Gabon's First Lady Lives on Food Stamps in California

Inge Bongo demands to take her place as first lady and reform the country.

September 4, 2009, 2:50 PM

NAIROBI, Kenya, Sept. 8, 2009— -- The new president of Gabon, Ali Ben Bongo, is the son of the country's ruler for the last 42 years and a member of one of the wealthiest families in Africa.

Gabon's new first lady is American-born Inge Bongo. But there'll be no inauguration ceremony or redecorating of the presidential palace for her. Inge Bongo lives in California and is on food stamps.

The new president is confronting angry demonstrations in the streets of the country's capital, Libreville, and other cities protesting what they claim was a rigged election.

The beleaguered president-elect is also facing demands from his estranged wife to be allowed to take her place as first lady and to reform what she says is a lack of human rights.

Inge Bongo makes it clear that she doesn't expect her husband to quickly agree.

"I'm going to claim my right as first lady. I'm going to make a lot of noise. I'm going to take this opportunity to make some changes, whether he likes it or not," Inge Bongo told ABC News. "He can deny a settlement and a divorce. But he's a young man, he's 50. And I'm relatively young. I can just keep doing this forever."

Inge and Ali have had a tempestuous relationship after meeting 23 years ago on a blind date in California. It was love at first sight.

"We met on a Sunday morning before he was supposed to take a flight out," she says. "He ended up not taking the flight. We fell in love."

A worldwide whirlwind romance ensued with meetings in California, Paris and Gabon, until the couple married in Madrid in 1994. The marriage was made legal in the United States, according to documents obtained by ABC News. Inge was allowed to make her primary residence with their three children in California, visiting Gabon often while Ali would remain in the country carrying out his duties.

Inge says throughout her 23-year relationship with Ali Bongo, she travelled to Gabon often but could never adjust to the disparity between the rich lifestyle of the Bongos and the abject poverty the general population lived in.

"Gabon is a country of the haves and the have nots, and the haves were all Bongos," she says. "When I would complain, they literally laughed at me. They thought Americans were kind of foolish, that they didn't have time to worry about human rights."

Gabon is a small country in West Africa, with major oil reserves, and that means oil money. The country also had the same president for over 40 years, Omar Bongo, Ali's father. Inge's husband served as the country's minister of defense and was widely expected to succeed his father in the presidency.

Omar Bongo died in June, and the campaign to elect the next president began, with the election Aug. 30. There were 17 candidates, but Ali Ben Bongo, the most visible and best financed, was declared the winner. Accusations of election fraud and voter intimidation have prompted street demonstrations in recent days.

Over Omar Bongo's 42-year reign, he and his family amassed a large amount of wealth. The country enjoyed strong ties with its former colonizer France, and the Bongo family owns several homes in France, including a $21 million apartment in one of Paris' plushest neighborhoods.

The French government has frozen $900 million of the family's assets in response to a lawsuit filed by the anticorruption group Transparency International on behalf of a Gabonese citizen, who's accused the family of corruption, embezzlement and fraud.

Inge said the Bongo family would take frequent shopping trips to Paris and other cities around the world.

Inge Bongo Appeared on VH1 Show

"They wake up in the morning and decide what are they going to buy, but it's at the expense of their character," says Inge. "Shop and shop and shop. They charter 747s and fill them. Everybody would get an envelope and you could buy your car and whatever you want. There were fleets of Porsches."

Inge was also a beneficiary of the wealth. She says her three children attended top private schools around the world and lived a luxurious life complete with private chefs, drivers and nannies.

At one point, Inge Bongo appeared on the VH1 show "Really Rich Real Estate," where she put in a $25 million bid for a mansion in Malibu.

She also rented a home from Sean "P. Diddy" Combs for $25,000 per month (eventually suing him for landlord neglect of the home).

That changed about four years ago, when President Omar Bongo told his son that his wife needed to reside in Gabon, says Inge. She tried living there, but decided she could not make her permanent home in Gabon.

"[Ali] got very violent," she says. Inge claims that witch doctors convinced her husband that something was wrong with her. "He had me kidnapped several times, he had me mutilated, he beat me beyond recognition."

Pictures taken after the alleged incident show her bruised and cut around her waist. Inge escaped back to California, where Ali Bongo had tried to win her back several times, she says. She even travelled back to Gabon for short visits to try and work things out, but by that time the relationship was essentially over. Of those visits she says, "He treated me like a zombie."

Ali Bongo has since married a much younger Gabonese woman named Sylvia Valentin Bongo. In interviews and official announcements she is referred to as his wife, but legally Inge Bongo remains married to him. Her youngest son, whom she adopted with Ali Bongo, is 10 years old, and now goes to public school, while she says she lives off food stamps and the generosity of friends.

Ali Bongo converted to Islam years ago, allowing him to have more than one wife. Inge is not Muslim and says she has thought about divorce, even going so far as to obtain a lawyer in California to work out a settlement, but Gabon's new president has not responded. According to her, the last time she received money from him was more than a year ago.

"We had a pact that we'd never divorce. To me that didn't involve being broke," she says. "He promised he would take care of us."

Now Inge says she wants her rightful place as the new first lady of Gabon. She wants to make changes in the country's wealth disparity and the rights of women and children, and has called for the Obama administration to get involved in her case.

She says she sees some similarities in Obama being the first black president with African roots, and her being the first black American first lady of an African country.

"Hopefully, I can get the Obama administration to shine some light on the injustices against women and children and everything that I feel is wrong."

A spokeswoman for the government of Gabon told ABC News the government has no comment on Inge Bongo at this time.

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