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Wednesday, September 2, 2009

African Billionaire's Family Surviving on U.S. Welfare

Gabonese Democratic Party candidate Ali-Ben Bongo Ondimba may have some explaining to do abroad -- and here in the United States.

While the presidential hopeful is focused on winning the Gabonese election -- he is among 3 candidates claiming victory in the Aug. 30 contest -- his estranged wife, Inge Bongo (nee Inge Collins), and their adopted children subsist on welfare in the United States.

The beautiful California native (pictured left leaving the welfare office in Riverside) told Black Voices that she still loves her husband.

Who's Zooming Who?

Bongo (pictured right in June) is the son of the late Omar Bongo, who served as president of Gabon from 1967-2009.

In 2007, Inge Bongo was seen on VH1's 'Really Rich Real Estate' shopping for a $25 million mansion in Malibu for herself and her husband. This raised a few eyebrows considering that the average Gabonese person made the equivalent of $6,670 that year.

Now, she says she has gone from high roller to living off government assistance. Yet, her husband and his second wife, Sylvia Valentin, don't seem to mind.

U.S. taxpayers, however, should, because they are footing the bill.

For the Love of Money

Bongo and Valentin are under investigation in France for corruption, and so far, $900 million in assets has been seized from the couple. Ironically, Bongo has vowed to "redistribute the proceeds of economic growth and fight corruption and fraud."

It appears that the son may have more in common with the father other than DNA. The late Omar Bongo was also under investigation for corruption.

According to BBC, in 2003, Omar Bongo was named in one of the biggest corporate trials in France involving the oil firm Elf. Allegedly, he pocketed $16.7 million from Elf in exchange for preferential treatment over U.S. and British oil firms. As a result of the trial, many former Elf executives were jailed.

Omar Bongo's name once again popped up during a 2005 investigation into fundraising appropriation on the part of lobbyist Jack Abramoff. A U.S. Senate Committee investigation revealed that Abramoff requested $9 million to arrange a meeting between Bongo and President George W. Bush. 10 months after the request, Omar Bongo and George W. Bush met in the White House's Oval Office. According to The New York Times, there has "been no evidence in the public record that Mr. Abramoff had any role in organizing the meeting or that he received any money or had a signed contract with Gabon."

Records show that the family's financial history is sketchy at the very least. At the time of Omar Bongo's death in June, the family owned more real estate in France than anyone. Meanwhile, the average Gabonese person would be lucky to own one piece of real estate.

Hood Rich, Cash Poor

Located south of Cameroon, Gabon was once a wealthy African nation due to the oil boom in the 1980s and the country's relatively low population (nearly 1.5 million people). But like many African nations, it succumbed to the temptation of foreign loans from the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Nowadays, Gabon has joined a long list of African nations experiencing foreign exploitation because of financial misappropriation and dependency on foreign aid.

On paper, Gabon may be one of the wealthiest African nations, based on its GDP, but the country imports most of its products and suffers from high inflation rates.


While the current election has been propped up as a democratic process, several thousand Gabonese protesters don't see it that way. According to the Agence France-Presse, earlier this month, thousands of demonstrators rallied against Bongo, calling for his resignation as defense minister. One demonstrator who declined to be identified, said, "We supported the father, but we don't want the son. If people don't listen to us, everything will burn."

If Bongo steals this year's presidential election, as many believe he will, he certainly will not be the first African leader to steer an election in his favor. Quieting dissent through violence, payoffs to the opposition and other sneaky-handed tactics have been used in other African countries to secure election victories.

First Wife's Tale

While Bongo is living lavish in an $800 million presidential palace, Inge and their kids (ages 22 and 10) are living like paupers.

The Los Angeles-born Mrs. Bongo is, admittedly, not a saint, but she is legally married to her husband both in the United States and in Gabon. And here in the United States, polygamy is a crime.

When Black Voices caught up with the 45-year-old former interior designer said that she did not want U.S. taxpayers to have to support her and her children, and that she simply wanted her husband to man up.

"I'm trying to feed my children," she humbly stated. "I love him. And I still support him," she said, fighting back tears. "I'm going to vote for him. For the sake of the Gabonese people, he needs to win the election. I don't want to see Gabon become another Ivory Coast."

Inge said she believes her husband will make sure he wins the election at any cost.

When they met, Inge says, she was young and naïve. The couple had their first date in 1988 and were married in 1994. At that time, she says, she was happy and had little idea what her life as the wife of an African dictator would be like.

She didn't expect for her husband to have countless mistresses, and she certainly didn't think that she would be physically assaulted (Bongo allegedly physically and emotionally abused her for years). She revealed that she almost lost her life on a number of occasions.

If Bongo wins the election, she will be the first American first lady of an African nation.

And Inge Bongo is on welfare.

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