Gabon: Omar Bongo (1935-2009) and power - till death part their ways (analysis)

Abuja (Nigeria) - The youngest in a family of twelve children, Bongo was born on 30 December 1935 in Lewai, a town of the Haut-Ogooué province in southeastern Gabon near the border with the Republic of the Congo. He was a member of the small Bateke ethnic group. Lewai was renamed Bongoville in honour of Bongo's work to develop the town.

After his primary and secondary education in Brazzaville (then the capital of French Equatorial Africa), Bongo held a job at the Post and Telecommunications Public Services, before starting his military training. This training allowed him to serve as a second lieutenant and then as a first lieutenant in the Air Force, successively in Brazzaville, Bangui and Fort Lamy (present-day N'djamena, Chad). He was honourably discharged as captain.

After Gabon's independence in 1960, Albert-Bernard Bongo started his political career, gradually rising through a succession of positions under President Léon M'ba. On 24 September 1965, he was appointed as Presidential Representative and placed in charge of defense and coordination. He was then Minister of Information and Tourism, initially on an interim basis, then formally holding the position in August 1966. M'ba, whose health was declining, appointed Bongo as Vice-President of Gabon on 12 November 1966. In the presidential election held on March 19, 1967, M'ba was re-elected as President and Bongo was elected alongside him as Vice-President.

According to Bongo, due to "M'ba's long absence from political life", he essentially carried out the functions of the President while serving as Vice-President. He became President on 2 December 1967, following the death of M'ba on November 28. At age 31, he was Africa's fourth youngest president at the time, after Michel Micombero of Burundi and Gnassingbé Eyadéma of Togo.

In 1973, Bongo converted to Islam, taking the name Omar Bongo. In 2003, he added Ondimba as his surname.

In the early 1990s Bongo ended the domination of the Gabonese Democratic Party and allowed multi-party elections held in 1993 and 1998 in response to popular demand. Previously, it had been a one-party state for 16 years. Bongo won both times, taking 51.2% and 66.88% of the vote respectively. To boost public support for himself, he entered into talks with the opposition, negotiating what became known as the Paris Agreement in a successful attempt to restore calm.

In 2003 the constitution was changed to eliminate any restrictions on the number of terms a president can serve. Bongo's critics accuse him of intending to rule for life. Bongo announced his candidacy for the 2005 presidential election on 1 October. On 6 October it was announced that the election would be held on November 27, although security forces would vote two days earlier.] According to official results, Bongo won the election with a large majority of 79.2%. He was sworn in for another seven-year term on 19 January 2006.

Bongo gave himself the image of a peacemaker, playing an important role in attempts to solve the crises in the Central African Republic, Congo-Brazzaville, Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Among Gabonese, he was seen as a charismatic and straightforward figure, popular for the relative stability of his country during his reign.

Bongo was one of the wealthiest heads of state in the world, with this attributed primarily from the benefits of oil revenue and alleged corruption. In 2005, an investigation by the United States Senate Indian Affairs Committee into fundraising irregularities by lobbyist Jack Abramoff revealed that Abramoff had offered to arrange a meeting between U.S. President George W. Bush and Bongo for the sum of 9 million USD. Although such an exchange of funds remains unproven, Bush met with Bongo 10 months later in the Oval Office.

He has been cited in recent years during French criminal inquiries into hundreds of millions of euros of illicit payments by Elf Aquitaine, the former French state-owned oil group. One Elf representative testified that the company was giving 50 million euros per year to Bongo to exploit the petrol lands of Gabon.

As of June 2007, Bongo, along with President Denis Sassou Nguesso of the Republic of the Congo, Blaise Compaoré of Burkina Faso, Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo of Equatorial Guinea and Dos Santos from Angola is being investigated by the French magistrates after the complaint made by French NGOs Survie and Sherpa due to claims that he has used millions of pounds of embezzled public funds to acquire lavish properties in France.

In 2009 Bongo was in a major row with France over a French inquiry into luxury properties he had bought in the country and claims by anti-corruption activists they were acquired with embezzled state funds. It was alleged that the properties owned by Mr Bongo's family in France could not have been purchased with official salaries alone. A French court decision in February 2009 to freeze Bongo's bank accounts added fuel to the fire and his government accused France of waging a "campaign to destabilise" the country.

Bongo's first marriage was to Marie Josephine Kama, later known as Josephine Bongo. He divorced her in 1986 after which she went on to become Patience Dabany, the internationally acclaimed successful African musician. Together they had a son, Alain Bernard Bongo, and a daughter Albertine Amissa Bongo. Ali-Ben (Alain Bernard Bongo) served as Foreign Minister from 1989 to 1991,before becoming Defence Minister in 1999.

His first child, daughter Pascaline Mferri Bongo Ondimba was born 10 April 1956 in Franceville, Gabon. She was Foreign Minister of Gabon and is currently director of the presidential cabinet.

Bongo then married Edith Lucie Sassou-Nguesso (born March 10 1964), in 1990. She was the daughter of Congolese President Denis Sassou-Nguesso. She was a trained pediatrician, known for her elegance and her commitment to fighting AIDS. Edith died on March 14 2009, just after turning 45, in Rabat, Morocco where she had been undergoing treatment for several months. The statement announcing her death did not specify the cause of death or the nature of her illness. She had not appeared in public for around three years preceding her death.

On 7 May 2009, the Gabonese Government announced that Bongo had temporarily suspended his official duties and taken time off to mourn his wife and rest in Spain. At the time of his death, Bongo had been Africa's longest serving leader.


CMS by Noop | Design by Ingrid Apollon | Supported by Norad