Speaking Truth to Power – HOW WILL YOU REMEMBER OMAR BONGO? by William Reed Columnist

Africa without France is like a car without a driver.  But, France without Africa is like a car without petrol. – Gabon President Albert-Bernard Bongo

The death of El Hajj Omar (formerly Albert) Bongo marks the disappearance of one of Africa’s more colorful and memorable leaders.  Gabon’s President Omar Bongo was the world’s longest-serving head of state.  Bongo ruled, possibly looted, the oil-rich jungle-covered African state that straddles the Equator, for four decades.  When President Bongo’s death was announced June 8, 2009, Gabon was enjoying a per capita income ($14,400) four times that of most Sub-Saharan countries.

Though short in stature (4’ 11”), Bongo was the epitome of the “African Big Man”.  He had made himself president-for-life of the West Central African nation of 1.5 million.  Gabon is ideally located for oil reserves and is sub-Saharan Africa’s sixth-largest oil producer.  The nation shares borders the Gulf of Guinea to the west, Equatorial Guinea to the northwest, Cameroon to the north, with the Republic of the Congo curving around Gabon’s east and south.

Despite the high nation per capita income level, most Gabonese, officially observing 30 days of morning, are dry-eyed over the dead president.  A third of the native population lives in poverty, but thanks to oil exports and a cozy deal with the French company Elf, Bongo took care of his clique and himself.  He was one of the world’s richest people.  Elf paid Bongo one (US) dollar for each of the 300,000 barrels of Gabonese oil it pumped each day.

Bongo will be remembered well among the corridors of the Palais de l’ Elysées of France, Gabon’s former colonial power.  French elite played critical roles in Bongo’s progression to a proud and palatial lifestyle.  Thanks to help from French officials close to Gabon’s first president, in 1960 Bongo was appointed to a number of junior ministerial posts before becoming vice-president and then president in 1967 at the age of 31.  Bongo immediately gave Elf, and then named Elf-Aquitaine, virtually exclusive rights to Gabon’s oil reserves.  Elf, which at one stage was owned by the French government, operates in Gabon as a state within a state, providing a base for French military and intelligence services.

France accounts for 75 percent of Gabon’s foreign exports.  Most of that money went to Bongo, his family and the aristocracy of his Bateke tribe.  Bongo trusted few people beyond the French and his own family.  A clever political manipulator, Bongo bought off organized opposition through patronage.  He made his son, Ali-Ben, defense minister and a daughter, Pascaline, foreign minister, later chef de cabinet.  Pascaline’s husband, Paul Tongire, is the current foreign minister.

Bongo spent as much time as he could in Paris, reveling in friendships with French aristocracy.  He owned 33 properties in Paris and Nice with a combined value exceeding $254 million.  He had fleets of Rolls-Royce cars.  Bongo’s love of France and oil molded his government’s direction.  His conversion to Islam was viewed as purely “opportunistic”.  Despite the limited number of Muslims among its population, Gabon held membership in the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) from 1975 to 1995.

Bongo’s son, Ali-Ben, is poised to assume Gabon’s presidency.  Omar Bongo will be remembered by a large number of other Gaboneses who have his name.  He is estimated to have fathered more than 30 children.  His home town, Lewai, was renamed Bongoville.  The university, airport, many hospitals and a stadium bear the Bongo name.  But, the lack of a true landmark of his legacy was made in April when news broke that the critically ill Bongo had been flown to Europe for treatment: Gabonese critics said that despite Gabon’s oil wealth the country did not have the quality of hospitals able to treat him.  Bongo’s passing brought cries that “the clique has to go” and “things need to change”.  "When you’re a Gabonese person you don’t feel that the country is rich – because of all the wealth, all the oil, has been retained by maybe two percent of the population," a teacher in Libreville told the BBC.

(William Reed – http://www.BlackPressInternational.com)