Agence France Presse
Murky ties mar legacy of Gabon's Omar Bongo, 73
This photo taken in 1982 shows Gabonese president Omar Bongo in
his office. The 73-year-old president, Africa's longest-reigning ruler
and a key French ally on the continent, died in a clinic in Spain.
Omar Bongo Ondimba, Africa's longest-serving leader whose rule was
tainted by corruption, died yesterday at a clinic in Barcelona.
At first, authorities in the Gabon capital denied an announcement in Spain
the 73-year-old had died, with officials summoning the French ambassador
to complain about "non-official and alarmist" reports.
Later in the day, the death was confirmed and officials
announced 30 days of national mourning.
His son, Ali Ben Bongo, 50, Gabon's Defence Minister and favourite
to succeed him, renewed appeals for public calm, indicating
his pivotal role in coming days and weeks.
"I am calling for calm and serenity of heart and reverence to preserve
the unity and peace so dear to our late father," he said in a televised appeal
after his ministry announced the closure of air, land and sea borders.
Mr. Bongo, who had been in power since 1967, was reportedly
being treated for intestinal cancer.
He ruled longer than any of Africa's "Big Men" but his legacy was tarnished
by allegations he built a personal fortune out of Gabon's oil boom.
A small figure with a neat moustache and penetrating gaze often hidden
behind black glasses, he was a wily political dinosaur who
ruled Gabon as a one-party state for more than 41 years.
Although he gained plaudits late in life for his mediation efforts, he will
be remembered for his murky ties with France and widespread allegations
he personally profited from Gabon's oil boom in the 1970s and 1980s.
Albert-Bernard Bongo was only 27 when he caught the attention of
the country's first ruler, Leon Mba.
Obviously an astute political tactician, Mr. Bongo was already a
rising star and Mr. Mba made him his vice-president five years later.
Less than nine months passed before Mr. Mba died and Mr. Bongo
was suddenly Africa's fourth-youngest president ever.
He set about building the enduring single-party regime.
He also took a new name, becoming el-Hadj Omar Bongo after
converting to Islam in 1973, then adding his father's name Ondimba in 2003.
From one of Gabon's smallest ethnic minorities, Mr. Bongo tolerated
no opposition but was always careful how he divvied out power,
showing respect for his country's subtle ethnic and regional complexities.
In the 1970s and 1980s, Gabon's oil flowed abundantly,
but much of the wealth remains in few hands.
Challenged by a populist surge in 1990, Mr. Bongo installed
a multiparty system, but his Gabonese Democratic Party (PDG)
always held the absolute majority in parliament.
When he was re-elected in 1998 with 66.88% of the vote,
then in 2005 with 79.21%, the opposition cried fraud.
Ultimately, though, they were out-manoeuvred as
the veteran leader gave key government posts to some of his foes.
The handing out of privileges and contracts enabled him
to rally some of his oldest and fiercest opponents to his cause
and helped him become the world's longest serving leader, except for monarchs.
His wife, Edith Lucie Bongo Odimba, daughter of Denis Sassou Nguesso,
Congo's President, died in March aged 45. Mr. Bongo announced
he was "temporarily" suspending his duties to rest and mourn.
Internationally, he was one of the African kingpins in
the opaque French politics of the oil boom, when
Paris maintained murky ties with some former colonies for "reasons of state."
But times changed.
A French judge announced in May he would launch
a landmark investigation into whether Mr. Bongo,
his ally Mr. Nguesso and Equatorial Guinea's Teodoro Obiang Nguema
plundered state coffers to buy luxury homes and cars in France.A complaint filed by Transparency International France
accused them of acquiring millions of dollars
of real estate in Paris and the French Riviera, and buying luxury cars
Agence France Presse
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