x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Eulogies for Africa's most cunning kleptocrat

Statements regarding the death of Omar Bongo, Gabon's president for 42 years, conspicuously skirt around the blatant venality of his rule.

People queue at the presidential palace in Libreville on Saturday to pay their respects to the deceased Gabonese president Omar Bongo.
People queue at the presidential palace in Libreville on Saturday to pay their respects to the deceased Gabonese president Omar Bongo.

JOHANNESBURG // When Omar Bongo's time as president of Gabon finally came to an end after 42 years with his death in a Spanish clinic last week, the tributes were fulsome for Africa's longest-ruling leader. Nicolas Sarkozy, the president of the former colonial power, called him "a great and loyal friend of France, a great figure of Africa". Jacob Zuma, newly sworn in as the leader of South Africa, a country that has more reason than most to be proud of its democracy, said he had "contributed enormously to the African continent" and expressed "heartfelt condolences to the people of Gabon ? during these trying moments".

Even Washington, which has often proclaimed its belief in democratic values and human rights, joined in, with a state department spokesman saying Bongo was "dedicated to the cause of national and regional peace" and praising his commitment to conserving Gabon's natural resources. The last comment was particularly telling, given that it is precisely those resources - the Atlantic coast nation, with a population of a mere 1.5 million people, is sub-Saharan Africa's fifth-biggest oil producer - that enabled and motivated him to retain power for so long.

Bongo, whose funeral is today, is regarded by some analysts as Africa's greatest kleptocrat, eclipsing even Mobutu Sese Seko of the then Zaire and Sani Abacha of Nigeria for sheer venality on a Croesus-like scale. In its most recent global survey, the US think-tank Freedom House wrote: "Four decades of corrupt, autocratic rule have made Bongo one of the world's richest men," and at the time of his death he was being investigated for corruption in France, where campaigners allege he and his family members owned at least 33 properties and had at least 70 bank accounts in their names.

But for the vast majority of his leadership, Bongo's relationship with Paris epitomised la Francafrique, the French tendency to support the leaders of its former colonies, turning a blind eye to their domestic misdemeanours and maintaining Gallic commercial and geopolitical interests. Gabon was the linchpin in the system, hosting a significant French military presence. Despite his diminutive physical stature, Bongo was one of the last of the continent's "Big Man" leaders, and said himself that "Gabon without France is like a car without a driver, and France without Gabon is like a car without petrol". In his case, the fuel was money, which analysts said he provided to generations of French political leaders, regardless of ideology.

Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, the former president of France, told the French radio station Europe 1 he telephoned Bongo after discovering he was funding his rival Jacques Chirac. "There was a dead silence that I still remember to this day and then he said 'Ah, you know about it', which was extraordinary." Mr Chirac's aides have denied any knowledge of such funding. Money was also liberally applied within the elite of Gabon itself. Bongo was adept at eviscerating opposition by buying it off, co-opting and absorbing rivals into his Parti Démocratique Gabonais.

"Bongo was a very cunning politician compared to somebody like Mobutu Sese Seko or Idi Amin," said David Zounmenou, of the Institute for Strategic Studies in Pretoria. "He did not need to kill his political opponents - he killed some of them, of course, to consolidate his power - but Bongo has more sensitive means to quell opposition in his country." He maintained himself in power for four decades "by charming, by buying, by paying", he said, although ordinary Gabonese saw little benefit - according to International Monetary Fund estimates the country has the third-highest per capita gross domestic product in Africa, but the president still had to travel to Europe for medical care when he fell ill from cancer.

Nonetheless, the warmth of the Elysee's sentiments was unsurprising, Mr Zounmenou said, adding Paris has "so many interests in that country they will not dare to challenge Omar Bongo whether he is alive or dead". But unlike western governments, commentators have been scathing. S'Thembiso Msomi, writing in South Africa's Times newspaper, said: "What troubles me is the seeming double-standards being applied by the US, France and other powerful nations when it comes to the manner in which they relate to despotic and corrupt governments, especially in Africa. The Gabonese have as much right to a properly functioning democracy as Zimbabweans and everybody else."

In an editorial, South Africa's Business Day said: "The combination of indefinite rule by one man, the entrenchment of power of a corrupt elite dominated by that leader and his family, and a planned succession involving one of his offspring, is lethal to democracy and human development. "This destructive cycle will remain intact as long as Africans continue to deify people such as Bongo on their demise."

sberger@thenational.ae