January 18, 2008 / 2:29 PM / 12 years ago

Gabon accuses France of spurning old Africa friends

By Antoine Lawson

LIBREVILLE, Jan 18 (Reuters) - Oil producer Gabon on Friday accused French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s government of arrogantly spurning France’s old African allies by saying it wanted to dismantle and reshape their past close relationship.

Gabon’s government criticised in a statement a call from Sarkozy’s secretary of state for cooperation for an end to "Francafrique", the term describing Paris’ traditionally cozy ties with veteran rulers and elites in former African colonies.

The official, Jean-Marie Bockel, said in an interview with Le Monde newspaper on Tuesday that France should move away from supporting long-ruling African leaders who did not use their countries’ resources, like oil, to the benefit of their people.

While describing Gabonese President Omar Bongo as a "longtime friend of France", Bockel said he regretted Gabon’s decision this month to briefly suspend the activities of civil society groups which criticised government use of oil income.

"Is it right that our aid should be given to countries which waste their own resources?" Bockel told Le Monde.

In an angry response, Gabon’s government said it was astonished by this "unacceptable attitude" and added France and other Western countries had long benefited from their economic ties with the central African oil producer. French company Total is the largest foreign oil producer in Gabon.

"The Gabonese government is surprised to note the following: that since Nicolas Sarkozy became leader of France we hear scornful cliches portraying African states as vulgar beggars which endlessly seek alms from France," it said.

The statement was issued after a cabinet meeting late on Thursday led by Bongo, who is currently Africa’s longest serving leader after 40 years in power. Critics say he belongs to a past generation of "Big Men" African leaders whose governments fail to live up to standards of good governance and transparency.

Bockel did not criticise Bongo’s rule directly, but referred to "bad government, wastage of public funds" and the "predation of certain leaders" in Africa.

Gabon’s government said if France felt its ties with Africa were too expensive, it was free to change this situation.

"Africa will without doubt find other partners who are more respectful of its people and of the sovereigty of its states," the Gabonese cabinet said.

This was an apparent reference to non-Western countries like China, which in recent years has courted African states with multi-billion-dollar aid, trade and investment contracts in energy, infrastructure, agriculture and transport.

Bongo has maintained friendly ties with China for more than three decades and the Asian giant is investing in a $3 billion iron ore mining venture in the central African state.

Many African governments say they prefer the no-strings-attached approach of the Chinese, who offer aid or loans not linked to demands for good governance, transparency or human rights improvements — the Western recipe for development.

Gabon said those in France calling for a break with the past in Paris’ relations with Africa should first "break with the arrogance that have often marked their links with Africa". (Writing by Pascal Fletcher; Editing by Daniel Flynn)

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