Projection of Gabon’s president, Ali Bongo, in Paris’ chic 7th arrondissement.
 
Armed with a simple slide projector, a collective of artists and activists known as “Shedding a Light on Ill-Gotten Gains” are trying to draw attention to the alleged embezzled funds of African leaders, that is, assets paid for with money purportedly stolen from their countries’ public funds.
 
On June 29, the collective projected a giant image of Gabon's president Ali Bongo onto the façade of 50, rue de l’Université, an upscale townhouse they allege was “ill gotten” by the leader.
 
Several non-profits have accused the French government of turning a blind eye to alleged embezzled funds kept in France by leaders of former French colonies. However, thus far, it has never been confirmed that Bongo’s assets in France - which include upscale properties in Paris and the South of France - were acquired with public funds.
 
According to Sherpa, a French network of jurists that defends victims of economic crimes, the combined ill-gotten assets, in France alone, of Omar Bongo (former president of Gabon and Ali Bongo’s father), Denis Sassou N’guesso (president of the Republic of Congo) and Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo (president of Equatorial Guinea) are allegedly worth 35 million euros.
 
In 2008, Transparency International lodged a complaint against these three African leaders. The non-profit asked for an investigation into whether these assets were paid for with African nations’ public funds. After some setbacks, the Paris prosecutor’s office ordered investigators to search the African leaders’ lawyers and notaries public’s offices on June 15. The investigation is ongoing.
 
Watch video of the collective projecting Ali Bongo's portrait, rue de l'Université in Paris:
 
The provocative projection at 50, rue de l’Université was organised by a recently-created collective of activists and artists hopes to “shed light on the ill-gotten gains” of Bongo and his ilk. For their first project, they decided to target Ali Bongo, who succeeded his father Omar Bongo after his death in 2009. The elder Bongo, who ruled Gabon for 41 years, came to symbolise the ambiguous ties – political, economic and military – between France and its former African colonies.
 
This relationship, known in French as “Françafrique,” is what the collective intends to denounce. The artists say they are inspired by a similar controversial collective of Russian artists Voina, as well as by the Graffiti Research Lab, a major street art group in the United States. 

“We’re planning a series of projections on ill-gotten buildings owned by dictators in Paris and elsewhere in Europe, whether these dictators have fallen from power or are still actively harming their countries”

Matjules, a writer and artist, is a founding member of the collective "Shedding a Light on Ill-Gotten Gains".
 
We met up during the night, not far from 50 rue de l’Université. After making sure the street was clear, our small group set up the equipment. We didn’t run into any problems or disturb any residents. The projection started at midnight and lasted twenty minutes. People walking by stopped to look at it and made sarcastic comments on larger-than-life Bongo on his fancy building in the middle of Paris. This building is a symbol of the huge amounts of money embezzled by his oh-so-authoritarian regime, one pampered by our own leaders.
 
Before that night, we had carried out rehearsals. We realised that this building in the 7th arrondissement gave us better visuals to work with than the ill-gotten gains of [former Tunisian president Zine El Abadine] Ben Ali and his relatives. So we decided to carry out our first projection on this townhouse, which was first rented by Karl Lagerfeld [artistic director for Chanel in Paris], then sold by the rich Italian family Pozzo di Birgo to Gabon’s dictator.
 
“The problem of ill-gotten gains is barely even mentioned in the French media”
  
We decided to target one of Françafrique’s best-known representatives, but in the future we plan to look at the entire African continent and show that many countries are still in the grips of neo-colonialism, notably due to their economic ties to large French or American companies.
 
The problem of ill-gotten gains is barely even mentioned in the French media. We want to shine light on it, but we don’t want it to be swept under the rug with empty declarations. I’m thinking, for example, about the declarations made by Nicolas Sarkozy about putting an end to tax havens, which was never carried out.
 
We’re planning a series of short projections on ill-gotten buildings owned by dictators in Paris and elsewhere in Europe, whether these dictators have fallen from power or are still actively harming their countries.
 
We’ve found quite a few in Paris’ nicest neighborhoods, thanks to several resources like Infogreffe [the registry of France’s commercial court, where one can search for registered companies http://www.infogreffe.fr/infogreffe/index.jsp] or the cadastre [a public registry that tracks property ownership]. We then double-check this information by talking to neighbors and other informers, notably Tunisians in the case of Ben Ali’s ill-gotten gains.
 
We’re also working closely with the group Sherpa, which has access to many judicial documents. They shared a great deal of their information through Owni’s application [the French news site Owni has created a smartphone application that highlights the allegedly ill-gotten gains of several African leaders]
 
“We don’t want to disturb the neighbors, or cause a scandal. The facts are out there, we just want people to be aware of them”
 
Our goal is to shed light on lawless zones, where money is laundered and embezzled, and where arms trafficking flourishes. The facts are out there, we just want people to be aware of them, with the help of clear illustrations and calm, thought-out explanations.
 
Our collective is just getting started. We welcome new ideas for projects. However we’re trying to maintain a low profile with the authorities, so we don’t want to say too much about our future projects.”
 
Post written with FRANCE 24 journalist Peggy Brugière.