Owei Lakemfa

June 12, 2009

Bongo of contradictions

By Owei Lakemfa
DEATH is the price of living. Hence, it is a common belief amongst  Africans that you do  not speak ill of the dead.  I do not intend to go against this culture; all I want to do is point out the contradictions in El Hadj Omar Bongo Ondimba, the Gabonese President, who mercifully passed away this Monday June 7, 2009 in Spain.

A loyal servant of the French, Bongo is being bandied around as “a man of peace” who brought stability to his country and championed resolution of conflicts amongst African countries. But the absence of war, especially during Bongo’s 41-year rule, does not mean the presence of peace.

Bongo who had trained as a soldier in Chad was quite intolerant of the opposition.  In the 1970s, he got several members of the opposition killed.  In 1982 for allegedly distributing anti-government leaflets during the visit of Pope Paul II, he jailed several opposition activists, some for 20 years.

The following year, he almost broke up with his French masters because the French government did not stop the publication of a book,  Affairs Africanes by Pierre Pean.
Bongo in 1982 banned five Pentecostal and other Christian groups that are neither Catholic nor orthodox protestant.

The alledged murder of opposition leader Joseph Rendjambe led to widespread protests during which the French consulate was attacked.  Bongo used this to settle political scores. For  instance, soldiers moved on the home of the President of the National Assembly, Augustine Boumah, who fled and resigned.

The “man of peace” will be remembered in Nigeria for his role during the civil war.  Carrying out the dictates of France, Bongo recognised Biafra and allowed Gabon to be used as Biafra’s main air and arms transit base.  A positive aspect of this, however, was that he allowed many starving children in Biafra to be taken to Gabon.  Unfortunately, due to poor documentation, some of these Nigerians are “lost” in that country.

In 1977, mercenaries invaded Benin.  Their base and take off point was Gabon.  When Bongo was criticised by the African Union, he expelled Benin citizens and broke diplomatic relations which were not restored until 1987.

Joseph Mobutu Seseseko was the brutal dictator in Zaire (now Democratic Republic of Congo) When in 1978 patriots rose to throw him out, Bongo sent in Gabonese troops to keep Mobutu in power.

The Sahrawi Republic which used to be known as Western Sahara was seized by king Hassan of Morocco.  While most of Africa rejected this theft of an Africa country, Bongo rallied to Morocco’s support.  All these do not portray late Bongo as a “Man of Peace”.

He was the father of Gabon, but the truth is that he was primarily the father of his over three dozen children whom he imposed on the country.  For instance, his 56-year old daughter,  Pascaline Mferri Bongo, was Foreign Minister in her father‘s government, and is today Director of the Presidential Cabinet.  Her brother, Alain Bernard Bongo was also Foreign Minister (1989-1991).  He has been Defence Minister since 1999.

When his father died, he closed the country’s borders and airport and put troops on the alert.  .

Alain or Pascaline might eventually, take over power in Gabon.  But a point that cannot be denied is that Gabonese children unlike those in Nigeria, have unfettered access to education.

Gabon is a country rich in petroleum products, timber, gold, iron ore, manganese and uranium.  But the citizens are very poor because the country’s resources are frittered away by the French, Bongo and his family.  The cost of Bongo’s palace, which includes a discotheque and 3,000-seater banquet hall, is put at $ 800 million.

In France alone, police investigations in 2007 showed that Bongo and his family had 33 properties in Paris and Nice worth $190 million. As a result of bribery accusations, especially against  the French Elf-Aquitaine Oil Company, an embarrassed France froze the huge funds of Bongo in the country.

When in 1999, the American Senate investigated the Citibank, it discovered that Bongo alone had $130 million in his personal account with the bank.

The contradictions in Bongo and the manner he ran the country is reflected in the disgraceful handling of his illness and death by Gabonese authorities.

Bongo was a human being which meant that he could fall ill, and even die. This basic reality the Gabonese leaders refused to accept.  So when he fell sick and was flown to the Quiron Clinic, Barcelona, Spain, the Gabonese leaders denied the truth.

They claimed that his journey to Spain was to mourn his wife, Edith Lucie who died in Rabat, Morocco on March 14.

The Gabonese Information Minister Laure Olga Gondjout said: “It’s false.  I will tell you simply that he’s in good health and that, according to our tradition, he is observing a period of mourning of his wife”.

But a Gabonese Foreign Office statement contradicted her saying that although Bongo is sick, he is in stable condition.  However, the Spanish Foreign Minister told the press that Bongo is very sick.

Then on Monday morning the man died and the French media so reported. Shockingly the Gabonese Prime Minister Jean Eyegho Ndong denied the story.  He even claimed thus: “This morning, I visited the President accompanied by the President of the National Assembly, the Foreign Minister…”.

The country’s first President after its July 15, 1960 independence from France was Leon Mba.  Popular protests and an army mutiny forced him to resign in February 1964 but within two days French paratroopers intervened and reinstated him.

Albert Bernard Bongo had at the age of 27 in 1962 been appointed by President Mba as a Director in the Presidency.  In 1967 he was moved up to the position of Vice President.

That same year, Mba died and was replaced by Bongo who converted to Islam in 1973 and changed his name to Omar.

The challenges of post Bongo Gabon include how sovereignty can be restored to the people, free and fair multiparty elections can hold and how the country’s resources looted by the Bongos and their allies can be identified and repatriated to pull  the average Gabonese out of the poverty pit.