Monday, March 15, 2010

Freemasonry's African Image Problem

Several months back, I was surprised that the book Freemasons For Dummies had caused problems for the Prime Minister of Senegal when he was caught reading it on an airplane. His past Masonic membership was dragged through the press as a pejorative. I figured it was just standard Masonophobic hysteria. But the image problem of Freemasonry in Africa among its leaders goes far deeper and is much more troubled than the rest of the Masonic world may know.

On May 9th, 1781, the first French Masonic lodge in Africa was chartered, Respectable Loge Saint-Jacques, at Saint-Louis in Sénégal. More followed as the French colonized Africa in Morocco, Tunisia, Madagascar, Guinea, and Congo. Depending on the country these days, Freemasonry is often vilified for its shady influence and connections in government. In the U.S., we generally don't see these stories, much less understand the hysteria. But there are reasons for such concerns elsewhere. Most of it has to do with the delicate back room political deals and dances between the French government, French corporations, and France's former African colonies.

In the former Republic of Congo, now called Congo-Brazzaville, former president Pascal Lissouba was overthrown in a civil war in 1992 and just tried last year in absentia for corruption and treason. The man who overthrew him, Denis Sassou Nguesso (right), has been implicated in the 1999 disappearance of 353 Congolese refugees, an embezzlement scheme to buy real estate in France, and accepting hundreds of millions in Euros for the French oil company, Elf. Both are Masons.

So are Gabon's recently deceased leader Omar Bongo, and his son Ali, who succeeded him as president. Gabon has the world's fifth largest supply of uranium, along with massive oil and mineral deposits, and has been in the hip pocket of France since declaring its "independence" in 1960. A US investigation in the 1990s estimated that Omar was one of the wealthiest heads of state in the world—an estimated personal worth of between US$2 to $4 billion—with most of his pelf coming from payoffs from oil companies (again, mostly from French oil giant Elf, which paid Bongo almost US$80 million a year through a Swiss bank account). It was common for him to arrive in New York with suitcases of cash. In 2008, he owned 33 properties in France, including a US$30 million mansion in Paris. Gabon's oil reserves also allowed him to spend lavishly at the official level, with an US$800 million presidential palace back home in Gabon.

In addition to the presidency he inherited from his father, Ali (left) succeeded Omar as Grand Master, paradoxically, of both the Grand Lodge of Gabon (GLB) and the Grand Equatorial Rite, the two predominant Masonic orders in Gabon. (The GLB is affiliated with the GLNF, and the GER is allied with the more left-wing Grand Orient of France). He was installed in these positions by Francois Stifani, the Grand Master of the National Grand Lodge of France (GLNF), the GL recognized by most English-speaking Freemasonry, and Alain Bauer, Past Grand Master of the Grand Orient of France, (and special adviser for terrorism and crime in the French presidential cabinet). Almost the entire Gabonese ruling political class belongs to one or the other.

According to an article in Afrik.com from last November:

Having gone through a difficult election, the neophyte President (Ali Bongo) needs the "fraternal" networking machine to help consolidate his authority. The strategy was developed and successfully applied by his father, the late Omar Bongo. Omar established the Masonic order as an ante-chamber to serve as a recruitment unit for his key allies, and also as an infallible source of allegiance to consolidate his power.


François Bozizé seized power in 2003 in Central African Republic, after several coup attempts going back to 1991. He has served as president, but has also held the office of Minister of National Defense ever since coming to power. Idriss Déby (right), the president of Chad, has also been under scrutiny for years. In October 2006, Chad topped Forbes magazine's list of the world's most corrupt nations for "what may turn out to be the single most piggish use of philanthropic funds". Proceeds from a project, funded in part by the World Bank, to build an oil pipeline through Chad and Cameroon were supposed to have been set aside by Déby's government to assist and feed "the desperately poor people of these nations." Instead, some US$30 million was diverted to buy arms to keep Déby's government in power. Both Bozizé and Déby made their names and came to power in tribal wars, perpetrating massacres and destruction. They are two of at least twelve current African leaders who are Freemasons.

So how can it be that a fraternity that prides itself in Enlightenment principles, democracy, honesty and fairness has become so twisted in African nations, while the excesses and misdeeds of its well-placed members there go ignored by international Freemasonry?

The latest edition of the French language Franc Maçonnerie Magazine has an article by Helene Cuny (Ces dictateurs qui ont piégé la franc-maçonnerie) that explores the appalling dichotomy between Freemasonry's teachings and these African heads of state who have distinguished themselves through tribal wars, massacres, or staggering corruption, yet proudly proclaim their Masonic membership.

In addition, the magazine features a pointed editorial by its editor Nicholas George, De l’incompatibilité à être franc-maçon (Incompatibility to be a Freemason). My somewhat free translation is offered below:

In 18th century Europe, Freemasonry was the great engine of intellectual revolution. Finally, there was a neutral venue, free of any ideology, dogma, and preconceived notion. The man could be himself without fear of being judged or even persecuted.

This new life has been characterized by the following: the spirit of the Enlightenment. It's never fallen since. This model of "free thinking" in Europe was spread to Africa through military and party administrators in the colonies. The first Masonic Lodges were then created in major African capitals.

At the dawn of independence, Africans took over their land. At the heart was its own ethnic tradition, but Africa also inherited from the philosophy of the Enlightenment: Freemasonry.

The Freemasons, for many, before being seen as symbolic or philosophical, represented the former ruling power. Indeed, at the end of colonization, Africans who came to power had to take over all the previous symbols of colonial power. Masonry became an ornament that had to be flaunted.

Today, battered by wars and armed conflicts, some African countries condemn Freemasonry. And Denis Sassou Nguesso, Omar and Ali Bongo, to name a few, are notorious for their atrocious dictatorship and their Masonic membership. This is a very bad image and a sad fate for an institution that wants to be humanist and progressive.

Why should Denis Sassou Nguesso and Ali Bongo still be considered Freemasons?

That is the question we pose to French persuasions who do not hesitate to go there to recognize "as such" leaders who seem free of Masonic values. Unless there are some other personal links which unite the grand masters of them, these are friendships that are difficult to justify in the eyes of the people massacred.

9 comments:

47th Problem of Euclid said...

A brave question to ask, and one that resonates here in the USA.

San Diego Freemason said...

These are points well taken. I know many French Freemasons and none of them would approve of such behavior.

Dealings with former colonies is a complicated matter. The U.S. supported many regimes in the past such as Diem's in South Vietnam and Pinochet's in Chile that were corrupt and brutal. That could be construed as an indictment of the U.S., but politics makes strange bedfellows.

That being said, I am of the personal opinion that the French Freemasons that had dealings with these African despots either did not know of their behavior, or were, God forbid, looking the other way, as so many of our leaders have done before. It should not be taken as an indictment of French Freemasonry.

Many of the leaders of Britain's ex-colonies were probably masons, and many of them failed to live up to masonic principles. I need to research that, but it would, if true, present a similar situation.

Chris Hodapp said...

The article and editorial in Franc Maçonnerie Magazine make it clear that the three principal grand lodges at work in France look the other way at men like Omar and Ali Bongo, Masonically.

The problem, as is pointed out in the several articles referenced, is that there is a profound cultural attitude among the former French colonies in Africa that regard Freemasonry as a requirement for government service and advancement. I seriously question that the Grand Masters of the Grand Orient de France, the Grande Loge National Française, and the Grande Loge de France are all somehow blissfully unaware of the front page scandals involving these crooked leaders. Ambassador Fernand Wibaux, former French President Jacques Chirac’s personal adviser on African affairs, is a member of the Grand Orient.

There is currently a pitched battle raging in the GLNF (the GL that English and North American GLs recognize). Their Grand Master Francois Stifani has a full-blown insurrection on his hands, with 650 French Masons signing an open letter demanding his resignation, and what is being referred to as a "mutiny" in the Loire Valley. One of the topmost grievances is the GLNF's open-armed embrace of brutal or corrupt African dictators who are Masons. The other two GLs are no different.

In resources I have been able to track down so far, the following are believed to be African heads of state who are Masons:

François Bozizé of Central African Republic (fmr French colony of French Congo)

Ali Bongo, president of Gabon (fmr French colony)

• Paul Biya, president of Cameroon (fmr British colony)

• Blaise Campaore, president of Burkina Faso (fmr French colony of Upper Volta)

• Idris Deby, president of Chad (fmr French colony)

• Robert Guei, former head of Côte d’Ivoire (fmr French colony)

• John Kuffuor, president of Ghana (fmr Dutch, then British colony)

• Mamadou Tanja, president of Niger (fmr French colony)

• Denis Sassou Nguesso, president of Congo Brazaville, (and his predecessor, Pascal Lissouba) (fmr French colony)

Still looking.

Another interesting, if dated, article from Le Monde Diplomatique:
A strange inheritance

rich said...

I see a basic problem in the approach to this question.

I have regularly seen praise or glazing over of "colonial freemasons" and those participating in other historical ills. Of course this is done in the same of "those were just the times." And time doesn't need to be spent turning these men into devils with zero redeeming qualities, but pretty big corruptions go wholly unignored.

I'm not convinced modern African governments or masonry is any more corrupt than those colonials they inherited from.

Chris Hodapp said...

Sounds like moral relativism to me. I sure as hell don't look the other way at the excesses of Rhodes, Kitchener, and the numerous other players in the Great Grab who were Masons. But we can't change the past. We CAN change how we regard present day creeps, criminals and assorted ne'er do wells in the fraternity, and we can start by not feting them as Masonic heroes while they are busy being investigated by international panels or riding into office on the bloody wave of a coup.

rich said...

It does sound like moral relativism. We call on condemning certain ones today, but not those from the past when they are discussed. If anything, the past is actively washed over and even justified.

I'm not questioning that any corruption in any period be cleaned up and condemned.

My problem is with the idea the presentation these folks received freemasonry or their stye of government originally was in a pristine, enlightened environment.

from the article:"At the dawn of independence, Africans took over their land. At the heart was its own ethnic tradition, but Africa also inherited from the philosophy of the Enlightenment: Freemasonry."

When you receive enlightenment in a murderously criminal and subjugating environment, it didn't *go* wrong. It started off wrong.

And yes, they need to clean it up. They always needed to.

ralph22294 said...

Bro. Chris,
Hats off for an interesting blog. One cannot forget what happened in Liberia as it pertained to PHA masonry.. That in itself is another story of corrupt officials, a coup that murdered the whole GL cabinet. How PHA Masonry made the Samuel K. Doe a "mason at sight".
Thanks for the insight that many of us in certain circles knew always existed!!

Chris Hodapp said...

Brother Ralph, yes, indeed, the sad Liberia story needs to be told.

James Morgan said...

Fascinating Article

Bro. James