Reading the obituaries is such a delight. First, it is a relief when
you find your name not mentioned. Then, it is a joy when you find those
that are. Not that we wish to see any man’s name on the roll of the
dead; still, the final audits are always the most revealing. Here on
the back page, we admire honest scalawags…and learn from them. Thus
was our attention drawn to Mr. Omar Bongo’s exit from the mortal stage
on June 8th.
Popular government has two major parts. One part is fraud. The other is
larceny. As to the first, it is like a professional wrestling match –
full of lurid threats, spilled beer, sacred cows, gaudy uniforms and
self-delusions; the fans feel their private parts shrink when their man
loses. If he wins, they feel they are winners too. But it is the other
part, the more rational part – a balance of larceny and bribery – that
interests us today.
Serge Dassault miscalculated. One of the richest men in France, he was
stripped of his position as mayor of a Paris suburb this week. A court
found he had made cash payments to voters in Corbeil-Essones, east of
Paris, which could have influenced the outcome of a mayoral election.
We stand dumbfounded…mouths wide open…our fondest hopes for the
progress of humanity dashed to pieces. How could an experienced, well-
informed man of mature age and sound finances, have made such an
amateur’s error? He bribed the voters unfairly – that is, with his own
money – but apparently not enough of them!
Mr. Serge Dassault, meet the late Mr. Bongo. France included in its
‘mission civilisatrice’ the cultivation of various public officials
throughout Africa. Bongo was one of them.
The moment when destiny stuck her nose into Mr. Bongo’s affairs was
probably in 1964, when Mr. Bongo had gotten himself into the post of
Minister of Tourism in the government of President Mba. That year was
the one chosen by Jean-Hilaire Aubame to launch a coup against Mba’s
regime, which saw both Mba and Bongo confined together until French
troops came and bailed them out. Being locked up with the president of
a country can be good for your career; at least it was for Bongo. His
ties to Mba were strengthened by the ordeal, says the TIMES, and he was
subsequently made Vice-President, succeeding to the top post itself
when Mba’s last cartridge had been spent.
The TIMES described Bongo as “one of the world’s richest heads of
state.” The Financial Times provided details: “An indictment…listed
39 properties, mostly in the chic 16th arrondissement of Paris, nine
cars worth nearly $2 million, and 70 bank accounts.”
And so the familiar question: “how is this possible?”
Mr. Bongo’s percentage of Gabon’s output must have been substantial. He
took over the government of Gabon in 1967 at the age of 31, making him
the world’s youngest head of state. “For the next two decades,”
continues the obituary, “Bongo was able to rule Gabon almost as a
personal fiefdom. With a relatively small population and benefiting
from abundant natural resources – principally oil, but also uranium,
manganese and timber….”
The man mastered both carrot and stick. With revenue from Gabon’s
natural resources flowing into his coffers, he was able to hand out
lavish favors. “He placated students in 2000 by providing hundreds of
thousand of pounds for the purchase of the computers and books they
were demanding,” says the TIMES. He could spend his own money when it
suited him too – for he had so much of it. And when the working classes
took the streets in 1990, he had plenty of goons in uniform to beat
them with sticks.
Bongo did not suffer from the typical financing problem of modern
democracy. When you rob Peter to pay Paul, Peter gets cheesed off about
it. The next thing you know he’s voting against you or plotting a coup.
That is why it is better to bribe Paul with money Peter never earned.
And do it on a large scale. That is how Bongo won an election as
recently as 2005 with nearly 80% of the vote. Not even Obama can match
But politicians in modern, developed democracies are now bribing voters
on a breathtaking scale – protecting their bank accounts, shoring up
their houses, giving them jobs and health care. In the US alone total
US government debts, obligations and commitments now come to $112
trillion. Congressmen risk neither jail nor insurrection. Cometh the
old question; how do they get away with it?
Currently, 50% of every dollar spent comes from borrowing. This week
brought news that the developing countries – led by China – are still
adding to their positions in US Treasury bonds. The funds are spent
immediately. The payer and the payee – neither of whom vote in current
US elections – can worry about settling the debt later. What a
marvelous invention is inter-generational government debt, funded by
foreigners! Even Mr. Bongo, RIP, must have been impressed.
for Markets and Money