Filed in News by on June 10, 2009

The Omar Bongo they forgot
By Ben Ukwuoma and Francis Obinor (with agency report)

Africa’s longest ruling leader, Gabon President Omar Bongo, officially died on Monday after ruling his country for 41 years. The sunset has again signaled the end of one of Africa’s rapacious leaders, raising questions over the future leadership of the oil rich central Africa country.

The report, that President Omar Bongo was dead had raised questions over the future leadership of the country, which has maintained a tight relationship with former colonial ruler, France, and has a well-established oil industry.

Bongo, aged 73, was easily the longest-serving president in African history, leading Gabon for 41 years and shamelessly looting the country’s oil wealth.

A diminutive, dapper figure who conversed in flawless French and alternated between pomposity and cruelty as required.

He treated Gabon as a self-obsessed landlord treats his private estate. He considered everything inside its borders to be his personal property and elevated corruption to a method of government.

He amassed enough wealth to become one of the world’s richest men. His greatest political achievement was to ensure that the revenues from Gabon’s 2.5 billion barrels of oil reserves guaranteed his grip on power.

He carefully allowed just enough oil money to trickle down to the general population of 1.4 million, thus avoiding any serious unrest.

His strategy of holding on to power was unique. He offered his domestic critics a bargain they could not refuse: drop your opposition in return for a modest but glittering slice of the nation’s oil wealth. By this method, he bought off every opponent and became the most successful of all Africa’s francophone tyrants, comfortably extending his political dominance into a fifth decade.

The largest share of the oil money was, of course, reserved for Bongo himself, his family and the aristocracy of his own Bateke tribe.

Earlier this year, when Transparency International began investigating him for embezzlement. Few were surprised when it emerged that Bongo owned 33 properties in Paris and Nice with a combined value exceeding 125 million pounds. The American authorities turned up 86 million pounds in accounts in New York.

These discoveries were probably only the tip of the iceberg: Bongo’s fortune certainly ran into the hundreds of millions of dollars and may have reached the billions.

Some of the oil money was used for vain glorification of the leader became de rigueur. For instance, Gabon acquired Bongo University, Bongo Airport, numerous Bongo Hospitals, Bongo Stadium and Bongo Gymnasium. The president’s hometown, Lewai, was inevitably renamed Bongoville.

Occasionally, Bongo would boast of his great benevolence. One American ambassador was summoned to the presidential palace in the capital, Libreville, to hear the president proclaim that he intended to make a multi-million dollar donation to charity. “And will this sum come from your personal funds or from state funds?” asked the diplomat. Bongo was genuinely bewildered by this question. The two men quickly agreed that such fine distinctions were meaningless in Gabon.

Born on 30 Dec 1935 in the town of Lewai near Gabon’s eastern border, into one of France’s smallest and most placid African colonies, He was the youngest of 12 children, he was an intelligent and ambitious young man and chose the only career open to young blacks under French rule: a junior clerical job in the colonial administration followed by a place in the armed forces. Bongo was a lieutenant in the air force when Gabon won independence in 1960.

He was fortunate to receive the patronage of the country’s first president, Leon M’Ba, who gave him a series of junior cabinet posts. In 1966, M’Ba promoted Bongo to become vice-president, probably judging that the young man, who was barely 30, posed no political threat. But M’Ba became gravely ill and died the following year, allowing Bongo to succeed him as president on 2 December 1967 at the age of only 31.

This was an era when France made no effort to disguise its direct influence in former colonies and, by the same token, African leaders did not pretend to conform to democratic norms.

Bongo, an ardent Francophile, was happy to strike a favourable bargain with the old colonial power. He gave the French oil company, Elf-Aquitaine, privileged rights to exploit Gabon’s oil reserves while Paris returned the favour by guaranteeing the young president’s grip on power for the indefinite future.

France kept its military bases in the country and a contingent of paratroopers underwrote Bongo’s rule. The president trusted no one but the French and his own family. Bongo duly made his son, Ali-Ben, Defence Minister and his daughter, Pascaline, Foreign Minister and then chef de cabinet.

He spent as much time as he could in Paris, reveling in his friendship with a succession of French presidents, particularly Valery Giscard d’Estaing and Jacques Chirac.

When the Cold War ended, the old bargain between Bongo and Paris required modest adaptation. The president legalised opposition parties in 1993 and allowed a series of supposedly fair elections. In fact, all his opponents had been bribed and suborned.

Bongo ruled Gabon with an iron hand since 1967, when LBJ was trying to decide how to get out of Vietnam. He has made his son the Minister of Defense to ensure loyalty in the armed forces and brooks no dissent. Concerned about his international image, he was in contact with now-disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff in the summer of 2003. Abramoff asked for $9 million to help Bongo cozy up to the Bush administration, according to documents later released by Congress. It is not clear if the deal was consummated, but on May 26, 2004, Bongo met with President Bush.

Douglas Farah former West Africa bureau chief for The Washington Post and author of “Blood From Stones: The Secret Financial Network of Terror” (Broadway) recalled that in sub-Saharan Africa, rapacious despots with bloody hands traditionally die in office or retire to luxurious exile. They do not usually find themselves in handcuffs heading to trial for crimes against humanity, as former Liberian president Charles Taylor did when he was captured at the Nigerian-Cameroun border last month.

Indeed, many African leaders resisted his trial precisely because so much of the continent is still ruled by megalomaniacal “Big Men,” who should be held accountable for the systematic destruction of their own countries.

During the celebration of his 40 years in power, the 71-year-old Bongo attended a military parade, complete with a Mirage F-1 air show in his honor.

Posters put up around the capital boasted his presidency as being characterized by the four pillars of peace, unity, stability and progress; but some critics felt terms such as corruption and rigged elections were missing from the list.

One such critic was Marc Ona, president of the Gabonese environmental non-profit organization Brain Forest. Ona believed Bongo’s ability to keep the peace has been his only merit.

He said the Gabon economy was in a catastrophic state as roads and the education system were in a deplorable state.

Africa analyst Kissy Agyeman of the London-based research group Global Insight explained President Bongo has often used oil profits for political purposes.

President Bongo managed to maintain the peace in the country particularly because he has kept those who would be opponents and brought them into the presidential fold, he was known to sweet talk opponents with offers of money and so forth, and because of the immense wealth that Gabon has, he has been able to deliver. On the ground in Gabon, I do believe people are keen for change, but at the same time it has not got that level of activism that perhaps some other countries in the region may have because the population is quite small,” Agyeman said.

Indeed, Gabon’s oil output has been on the decline since the mid-1990s, and some economists estimated there would be no more oil to exploit in 30 years time. Many Gabonese said their president has not built enough infrastructures during the oil boom.

Although, Bongo built a railroad cross-country which has eased access to other natural resources, and designated 13 national parks which has aided tourism, many said too much money was spent creating government positions, or strengthening political ties with the former colonial power France.

He ruled over a one-party state for 16 years, until presidential elections were held in 1993, which he won.

However the poll was marred by allegations of rigging, with the opposition claming that chief rival, Father Paul Mba Abessole, was robbed of victory. Gabon found itself on the brink of a civil war, as the opposition staged violent demonstrations.

Determined to prove that he was not an autocrat who relied on brute force for his political survival, Bongo entered into talks with the opposition, negotiating what became known as the Paris Agreement in a successful attempt to restore calm.

When Bongo won the second presidential elections held in 1998, similar controversy raged over his victory. The president responded by meeting some of his critics to discuss revising legislation to guarantee free and fair elections.

The main opposition leader, Pierre Maboundou of the Gabonese People’s Union, refused to attend the meetings, claiming that they were merely a ploy by Bongo to lure opposition leaders.

Maboundou called for a boycott of the legislative elections held in December 2001, and his supporters burnt ballot boxes and papers in a polling station in his hometown of Ndende.

But despite threats from Bongo, Maboundou was never arrested. The president declared that a policy of forgiveness was his “best revenge”.

After Bongo’s Gabonese Democratic Party scored a landslide victory in the legislative elections, Bongo offered government posts to influential opposition members. Father Paul Mba Abessole accepted a ministerial post in the name of “convivial democracy”.

This may have gone a long way to raise the level of unity in the country, but it has weakened the opposition.

For most Gabonese people, he was the only leader they have ever known.

When there were conflicting reports of his death ,many thought the news was delayed to allow senior officials to buy time and try to organise the succession – possibly to enable his son to take over.

In fact, opposition leaders have claimed that Ali-Ben Bongo has been lined up to take over, and question whether any election would be free and fair.

In the capital, Libreville, the BBC’s Linel Kwatsi said people had reacted to the earlier rumour of Mr Bongo’s death by stockpiling food. They feared shops would shut if it were confirmed. The Internet has been cut off since Sunday, while state television is playing religious music. Under the constitution, the leader of the Senate, Rose Francine Rogombe, an ally of Bongo, should take over as interim leader and organise elections within 45 days.


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