In 2011, France was wracked by corruption scandals in which African leaders, from Côte d’Ivoire and Gabon in particular, passed off millions of dollars in cash to the Jacques Chirac and Dominique de Villepin. It was the flip side an earlier scandal in which the French national oil company, then called Elf Aquitaine, funneled millions of dollars per year into the coffers of Gabonese leaders. The African tail had begun to wag the French dog; some politicians called it “reverse colonization.”
And now it looks like something similar could happen under President Trump. Consider our own former colony in the Philippines. President Rodrigo Duterte has appointed Jose E.B. Antonio to be Manila’s special representative to the United States. Antonio also happens to be the CEO of Century Properties Group, which is building the Trump Tower Manila and paid the organization around $5 million for the privilege of using the Trump name. More payments are due: one Trump deal in Puerto Rico involved a 12.5% share of profits plus a 4% slice of operating revenues in addition to the up-front fee.
What happened in France was illegal. What is happening in America appears to be legal: the payments from the Philippines are not coming directly from the government.
But what happened in France had tangible effects on Africa. France continued to prop up the execrable Bongo dynasty well past its sell-by date. In 2008, for example, the French government shut down an investigation into the provenance of Omar Bongo’s Parisian real estate portfolio. In 2010, the American embassy in Cameroon reported that the Gabonese government embezzled funds from the Banque des Etats de l’Afrique Centrale — that is to say, one of the two central banks serving French West Africa — and used them to support President Nicolas Sarkozy. When Bongo’s son, Ali, won the 2016 election with a razor-thin (and clearly fraudulent) margin the country erupted into riots. Ironically, the 2011 corruption scandal made France reluctant to pressure Gabon with anything stronger than mild language: not because Gabonese oil is so important, and not because Hollande received Gabonese money, but because the public scandal itself made any French actions in Gabon appear to be a continuation of the illicit ties between the two nations.
Right now, a legal battle between President Bongo and his sister is bringing some of the looting to light and the European Parliament threatened sanctions on February 2nd. But Bongo is still there and Gabon is looking far more fragile than an oil-rich coastal statelet of 1.5 million people has any right to be.
So now in the Philippines you have Duterte running death squads and cozying up to China. Maybe no U.S. president would have been able to do much about the former (and the latter likely deserves no response). But President Trump is not even going to try. And maybe he would not have tried no matter what. But the stench of corruption lies about it. Françafrique, meet Philamerica.
And worse yet, there are other, even more depressing places involved. Wagging the dog, indeed.