x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Africa's Napoleon, sullied by corruption

Omar Bongo, president of Gabon, was one of Africa's youngest leaders when he came to power at the age of 31 and the longest at the helm by the time of his death.

Omar Bongo, Africa's longest-serving leader, governed Gabon for 41 years.
Omar Bongo, Africa's longest-serving leader, governed Gabon for 41 years.

Omar Bongo, president of Gabon, was one of Africa's youngest leaders when he came to power at the age of 31 and the longest at the helm by the time of his death. He governed the relatively peaceful West African state for more than four decades, largely with the backing of France. Though his reputation was sullied by charges of unfettered corruption, nepotism and treason, Bongo was small fry compared to the other "big men" of Africa.

Sometimes referred to as the African Napoleon, a label determined more by his height (4ft, 11in) than any remarkable military or strategic acumen, Bongo utilised the rich oil, timber, manganese and uranium resources of Gabon for his personal gain, while the living conditions of his more than 1.4 million people remained basic but sustainable. He maintained a delicate balance between bleeding the country while simultaneously making a great show of providing civic infrastructure, the Bongo Stadium and Bongo University being but two ventures supposedly financed out of his "own" pocket.

By the time of his death, he boasted an extensive portfolio of properties in France, and an alleged personal account at Citibank of US$130 million (Dh477 million). Born Albert-Bertrand Bongo into the small Bateke ethnic group in Lewai (later renamed Bongoville), a town of the Haut-Ogooué province in southeastern Gabon near the border with the Republic of Congo, Bongo was the youngest of 12 children. Educated in Brazzaville, he worked in telecommunications before undergoing military training in Chad.

His future was made in the wake of Gabon's independence from France when he became director to the office of the then president Leon M'ba in 1962, having previously held several cabinet posts. During an attempted military coup in 1964 - the only one in Gabon's history - M'ba was captured and Bongo held in custody in the capital Libreville. France came to the rescue, extracting the promise of pursuing its interests in the oilfields of Gabon in exchange for returning M'ba to power.

When M'ba died in 1967, Bongo was his natural successor. He converted to Islam in 1973, taking the name Omar, adding Ondimba as his surname in 2003. The single-party regime of Bongo's nominal Gabonese Democratic Party dominated until 1990 when multi-party politics was introduced in response to an increased appetite for true democracy crystallised after the anti-communist revolutions in Europe in the late 1980s. It was little more than a token gesture. Bongo was re-elected in 1993, 1998 and 2005 and amended the constitution in 2003 to eliminate any restrictions on the number of presidential terms permissible. He was to have held power until 2012.

The relationship with France soured eventually. In 2007, criminal inquiries found that kickbacks had been paid directly to Bongo in exchange for allowing exploitation of the oil fields of Gabon by the French company Elf-Aquitaine. As Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president, sought to distance his government from the historic "Francafrique" relationship, so the protection that France had traditionally accorded its African "clients" diminished. In response, Gabon, like other African states, looked increasingly to the Chinese market.

Latterly, Bongo had set himself up as a mediator of conflicting African interests, assuming a pivotal role in trying to solve the crises in the Central African Republic, Congo-Brazzaville, Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo. He divorced his first wife, Patience Dabany, with whom he had two daughters and a son. His second wife, Edith Lucie, daughter of the Congolese president, predeceased him. Purportedly, he fathered more than 30 children by various women.

Omar Bongo was born on December 30, 1935. He died on June 8. * The National