Al-Ahram Weekly Online   11 - 17 June 2009
Issue No. 951
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875


Omar Bongo 1935-2009

Albert-Bernard Bongo, the diminutive benevolent dictator and Africa's longest serving leader, died in hospital in the bustling Catalan capital of Barcelona. His own sleepy capital Libreville, on the Atlantic Ocean, could not have been more different than the majestic Mediterranean metropolis. He ruled Gabon with an iron fist for 41 years, having risen to power as the adopted son of the first president Leon Mba. He was a political dinosaur, but an extremely astute one. He was the ultimate pragmatist who knew on which side his bread was buttered, understood where he stood in the international arena, had no delusions of grandeur that many of his peers were prone to, and loved to play the role of an African petty chieftain. Yet Bongo was a statesman, too.

In Gabon, Bongo was king. Gabon is ruled as a one-party state and Bongo headed the Gabonese Democratic Party that in turn dominated Gabonese politics since independence in 1960. Albert-Bernard adopted the Muslim name Omar after his conversion to Islam in 1973 -- raising eyebrows in a predominantly animist and Christian country. Soon after, Gabon became a full- fledged member of OPEC.

Opponents to Bongo were paid off quietly, sent abroad and when they showed signs of impudence were disposed off silently, or merely disappeared. His son Ali Bongo, 50, is tipped by many to assume the political mantle of his late father. Ali Bongo is heir apparent to the presidency of one of Africa's wealthiest nations. Gabon has a per capita income of $15,000, four times the average for Africa and more than Libya and Russia. Bongo kept his people largely content through government subsidies, albeit while accumulating a vast personal fortune. Oil and gas, timber and an abundance of natural resources have made Gabon the Kuwait of Central Africa. With two million people, half of who are immigrants from neighbouring African countries, it is the envy of the continent.

"I am calling for calm and serenity of heart and reverence to preserve the unity and peace so dear to our late father," Ali Bongo announced soon after his father's passing. The international community mourned, and hurriedly paid their condolences to the man who became Africa's most valued French and American ally simultaneously, despite a French court ruling weeks before his death to freeze his considerable assets as part of a probe to determine whether he plundered state coffers. He was the quintessential neocolonial yes-man. "Gabon without France is like a car with no driver," was one of his more memorable sayings.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon praised Bongo for the "key role he played in the search for peace and stability not only in the Central Africa sub-region, but also in other parts of the continent." United States President Barack Obama paid tribute, too. "President Bongo played a key role in developing and shaping the strong bilateral relationship between Gabon and the US today," Obama noted.

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