The powerful former chief of staff to Gabonese President Ali Bongo Ondimba and two ministers in the energy sector were arrested Tuesday in a widening probe into graft in the oil-rich country.
A leading figure in Gabonese politics, Brice Laccruche Alihanga, who also had ministerial rank, was arrested at his home in the morning, public prosecutor Andre Patrick Roponat told AFP.
Two other people were arrested — a pair of former ministers who like the 39-year-old Laccruche were dismissed from the government late Monday, he said.
The pair, who are said to be friends of Laccruche, were named as Tony Ondo Mba, the former energy minister, and Noel Mboumba, former oil minister.
“The three were extensively referred to by individuals who are currently in custody over embezzlement of public funds, extortion and money laundering,” Roponat said.
Laccruche was questioned on Tuesday afternoon, the prosecutor said.
Laccruche, appointed chief of staff in 2017, gained a reputation as a power broker in the central African state after Bongo suffered a stroke in October last year.
Bongo returned to the country after several months abroad for treatment.
Laccruche was dismissed as chief of staff in early November after Bongo stepped up his public appearances in a sign of improving health.
But — in what some interpreted as a sign of his close ties with the president — he was immediately appointed minister, with a portfolio without real power.
He lost that job on Monday when the government was reshuffled.
Nearly two dozen people have been ousted from office, arrested or given other duties in a crackdown on graft.
The arrests include the former director of the National Fund for Health Insurance (CNAMGS), Renaud Allogho Akoue and the head of presidential communications, Ike Ngouoni, who was regarded as Laccruche’s right-hand man.
Key changes have also been made in the intelligence and security forces.
The pro-government daily L’Union reported last week that more than 85 billion CFA francs ($142 million / 129 million euros), had disappeared from the funds of the Gabon Oil Company (GOC) over the previous two years.
GOC is a state firm run by Patrichi Tanasa, who is close to Laccruche. Tanasa has been in custody since late November.
Laccruche’s lawyer Anges Kevin Nzigou accused authorities of launching a “witch hunt”, adding: “The dossiers are not consistent.”
He said the rights of his client were being violated and claimed that Laccruche had not “been informed of the reasons for his arrest.”
But the new spokesman for the presidency, Jessye Ella Ekogha, riposted: “No matter what your place, if there are suspicions, there will be no impunity.”
Bongo has ruled Gabon since 2009, following the death of his father Omar Bongo, who was in power from 1967.