The corrupt nepotist who ruled Gabon for 40 years

The death of President Omar Bongo in a Spanish hospital yesterday brings an era of African history to an end. Daniel Howden reports on a man who accumulated riches with the same determination as he held on to power

Tuesday 09 June 2009 00:00 BST

Omar Bongo was so successful at the art of holding on to power that by the end of his life there was no one left in his country with enough authority to pronounce him dead. It took more than 24 hours for the death of the 73-year-old president of Gabon to be confirmed, during which time there were no less than three official denials from the West African nation.

The final word eventually came yesterday afternoon from Gabon's prime minister Jean Eyeghe Ndong, who confirmed the president had died of a cardiac arrest in a Barcelona hospital. This was just hours after the same official had held a press conference at the clinic to say he had seen his president "alive and well".

Africa's longest serving leader would have probably enjoyed the confusion. It was certainly a tribute to his extraordinary ability to sideline rivals and ensure no competitor, either individually or institutionally, could construct a power base to challenge him.

"President Omar Bongo's greatest legacy is the political stability he was able to achieve and maintain throughout his time in office," said Tara O'Connor, managing director of Africa Risk Consulting. "Unlike neighbouring Congo-Brazzaville and Cote d'Ivoire where the elite's resistance to democracy ultimately provoked civil war, President Bongo met the challenge and later artfully co-opted his opponents into high government office."

Albert Bernard Bongo was born in 1935, the 12th son of a farmer who died when he was seven years old. His official website boasts that "he didn't come into the world on a hospital bed, and he didn't have a cot or a nanny". In 1973, six years after taking over from Gabon's first post-independence leader, he converted to Islam, taking the name El Hadj Omar Bongo. By the time of his death, his name was Omar Bongo Ondimba, after he added a pre-colonial traditional name, reclaimed to underline his African credentials.

There was very little that the man who wore platform shoes to disguise his short stature would not do to get an edge. And this played no small part in the fact that when he died, he was one of the richest men in the world.

Although no clear figure of his net worth has been confirmed, the scale of his plundered riches had begun to emerge thanks to a court case in Gabon's former colonial master, France. Mr Bongo was one of three African leaders accused this year of embezzlement by the French wing of corruption watchdog, Transparency International. Also under investigation are Republic of Congo leader Denis Sassou-Nguesso, a close ally and father-in-law of Mr Bongo, and Teodoro Obiang Nguema of Equatorial Guinea. The trio have been accused of looting state coffers. Their extensive portfolio of French properties, worth many multiples of their stated official earnings, have been cited as evidence of corruption.

Throughout his four-decade stint in office which began with the death of his predecessor Leon M'ba in 1967 in a French hospital, former army officer Bongo displayed an acute understanding of the importance of relations with Paris. "Gabon without France is like a car with no driver. France without Gabon is like a car with no fuel," is how the former French air force lieutenant liked to describe the bond.

When French oil giant ELF was looking for a base of operations in the 1970s, Mr Bongo made sure it was Gabon to which they turned first. The Paris trial in 2003 of former Elf chairman Loik Le Floch-Prigent revealed the extent of the corruption and shady dealings in the resultant oil boom where the company was allowed to operate as a "state within a state" in a manner that foreshadowed companies like Royal Dutch Shell in their later dealings with Nigeria. The Gabonese president shrugged off revelations of huge kickback payments to his personal accounts, dismissing them as a "French matter".

Prior to the current suit brought by Transparency International, a police investigation into French real estate owned by the president and his family uncovered 33 properties in Paris and on the Riviera worth an estimated $190m. A decade ago, a US Senate probe into private banking operations at Citibank estimated that the president held $130m in personal accounts and concluded that there could be "no doubt that these financial assets were sourced in the public finances of Gabon".

Through a shrewd disbursement of this vast wealth, collected from oil, the farmer's son maintained friendships with French politicians of every ideological hue that sustained him almost until the end. "He was a great figure of Africa," a "man who had influence", said French Defence Minister Hervé Morin when told of his death. The special relationship had become strained, though, under the presidency of Nicolas Sarkozy whose government is considering dismantling its 1,000-strong army base in Libreville.

The current frostiness was demonstrated by the ailing autocrat's decision to seek treatment last month in Barcelona, rather than a French hospital. Amid rumours that he had cancer, Gabon officials insisted he was having a "routine check-up". Even after his death, the West African country's prime minister insisted that Mr Bongo had died of a "cardiac arrest", making no mention of cancer.

In Libreville one of the favourite jokes was that the quickest way to become a millionaire was to set up an opposition party. The experience of Pierre Mamboundou, leader of the Union for the People of Gabon – who until recently was considered the president's main challenger is proof that it was more than a joke. Mr Mamboundou, the veteran of two bruising and ultimately unsuccessful presidential contests with Mr Bongo, enjoyed a reputation as an uncompromising free speaker prepared to go to jail for the strength of his convictions. Since 2006 he has gone politically quiet and has since revealed that Bongo offered to give him $21.5m for the development of his constituency.

If his case illustrates the carrot used by the farmer's son, then Joseph Rendjambe reveals the stick. The opposition leader died in mysterious circumstances in 1990, the very year the president finally bowed to pressure to scrap the one-party state and bring in multi-party democracy. Only there was no one to lead the opposition. Rendjambe's death sparked riots that rocked Gabon for weeks and presented a rare threat to the regime.

The reality of the Bongo years meant that while Gabon missed the worst of the instability that hit West Africa, it also missed the opportunities to transform itself as a country with the same per capita wealth as Portugal could have done. A small elite were the closest that Gabon came to fostering a middle class and many in the rural areas remained untouched by the oil money. While the country has almost 900 miles of oil pipeline, it has less than 600 miles of paved roads.

The passing of one of Africa's more memorable "Big Men" caused confusion and fear in Libreville, where many shops and businesses have been closed since reports first emerged in French media on Sunday night. For the vast majority of the tiny nation's 1.4 million people, the diminutive farmer's son was the only president they had known, having been in charge for 41 years. "We closed the restaurant since the announcement," said one waiter. "People are scared."

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