Bongo, Africa's last 'big man', clings to power

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The Independent Online

He was first elected president when General de Gaulle and Harold Wilson were at their peak, and 38 years laterOmar Bongo, the last and most long-serving of Africa's "big men," shows no sign of relinquishing his grip on power.

Early results from Sunday's elections in the west African state of Gabon show that Mr Bongo, who has been in office since 1967, will extend his reign by another seven years and cruise to another easy victory after criss-crossing the country promising voters electricity, new roads and schools in return for their continued support.

Two years ago, Mr Bongo, 69, changed the constitution to ensure he could stay in power until 2012 if he so wished - and there are no signs that he expects to step down before then.

Although he introduced multi-party politics in the early 1990s under international pressure, Mr Bongo has made no secret of the fact that he believes African countries need autocratic leaders to deal with ethnic tensions.

Gabon's history could be interpreted as proving him right. Despite being made up of more than 40 ethnic groups, the country has been far more stable than most of its neighbours. This is partly thanks to its small population and abundant oil resources, which allow Mr Bongo to buy his way out of trouble, and partly due to the iron grip his family has on power.

His wife, the formidable Edith Lucie, daughter of a former Congolese president, has added glamour and intrigue to the first family. She has made sure her son Ali has emerged as Mr Bongo's natural successor - he has been put in charge of defence and foreign affairs. And although Mr Bongo has at least 30 illegitimate children scattered around the country, he has managed to portray himself as the strict but benign father of the nation.

He won this year's elections through well-used strategies; putting pressure on the media to provide biased coverage in favour of his own party, portraying himself as the only man who can hold Gabon together, and using some of the country's oil revenues to offer electorates sweeteners before the vote.

Zachary Myboto, a former minister who ran for president, even wrote a letter to his old boss, saying: "It would be best to break with the habit of claiming a percentage of the votes before the counting is done and then doling out the remainder to the other candidates as you see fit."

During his reign, Mr Bongo has built up a reputation as a strict but benign dictator, who frequently dips into his own pockets to solve state crises.

Voters appear to have turned a blind eye to his government's corruption - Mr Bongo is one of the wealthiest heads of state in the world, but as he has been willing to spend some of that money on the electorate, few seem to mind. He has a particular obsession with keeping the young happy - when students went on strike in 2000 demanding more resources, he provided £780,000 of his own money to buy computers and books for them.

He has also proved himself adept at holding the country together. When Gabon went through its only coup in 1962, Mr Bongo was working as an adviser for the country's first president, Leon Mba. After staying loyal to Mr Mba throughout the coup, he was made vice-president, and when Mr Mba died in 1967, he was the obvious successor. He ruled through patronage and fear until 1993, when the country held its first multi-party elections, and he kept power by undermining the opposition with deals and sweeteners.