joxe stated, “nursemaiding presidents and making sure that African civil servants were paid at the end of the month.”

Known as Monsieur Africa, Foccart also handpicked, interviewed, and found satisfactory the future leader of Gabon, Omar Bongo. “Bongo has been protected by hundreds of French troops in Libreville, who sit (still today) in barracks connected to one of his palaces by underground tunnels,” says Nicholas Shaxson, author of Poisoned Wells. Gabon, the focal point of the system, is also known as Foccartland. The Elf Affair, Europe’s biggest corruption scandal since World War II, was centered in Gabon.

“Gabon’s oil industry served as a source of secret offshore financing that was made available to sections of the French élites, and for the furtherance of French interests abroad,” says Shaxson. “Congo’s oil industry was treated as an appendage of Gabon’s.”

The Corruption Connection

Resource-rich nations such as Gabon, dependent on payments from multinationals, are particularly vulnerable to corruption. Through contracts, often negotiated in secret, regimes deliver huge concessions to corporations in exchange for generous gifts. These concessions include tax holidays, low royalty rates, exemption from environmental and human rights regulations, and control of national infrastructure. As 80% of Africa’s exports are primary commodities exploited by multinationals, Africa’s political economy — largely shaped by lopsided contracts — renders states accountable only to corporations. Each year, more than $148 billion leaves Africa in capital flight, routed through offshore financial centers before ending up in secrecy jurisdictions such as Switzerland.

“At the root of it all was this strange intercontinental relationship which – of course – snaked through a whole menagerie of tax havens. This offshore source of slush funds was used notably for the secret financing of French political parties,” said Shaxson. “French companies were able to get access to the Elf System in order to source huge bribes to win overseas contracts in a range of countries from Germany to Spain to Venezuela to Taiwan.”

France doesn’t deny the existence of Françafrique. Indeed, by publicly acknowledging the system, France has neutralized, sanitized and interpreted the nature of its reality. In 2008, for example, France’s foreign aid minister Jean-Marie Bockel speech recognized the active state of the network’s political machinery when he said that he wanted “to sign the death warrant for Françafrique.”

But it doesn’t seem like Françafrique will be buried any time soon. In the early 1990s, President Chirac — who would call on Foccart to serve as his Africa hand at the age of 81 — said of Africa, “(the continent) is not yet ready for democracy.”

Now fast-forward to 2008. Last year, French President Nicholas Sarkozy sent in troops from Gabon to defend the throne of Chad’s brutal dictator Idriss Deby, a repeat of 2004’s intervention. Since the year 2000, France has stealthily engaged with Mozambique, Madagascar, Senegal, Ethiopia, Sierra Leone, Cote d’Ivoire, Congo, Liberia, and the Gulf of Guinea. Unlike the United States, though, France treads lightly, attracts little or no attention, and leaves few footprints behind.

, Foreign Policy In Focus contributor Khadija Sharife is a journalist and visiting scholar at the Center for Civil Society (CCS). She’s based in South Africa.