June 9, 2009

Gabon’s president, Omar Bongo, is dead

By Lawani Mikairu with agency reports

The Late Omar Bongo

LAGOS — AFTER initial denial by the Gabonese government officials, Africa’s longest serving leader, Gabonese President Omar Bongo, has been confirmed dead. He died at the age of 73.

He became President of Gabon in 1967.

His death was confirmed by the country’s Prime Minister, Jean Eyeghe Ndong in a statement.

There had been conflicting reports earlier yesterday about Mr Bongo death in a Spanish clinic.

In his statement, Mr Ndong said Mr Bongo had died of a heart attack shortly before 1230 GMT.

“At 2.30 pm (Spanish time, 1230 GMT), the medical team, officials and family members informed me that his excellency President El Hadj Omar Bongo Ondimba has given up his soul following a cardiac arrest,” the release said.

He said Gabon would observe 30 days of mourning, and called on the Gabonese people to “stand together in contemplation and dignity”.

The leader of the Senate, Rose Francine Rogombe, an ally of Mr Bongo, is expected to take over as interim leader. Under the constitution, elections must be held within 45 days.

But opposition leaders have claimed that Mr Bongo’s son, Ali-Ben Bongo, currently defence minister, has been manoeuvred to take over, and question whether any election would be free and fair.

In the capital Libreville, the BBC’s Linel Kwatsi said people had reacted to the earlier rumours of Mr Bongo’s death by stockpiling food. They feared shops would shut if it was confirmed.

Condolence messages have started pouring in. The French President Nicolas Sarkozy expressed his sadness over the death of Mr Bongo. He said France was “standing by the people of Gabon and its institutions, at this difficult time.”

Mr Bongo became vice-president, and then president, of Gabon in 1967. He stopped work in May, and entered a clinic in Barcelona. Government officials insisted it was for a check-up, but other reports said he had cancer. Mr Bongo faced a French inquiry into corruption allegations.

Oil earnings mean that Gabon is officially one of Africa’s richest states but analysts say that the political elite has kept most of the money for themselves. Most of the country’s 1.4 million people live in poverty.

Mr. Bongo was one of three African leaders being investigated for alleged embezzlement by a French judge. The others are Denis Sassou-Nguesso of the Republic of Congo and Teodoro Obiang Nguema of Equatorial Guinea.

It is alleged that the properties owned by Mr. Bongo’s family in France could not have been purchased with official salaries alone. Mr. Bongo denied any wrongdoing.