Tuesday, 9 June 2009

The end of an era

The death of President Omar Bongo in a Spanish hospital brings an era of African history to an end. Omar Bongo was so successful at the art of holding on to power that by the end of his life there was no one left in his country with enough authority to pronounce him dead. It took more than 24 hours for the death of the 73-year-old president of Gabon to be confirmed, during which time there were no less than three official denials. The final word eventually came from Gabon's prime minister Jean Eyeghe Ndong, who confirmed the president had died of a cardiac arrest in a Barcelona hospital. This was just hours after the same official had held a press conference at the clinic to say he had seen his president "alive and well".

"President Omar Bongo's greatest legacy is the political stability he was able to achieve and maintain throughout his time in office," said Tara O'Connor, managing director of
Africa Risk Consulting. "Unlike neighbouring Congo-Brazzaville and Cote d'Ivoire where the elite's resistance to democracy ultimately provoked civil war, President Bongo met the challenge and later artfully co-opted his opponents into high government office."

Albert Bernard Bongo was born in 1935, the 12th son of a farmer who died when he was seven years old. His official website boasts that "he didn't come into the world on a hospital bed, and he didn't have a cot or a nanny". In 1973, six years after taking over from Gabon's first post-independence leader, he converted to Islam, taking the name El Hadj Omar Bongo. By the time of his death, his name was Omar Bongo Ondimba, after he added a pre-colonial traditional name, reclaimed to underline his African credentials. There was very little that the man who wore platform shoes to disguise his short stature, (reportedly, he was only 4ft 11 tall), would not do to get an edge. And this played no small part in the fact that when he died, he was one of the richest men in the world.

Although no clear figure of his net worth has been confirmed, the scale of his plundered riches had begun to emerge, thanks to a court case in Gabon's former colonial master, France. Mr
Bongo was one of three African leaders accused this year of embezzlement by the French wing of corruption watchdog, Transparency International. Also under investigation are Republic of Congo leader Denis Sassou-Nguesso, a close ally and father-in-law of Mr Bongo, and Teodoro Obiang Nguema of Equatorial Guinea. The trio have been accused of looting state coffers. Their extensive portfolio of French properties, worth many multiples of their stated official earnings, have been cited as evidence of corruption.

Throughout his four-decade stint in office which began with the death of his predecessor Leon M'ba in 1967 in a French hospital, former army officer Bongo displayed an acute understanding of the importance of relations with Paris. "Gabon without France is like a car with no driver. France without Gabon is like a car with no fuel," is how the former French air force lieutenant liked to describe the bond.

When French oil giant ELF was looking for a base of operations in the 1970s, Mr Bongo made sure it was Gabon to which they turned first. The Paris trial in 2003 of former Elf chairman
Loik Le Floch-Prigent revealed the extent of the corruption and shady dealings in the resultant oil boom where the company was allowed to operate as a "state within a state" in a manner that foreshadowed companies like Royal Dutch Shell in their later dealings with Nigeria. The Gabonese president shrugged off revelations of huge kickback payments to his personal accounts, dismissing them as a "French matter".

Prior to the current suit brought by Transparency International, a police investigation into French real estate owned by the president and his family uncovered 33 properties in Paris and on the French Riviera worth an estimated $190m. A decade ago, a US Senate probe into private banking operations at Citibank estimated that the president held $130m in personal accounts
and concluded that there could be "no doubt that these financial assets were sourced in the public finances of Gabon". In the two photos (courtesy of REUTERS), above left and below right, are two properties in France registered in the names of President Bongo and his son, part of a real estate portfolio said to top $190 m.

Through a shrewd disbursement of this vast wealth, collected from oil, the farmer's son maintained friendships with French politicians of every ideological hue that sustained him almost until the end. "He was a great figure of Africa," a "man who had influence", said French Defence Minister Herve Morin when told of his death. The special relationship had become strained, though, under the presidency of Nicolas Sarkozy whose government is considering dismantling its 1,000-strong army base in Libreville. The current frostiness was demonstrated by the ailing autocrat's decision to seek treatment last month in Barcelona, rather than a French hospital. Amid rumours that he had cancer, Gabon officials insisted he was having a "routine check-up". Even after his death, the country's prime minister insisted that Mr Bongo had died of a "cardiac arrest", making no mention of cancer.
In Libreville the capital city of Gabon, one of the favourite jokes was that the quickest way to become a millionaire was to set up an opposition party. The experience of Pierre Mamboundou, leader of the Union for the People of Gabon – who until recently was considered the president's main challenger is proof that it was more than a joke. Mr Mamboundou, the veteran of two bruising and ultimately unsuccessful presidential contests with Mr Bongo, enjoyed a reputation as an uncompromising free speaker prepared to go to jail for the strength of his convictions. Since 2006 he has gone politically quiet and has since revealed that Bongo offered to give him $21.5m for the development of his constituency.

If his case illustrates the carrot used by the farmer's son, then Joseph Rendjambe reveals the stick. The opposition leader died in mysterious circumstances in 1990, the very year the president finally bowed to pressure to scrap the one-party state and bring in multi-party democracy. Only there was no one to lead the opposition. Rendjambe's death sparked riots that rocked Gabon for weeks and presented a rare threat to the regime.
The reality of the Bongo years meant that while Gabon missed the worst of the instability that has affected much of sub-Saharan Africa, it also missed the opportunities to transform itself as a country with the same per capita wealth as Portugal could have done. A small elite were the closest that Gabon came to fostering a middle class and many in the rural areas remained untouched by the oil money. While the country has almost 900 miles of oil pipeline, it has less than 600 miles of paved roads.
The passing of one of Africa's more memorable "Big Men" caused confusion and fear in Libreville, where many shops and businesses have been closed since reports first emerged in the French media on Sunday night. For the vast majority of the nation's 1.4 million people, the diminutive farmer's son was the only president they had known, having been in charge for 41 years. "We closed the restaurant since the announcement," said one waiter. "People are scared."
(Culled from an article in The Independent newspaper)


CodLiverOil said...

The case of Gabon is particularly sad, with such a relatively small population (poverty there is still widespread). The late president failed to move his country beyond oil-dependency. Gabon should be on a par with Kuwait, (in fact it should be richer, as they have a fertile, lush country, with a lot of untapped resources, unlike Kuwait, but the opposite is nearer the truth).

Seems like African elite, are very lazy and corrupt and harbor no aspirations of advancing their countries. Everything all boils down to resources that are not exploited properly (as if that's all they are capable of, at most some may venture into the fickle field of tourism) . A sad but familiar picture.

RocNaija said...

Amazing stuff... ***SMH*

Anengiyefa said...

@CodLiverOil, youre absolutely correct. With a population of only 1.4 million, Gabon had the potential for development unrivalled anywhere in Africa. But trust African leaders. Bongo was true to the reputation that they have. Loot the coffers and leave the country in tatters.

What angers me more is that the West continues to collaborate with such people as Bongo. And then Western countries turn around and blame the ordinary African for retaining such leaders, when the actuality is that ordinary Africans are so oppressed that they are powerless to resist the might of their corrupt leaders.

The billions stolen from Africa wind up in the hands of rich Western financial institutions. And it seems not to matter to them that this is stolen money.

CodLiverOil said...

The BBC did a series of programmes on African oil producing nationsb (Yes, Nigeria is included there).


For Gabon in particular, go to


Read the commentary and if possible listen to the audio.

Now you will see why I say the case of Gabon is particularly sad.

This puts an end to the disingenuous arguments of not receiving fair prices for raw materials, that has been used for sometime.

Questions about leadership in Africa have to be raised, why are there no controls on non-existent checks to prevent the abuse of power by the elite? Why is management of government revenues mismanaged most of the time? What has happened to all the technocrats?

When the opposition flexed their muscle, President Bongo had to accommodate them, so the people are not entirely powerless.

Considering the relationship between Africa and Europe was one based on colonialist and colonised, or master and servant. The people of Africa had better wake up and look to themselves for solutions in the first place rather than relying on outsiders, who to date don't have the genuine interests of Africans at heart (at least not for now).

The Turks have a saying "the only true friend of a Turk is a Turk".

It is simple and says it all, that is why Turkey is able to hold it's own on the world stage today and may not be liked by Europe and the outside world but is indeed respected, because they are strong and independent and have a sense of themselves and their destiny; good for them.

I think Africans can learn some valuable lessons from that experience.