Gulf of Guinea leaders buy their credibility

African leaders are funding expensive PR campaigns on foreign soil in order to ensure international support.

Chad’s president funded a billboard in Paris at a cost of almost 170,000 euros [Abdelkerim Koundougoumi/Al Jazeera]

Wandering in the most distinguished and nicest neighbourhoods of Paris, you are likely to see posters praising the positive role of Chadian President Idriss Deby, and depicting scenes of heaven on Earth.

Paradoxically, in spite of French economic interests in western and central Africa (the two first companies of the French stock exchange, Total and Areva, exploit raw materials which often come from these countries), the average Parisian citizen knows very little about their country’s former colonies in this region. There seems to be an informational glass ceiling created by the ability of a few heads of state to invest millions of euros in PR campaigns to promote the best image of their action in the country they rule.

Expensive PR campaigns

The picture above shows a poster of Idriss Deby, president of Chad, on a public service concession in Paris. The billboard was posted for three weeks, which cost 174,735 euros – enough for a positive image of the president to be ensured. But it is not certain that the advertisement will attract tourists to go visit one of the poorest countries in the world.

On November 11, 2011 the French newspaper Le Monde published two pages advertising what it described as the “free and fair” Cameroonian presidential election of October 9, 2011, which resulted in the election, for the sixth time, of Paul Biya, who has ruled the country since 1982. Frederic Meixner, International Advertising Director at Le Monde Publicite, confirmed by telephone that these two pages were paid at the rate publicly available. This would have cost 468,832 euros ($628,000) including taxes, and this price doesn’t include the possible cost of negotiations to make this publication possible.

Some French journalists, such as Pierre Haski, found the advertisement disconcerting: On October 9, 2011, Le Monde published an article denouncing the “cacophony” reigning on the day of the presidential ballot, in total contradiction with the advertisement run on November 11. Meixner explained that this was an advertisement, and thus had not been written by Le Monde‘s editorial staff. Meixner refused to reveal the name of the possible author of the advertisement, but research found the name of Stratline Communication, an agency owned by Yasmine Bahri Domon. The PR campaign of President Paul Biya during the latest election cost 5m euros and was the work of PB Com International, another French agency well known by Gulf of Guinea heads of state, and owned by Patricia Balme.

Few know that the architect of Paul Biya’s web campaign is François de La Brosse, the director of the French company ZNZ Group, and who is also Nicolas Sarkozy’s communication advisor in charge of French President’s Internet strategy. This is what Patricia Balme herself confirms in this video.

This leads us to question the relations between those whom French journalist Vincent Hugueux names the “White Sorcerers”, and the syndicate of presidents of France’s former colonial empire. Those men and women mix politics, communication agencies and journalists in the frame of the well-known “Francafrique” network (France’s sphere of influence in Africa): Justifying themselves with their deep interest in the development of Africa, they organise campaigns to ensure the international legitimacy of the continent’s presidents. This is done at the expense of real investigative journalism, and leaves small place in the political and media landscape to local activists and bloggers, who try with significantly less financial means to show the reality of the Gulf of Guinea.

Let us go back to our Cameroonian affair. It is disturbing to notice that a national newspaper like Le Monde takes part in a questionable attempt to give a positive vision of a 78-year-old politician who has reigned for 29 lackluster years. But it is even more disturbing to compare this expensive advertisement to the 500-word article describing the “cacophony” of the Cameroonian elections denounced by the opposition on October 9, 2011.

Charity begins at home

Heads of state in the Gulf of Guinea also try to promote themselves in the eyes of world public opinion by generosity. Not far from the Elysee Palace in Paris stands the headquarters of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO). Recently Ali Bongo, president of Gabon, offered to give the organisation $2m for an emergency contribution fund. Bongo was also one of the first heads of state to donate to Haiti aid efforts after its earthquake; Gabon contributed $1m. These donations garnered Bongo praise and raised his prominence on the international scene.

Teodoro Obiang Nguema, president of oil-rich Equatorial Guinea, funded the UNESCO-Obiang Nguema Mbasogo International Prize for Research in the Life Sciences. However, UNESCO suspended the award in 2010 after human rights groups and intellectuals denounced the contradiction of awarding such a prize to a man who is accused of human rights violations.

Such gifts tend to impart a blurred image of the countries concerned. Gabon, for instance, is an oil-rich republic with a small population, but nevertheless has important social and political challenges to face: According to the United Nations Development Programme, 60 per cent of the Gabonese people live on less than $2 per day. In April 2011, students of the public Omar Bongo University organised a strike to denounce their conditions of study and the fact that they hadn’t received their monthly 100 euro scholarship since July 2010. And ciivil society organisations have denounced the government’s “Free the sidewalks” operation. This campaign aims to destroy ramshackle housing built in Gabon’s capital of Libreville, but gives little notice to affected people and fails to find them new housing.

A new field to conquest

Sports seem to be the new field Gulf of Guinea leaders will exploit to gain popularity. According to the Brazilian press, $1m is the going rate to buy one’s team a match against the Brazil’s excellent national football team. Ali Bongo did so for a friendly match against Gabon’s Panthers team in Libreville on November 10, 2011. The game served to inaugurate the Sino-Gabonese Friendship Stadium, built by a Chinese company for the 2012 Africa Cup of Nations, which Gabon will co-host with Equatorial Guinea.

Obiang Nguema of Equatorial Guinea is ready to invest in this lucrative new business in terms of image. Negotiations are on-going between the local government and sports event promoter Kentaro.

The impact of these powerful levers of mass communication is real. The Internet penetration rate in the Gulf of Guinea has exponentially increased over the past few years. Chances are high that these heads of state will have to adapt their communications to doctor what their citizens will post. These countries’ propaganda forests hide trees of anger and the destitution of their people.

Julie Owono is a Cameroonian freelance journalist and international relations consultant based in Paris. She blogs at Global Voices and is the Africa Desk Cordinator at Internet Sans Frontières, a French NGO which promotes online freedom of expression.

You can follow her on Twitter @JulieOwono.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.