June 16, 2009

Omar Bongo (1935-2009)

El Haji Omar Bongo Ondimba, the diminutive President of Gabon, passed on last week at 73. After 42 years of uninterrupted control of Gabon, he became the world’s longest serving president by March 2008 (possibly one of the richest), overtaking Cuba’s Fidel Castro, who stepped down due to failing health.

Born Albert Bernard Bongo, to a peasant family of 12 children, he lost his father at seven. Bongo schooled in Brazzaville, joined the French Air Force and in 1962 was appointed a Director in President Leon Mba’s office. Mba was the father of Gabon’s independence and the only other President of Gabon before Bongo’s demise.

Mba rewarded Bongo with the Vice President’s office after Bongo, with the aid of French paratroopers quelled an uprising against Mba. At Mba’s death Bongo became President and spent the next 42 years building a dynasty of cronies who appropriated Gabon’s oil wealth.

He converted to Islam in 1973 in his relentless search for relevance across broader spheres than what his closeness and loyalty to France offered. With Gabon’s oil wealth, he maintained seeming prosperity under his repressive rule. The Gabonese National Assembly last year guaranteed him unlimited tenure. At 73, he was not thinking of leaving office until death separated him from the presidency.

Bongo is among African leaders who have clung to power winning all elections they conduct, in the cases they do so. There are others. Muamaar Gaddafi has had Libya for 40 years. Gaddafi is only 67. After 32 years, Mobutu Sese Seko left Zaire in wars.

In neighbouring Congo, Denis Sassou-Nguesso, Bongo’s father-in-law, has done 31 years. Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo has been President of Equatorial Guinea for 30 years. Robert Gabriel Mugabe of Zimbabwe has ruled for 29 years. Hosni Mubarrak of Egypt and Felix Biya of Cameroon, are in their 28th year in office.  Later arrivals like Blaise Campaore in Burkina Faso and Yoweri Kaguta Museveni of Uganda have done 23 years, Omar al-Bashir of Sudan 21 years and Idriss Deby of Chad 20 years.

Lansana Conte who died last year at 74 ruled Guinea after a coup for 24 years. Mohammed Abdelaziz of the Western Sahara, has run the country, since it declared independence from Morocco 32 years ago.

Cote d’Ivoire still burns from 33 years of President Felix Houphouet-Boigny. Only death, at 88, stopped him from remaining in office. Daniel Toroitich Arap Moi was constitutionally forced out of office at 82. He was Kenya’s President for 24 years.

Bongo’s departure could mark instability in Gabon. Constitutionally, the leader of the Senate should act while a new President is elected within 45 days. The indications are that Bongo’s son, Ali-Ben, the current Minister of Defence, is being tipped to succeed his father, as was the case in Togo, where Gnasssingbe Eyadema’s death threw up his son, as the next President.

Omar Bongo’s stable Gabon would come under severe tests, when the opposition demands more democratic conducts. Omar Bongo never thought of a Gabon without him.