In April, an article in Britain’s Daily Mail drew attention to a head of state who’s virtually unknown in the Western world: Ali Bongo Ondimba, President-for-Life of the small West African nation of Gabon. Bongo, wrote reporter Sebastian Shakespeare, “is Prince William’s closest ally in the fight against ivory poaching in Africa.” But now, it appeared, he could turn out to be “a source of acute embarrassment” to the prince.
Why? Because Gabonese oil minister Etienne Dieudonne was “considering levying tens of millions of dollars in tax penalties against the energy giant Shell, which has operated in the West African country since 1960.” If this taxation plan were put into effect, explained Shakespeare, it would “plunge relations with Gabon into the deep freeze” and make it “very tricky for William to continue his relationship with Bongo,” who’d previously been viewed by British diplomats “as a devoted Anglophile who was expected to seek Commonwealth membership for the former French colony.”
There was something very curious about Shakespeare’s article, and it was this: his clear implication that Bongo wasn’t already “a source of acute embarrassment” to the British prince. After all – as Shakespeare himself noted – Bongo, whose father ruled the country before him for 41 years, has “long been dogged by accusations of nepotism and money laundering.”
And that’s putting it mildly. Every year, the Bongo family – which has been described as carrying out “institutionalized pillaging of public resources” and as treating “the national treasury like its own private bank account” – skims about 25% off the top of Gabon’s massive oil revenues. The family owns 39 luxury houses and apartments in France, including a 14-bedroom, 48,ooo-square-foot, $130 million mansion on Paris’s upscale rue de l’Université that’s the most expensive residence in France.
Bongo’s French real estate, moreover, is only a small fraction of his empire. He also has a £50 million house in Mayfair, and until recently owned a Boeing 777 jet, which Paris police seized in connection with a lawsuit. This wasn’t Bongo’s first unpleasant brush with Gallic cops: in February 2013, the gendarmes raided a Bongo-owned villa in Nice in connection with a graft investigation.
There’s even more. In February 2014, the Wall Street Journal reported that the U.S. Justice and Homeland Security departments were looking into American properties linked to the Bongo family in an effort “to determine whether any assets are traceable to public corruption” in Gabon. And this spring, it emerged that Bongo and his 50-odd siblings were warring in French courts over the family fortune, and that the struggle was bringing to light new information about their wealth – and the elaborate system of institutionalized corruption that made it possible. Among the contested family assets, it turns out, are clandestine bank accounts in Monaco containing at least hundreds of millions of dollars, plus “scores of luxury villas…around the world,” not to mention “planes, boats, art and huge stakes in Gabon’s key industries.” Oh, and let’s not forget Bongo’s “vast fleet of hundreds of luxury cars including Mercedes, Maybachs and Rolls Royces.”
Meanwhile, nearly a third of Gabon’s citizens live in poverty; the average Gabonese makes $12 a day.
All this being the case (and having been widely known to be the case for several years now), it was bemusing, at first glance, to see Sebastian Shakespeare suggesting in April that Ali Bongo had now, suddenly, because of a possible plan to levy a tax, emerged as a potential embarrassment to Prince William – as if Bongo’s years of shameless, limitless rapacity weren’t already more than enough of an embarrassment.
On second thought, however, we realized that there wasn’t really anything bemusing about Shakespeare’s article. On the contrary, it reflected a way of thinking that’s very familiar in the Western world today – a way of thinking that not only takes for granted the prodigious scale of corruption by African heads of state but accepts it, with a complacent shrug, as an endemic and intractable element of life on that continent. Most of Prince William’s countrymen, we reflected, would probably react with indifference to the news that he’d teamed up with the likes of Bongo to fight ivory poaching. After all, it’s a worthy cause, isn’t it? The House of Windsor can’t change the world, can it?
No, it can’t. But what it can do, and does routinely, is to take actions that send a message. And the message that Wills is sending by working with Bongo is not a welcome one. Intentionally or not, he’s doing the tyrant a massive favor – whitewashing his crimes, lending him legitimacy, providing him with an image reboot of a sort that the world’s best PR people could only dream of. The prince should understand this, and respond by acting responsibly. And he should understanding something else, too: that Bongo’s involvement in this partnership with him is almost certainly motivated by nothing more or less than a cynical desire to get precisely such a publicity boost.
Let’s face it: could a dictator who’s plundered so wantonly from his own people, accumulating palaces while his people try to scrape by on $12 a day, truly care all that much about the fate of elephants?