Saturday, June 20, 2009

Bongo: End of a Sit-tight Leader

Omar Bongo Ondimba, former President of Gabon who died in Barcelona, Spain last week, is a metaphor for the African condition. After ruling one of the continent’s most endowed nations for over four decades, the erstwhile “Big Man” died in a foreign land in search of solution to even his own medical problem.
For sitting tight as President of Gabon, Bongo typified the bad leadership style that has held back the development of the African continent. Until his death, he was the longest serving African President, a “feat” we pray no African leader will like to emulate.
The life and times of the man who was born to a peasant family as Albert Bernard Bongo on December 30, 1935 were indeed intriguing. He attended school in Brazzaville in Congo and later joined the French Air Force where he made history as the first black man to serve in Chad. His political career began with the trust he won from ex President Leon Mba, father of Gabon’s independence, which led to his appointment in 1962 at the age of 27 years as a director in the president’s office. Two years later, a coup attempt, the only one in the country’s history, was foiled by French paratroopers who restored Mba and Bongo to power. The latter’s reward for loyalty was the oil-rich nation’s vice-presidency in 1967.
And in a drama of fate, Mba died nine months after, paving the way for his deputy to assume full presidential powers. And for the next 26 years he ruled over a one-party state with all the unwholesome signs of such political arrangements in Africa. In the 1970s, many of his opponents met their death through circumstances that were generally believed to be politically motivated. The mysterious demise in 1990 of opposition leader, Joseph Redjambe, ignited riots that rocked the regime for weeks.
That turbulent reaction compelled Bongo to introduce multi-party elections in 1993, which he won predictably, of course, with a trail of allegations of rigging. The violent demonstrations that greeted that electoral outing prompted Bongo to form an all-inclusive government to give his rivals key positions. While the next polls conducted in 1998 produced similar results and wide rejection, it is to the credit of Africa’s longest serving leader that his country of 1.4 million people did not degenerate into ruin. Not even the accusation of corruption, particularly the financial scandal involving Elf Aquitaine, could significantly diminish his status as Gabon president. The fact that sensitive government posts were occupied by close family members also did not substantially damage his image as the nation’s leader.
Observers of Africa’s political history also commend him for not allowing the perennial conflicts from the neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and other troubled countries within the region to spill over to Gabon. Instead, he managed to be viewed as a disinterested peacemaker, someone the international community depended on many times in its quest for peace in one of the world’s most traumatized spots.
Surely, Bongo, with his not so enviable leadership profile, was not a completely despised figure. Even as yet another example of sit-tight rulership, a practice that often undermines the continent’s rating in the comity of nations, he tried to give the generality of the Gabonese people a sense of belonging.
But one question will continue to beg for answers in the years ahead: “Couldn’t the man have done better for the country under his grip for 42 years, with the enormous public wealth at his disposal?” Even if the French judge that initiated enquiry last month into whether Bongo plundered the country’s resources to buy homes and cars abroad fails to respond to that poser, posterity certainly will. Bongo did not deserve to rule for that long. On a level playing field, the resource-rich country could have produced successors of Bongo long before now.