Thursday, June 25, 2009

The death of Omar Bongo

THE late autocratic ruler of Gabon, President El Hadj Omar Bongo was a perfect example of how not to be a leader. He ruled Gabon for 42 years, easily Africa's longest serving leader, leaving a legacy of graft and megalomania. Bongo was a greedy, totalitarian ruler who outwardly presented a gentle mien, but inwardly displayed a ruthless tenacity to perpetuate himself in office. He appointed his son, Ali Ben Bongo as Defence Minister and his daughter, Pascaline as Foreign Minister and Chief of Staff. His home town, Lewai, was of course renamed Bongoville. The entire country is littered with monuments of self-promotion: Bongo Airport, Bongo University, Bongo Stadium.

For 42 years, Omar Bongo held on to power through a combination of trickery and ruthless suppression of any form of opposition. For him, there was no distinction between state resources and private property. He ran the country as if it were his private estate, doling out favours to a small coterie of sycophants, mostly drawn from his Bateke clan.

At the time of his death in a Spanish hospital on June 8, 2009, he was regarded as one of the world's richest men. Ironically, Gabon, a small country of 1.4 million people with oil resources, is one of the poorest countries in the world. Bongo was one of three African leaders being investigated by the French arm of the anti-corruption watchdog, Transparency International. The others are Denis Sassou-Nguesso of Republic of Congo and Teodore Obiang Nguema of Equatorial Guinea.

Omar Bongo rose to prominence in the 60s when Gabon's first post-independence President Leon Mba appointed him to a number of junior Ministerial positions. Bongo was rewarded for his supposed loyalty to Mba, particularly in a 1964 incident when renegade soldiers arrested both Bongo and Mba in a failed coup attempt. French paratroopers helped to return Mba to power.

In 1966, Mba appointed Bongo as Vice-President. When President Mba died in 1967, France which wielded great influence in its former colonies helped to install Omar Bongo as President. He was 31 years old. Bongo was a loyal ally of the French, he spoke fluent French and counted a succession of French Presidents among his close friends. The French oil company, Elf-Aquitaine enjoyed special privileges under Bongo's leadership.

Born Albert Bernard Bongo on December 30, 1935 in Gabon, he converted to Islam in 1973 and changed his name to El Hadj Omar Bongo. He freely distributed political patronage to his opponents in order to reach truce in times of violent demonstrations. He somehow managed to appease the opponents by offering them government posts. But even then, many political appointees were murdered mysteriously.

The death of opposition leader Joseph Redjambe sparked riots that rocked his government for days. In 1993, Bongo allowed multi-party democracy although he had no intentions of sharing or relinquishing power. In the Presidential elections that followed, and in every other election, Bongo retained his hold on power, despite allegations of massive rigging.

On the international scene, Bongo cultivated the image of a peacemaker, making several attempts to resolve the crisis in Central African Republic, Congo-Brazzaville, Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo. In fairness to him, he managed to ensure stability in Gabon despite the turmoil in the neighbouring regions.

Shortly after Bongo's death was announced, the Gabonese reacted by stockpiling food, out of fear and panic. Soldiers had to be drafted to protect key administrative buildings in the capital, Libreville. Bongo was the only President most Gabonese have known. His death therefore led to a lot of apprehension about the future of Gabon.

Bongo's sit-tight rule was largely a disservice to his country. The country's oil wealth has not translated into prosperity for the people. Senate President Rose Francine Rogombe, a Bongo ally in the Gabonese Democratic Party (PDE) has since taken over as interim leader. She is expected to organise elections within 45 days. The major challenge that Rogombe and other Gabonese leaders face is to prevent a succession crisis after Bongo's exit. Cote d'Ivoire is yet to recover from the instability that followed the death of its life-long ruler, Felix Houphouet-Boigny.

Clearly, Omar Bongo is not the best example of the kind of leaders that Africa needs. He was too much of a typical sit-tight ruler whose long reign ultimately undermined the people and truncated Gabon's overall development. His exit should be a huge relief.