THE BIG READ: Omar Bongo, The architect of modern Gabon
Friday, June 12, 2009
Omar Bongo Ondimba (born 30 December 1935, Lewai, French Equatorial Africa - died 8 June 2009, Barcelona, Spain)[ formerly known as Albert-Bernard Bongo, was a Gabonese politician who was President of Gabon from 1967 to 2009.
Bongo, a man of short stature at 4ft 11", succeeded Gabon's Independence President Leon M'ba upon the latter's death in 1967,to become Gabon's second president . After Cuban President Fidel Castro stepped down in February 2008, Bongo became the world's longest-serving ruler, excluding monarchies.
Bongo headed the single-party regime of the Gabonese Democratic Party (PDG) until 1990 when, in the face of intense opposition to his rule , multi-party politics was introduced in Gabon. He eventually succeeded in re-consolidating power in the multi party era and was re-elected in multiparty presidential elections held in 1993, 1998, and 2005. He died in office in 2009.
The youngest of twelve siblings, Albert-Bernard Bongo was born on 30 December 1935 in Lewai, French Equatorial Africa, a town of the Haut-Ogooué province in what is now 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), Omar 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 honorably 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. Bongo campaigned for M. Sandoungout in Haut Ogooué in the 1961 parliamentary election, choosing not to run for election in his own right; Sandoungout was elected and became Minister of Health. Bongo worked at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for a time, and he was named Assistant Director of the Presidential Cabinet in March 1962; he was named Director seven months later. In 1964, during the only coup attempt in Gabon's history, M'ba was kidnapped and Bongo was held in a military camp in Libreville, though M'ba was restored to power two days later.
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 19 March 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.
Bongo became President on 2 December 1967, following the death of M'ba four days earlier. Aged 31, Bongo was Africa's fourth youngest president at the time, after Michel Micombero of Burundi and Gnassingbé Eyadéma of Togo. In March 1968 Bongo decreed Gabon to be a one-party state and changed the name of Gabon's Independence Party ,the Bloc Democratique Gabonais (BDG), to the Parti Democratique Gabonais (PDG), or Gabon Democratic Party.
In the 1973 elections for the national assembly and the presidency, Bongo was the sole candidate for president. He and all PDG candidates were elected by 99.56% of the votes cast. In April 1975 Bongo abolished the post of vice-president and appointed his former vice-president, Leon Mebiame, as prime minister, a position Bongo had held concurrently with his presidency from 1967. Mebiame would remain as prime minister until his resignation in 1990. In addition to the presidency, Bongo held several ministerial portfolios from 1967 onward, including Minister of Defense (1967-1981), Information (1967-1980), Planning (1967-1977), Prime Minister (1967-1975), the Interior (1967-1970), and many others.
Following a Congress of the PDG in January 1979 and the December 1979 elections, Bongo gave up some of his ministerial portfolios and surrendered his functions as head of government to Prime Minister Mebiame. The PDG congress had criticized Bongo's administration for inefficiency and called for an end to the holding of multiple offices. Bongo was again re-elected for a seven-year term in 1979, receiving 99.96% of the popular vote.
Opposition to President Bongo's regime first appeared in the late 1970s, as economic difficulties became more acute for the Gabonese. The first organized, but illegal, opposition party was MORENA, the Movement for National Restoration (Mouvement de redressement national). This moderate opposition group sponsored demonstrations by students and academic staff at the Universite Omar Bongo in Libreville in December of 1981, when the university was temporarily closed. MORENA accused Bongo of corruption and personal extravagance and of favoring his own Bateke tribe; the group demanded that a multi-party system be restored. Arrests were made in February 1982, when the opposition distributed leaflets criticizing the Bongo regime during a visit by Pope John Paul II.
In November 1982, 37 MORENA members were tried and convicted of offenses against state security. Severe sentences were handed out, including 20 years of hard labor for 13 of the defendants; all were pardoned, however, and released by mid-1986. Despite these pressures, Omar Bongo remained committed to one-party rule. In 1985, legislative elections were held which followed past procedures; all nominations were approved by PDG, which then presented a single list of candidates. The candidates were ratified by popular vote on 3 March 1985. In November 1986 Bongo was re-elected by 99.97% of the popular vote
On May 22nd 1990, after strikes,riots and unrest,the Gabonese Democratic Party PDG central committee and the national assembly approved constitutional amendments to facilitate the transition to a multi-party system. The existing presidential mandate, effective through 1994, was to be respected. Subsequent elections to the presidency would be contested by more than one candidate, and the presidential term of office was changed to five years with a limit of one re-election to the office.
The very next day, on May 23rd 1990, a vocal critic of Bongo was found dead in a hotel, reportedly murdered by poison. The death of Joseph Rendjambe, a prominent business executive and secretary-general of the opposition group Parti gabonais du progres (PGP), touched off the worst rioting in Bongo's 23-year rule. Presidential buildings in Libreville were set on fire and the French consul-general and ten oil company employees were taken hostage.French troops evacuated foreigners and a state of emergency was declared in Port Gentil, Rendjambe's hometown and a strategic oil production site.
During this emergency Gabon's two main oil producers, Elf and Shell, cut output from 270,000 barrels per day to 20,000. Bongo threatened to withdraw their exploration licenses unless they restored normal output, which they soon did. France sent in 500 troops to reinforce the 500-man battalion of Marines permanently stationed in Gabon "to protect the interests of 20,000 resident French nationals." With French help,calm was eventually restored.
In Dec 1993, Bongo won the the first presidential election held under the new multi-party constitution, by a considerably narrower margin of around 51.4%. The Opposition denounced the vote as fraudulent. Bongo was eventually successful in consolidating power again, with most of the major opposition leaders either being co-opted by being given high-ranking posts in the government, and/or bought off, ensuring Bongo's comfortable re-election in 1998.
In 2003 Bongo secured a change in the Constitution allowing him to seek re-election as many times as he wanted, and changing the Presidential term to seven years up from five. Bongo's critics accused him of intending to rule for life. In November 2005 Bongo won another seven-year term as president in the November 27 election, winning 79.2 percent of the vote, comfortably ahead of his four challengers. He was sworn in for another seven-year term on 19 January 2006 and remained president until his death in 2009.
"Like other absolute rulers on the continent, Mr. Bongo curtailed dissent, opposition and the press. But unlike many others his authoritarian rule was softened by money from the rich offshore oil fields, and his style was to co-opt or buy off opponents rather than crush them outright. That made him a more respectable ally in the region for France, which maintains a military base in the capital Libreville, has extensive oil interests in the country, and has always ... considered Mr. Bongo France's 'special partner' in Africa"
International and regional roles
Bongo was the Grand Chancellor of the International Parliament for Safety and Peace, an international organization with a volunteer diplomatic service. He also reportedly played an important role in attempts to solve the crises in the Central African Republic, Congo-Brazzaville, Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Former French president Valery Giscard d'Estaing claimed that Bongo helped bankroll Jacques Chirac's 1981 presidential campaign. Giscard said Bongo had developed a "very questionable financial network" over time. "I called Bongo and told him 'you're supporting my rival's campaign' and there was a dead silence that I still remember to this day and then he said 'Ah, you know about it', which was extraordinary. From that moment on, I broke off personal relations with him" said Giscard.
Allegations of corruption
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 1997, Citibank was censured, after an investigation by the US Senate Permanent Subcommittee on investigations, for taking huge deposits of close to 50 million dollars from Bongo. As a recent book explains:
"A Citibank official told the Senate that he never once asked Bongo about the source of his wealth 'for reasons of etiquette and protocol'. Another told the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC) in 1997 that Bongo would have a courier pick up suitcases full of cash from the oil companies, and he always paid cash when visiting the United States. On one visit to the United States, Citibank noted, Bongo's entourage took two full floors at the Plaza Hotel in New York."
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 9,000,000 USD. Although such an exchange of funds remains unproven, Bush met with Bongo 10 months later in the Oval Office.
In 2007, his daughter-in-law, Inge, wife of his son Ali, caused a stir when she appeared on the US music channel VH1's reality show, Really Rich Real Estate. She was featured trying to buy a $25,000,000 mansion in Malibu, California.
Omar Bongo was 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. The leaders denied any wrong doing.
The British Sunday Times Newspaper reported on 20 June 2008 as follows:
A mansion worth £15m in one of Paris's most elegant districts has become the latest of 33 luxury properties bought in France by President Omar Bongo Ondimba of Gabon ... and his family, it was alleged last week... a French judicial investigation has discovered that Bongo, 72, and his relatives also bought a fleet of limousines, including a £308,823 Maybach for his wife, Edith, 44. Payment for some of the cars was taken directly from the treasury of Gabon ...
The Paris mansion is in the Rue de la Baume, near the Elysée Palace ... The 21,528 sq ft home was bought in June last year by a property company based in Luxembourg. The firm's partners are two of Bongo's children, Omar, 13, and Yacine, 16, his wife Edith and one of her nephews ... The residence is the most expensive in his portfolio, which includes nine other properties in Paris, four of which are on the exclusive Avenue Foch, near the Arc de Triomphe.
He also rents a nine-room apartment in the same street. Bongo has a further seven properties in Nice, including four villas, one of which has a swimming pool. Edith has two flats near the Eiffel Tower and another property in Nice.Investigators identified the properties through tax records. Checks at Bongo's houses in turn allowed them to find details of his fleet of cars. Edith used a cheque, drawn on an account in the name of "Paierie du Gabon en France" (part of the Gabon treasury), to buy the Maybach, painted Cote d'Azur blue, in February 2004. Bongo's daughter Pascaline, 52, used a cheque from the same account for a part-payment of £29,497 towards a £60,000 Mercedes two years later. Bongo bought himself a Ferrari 612 Scaglietti F1 in October 2004 for £153,000, while his son Ali acquired a Ferrari 456 M GT in June 2001 for £156,000.
Bongo's fortune has repeatedly come under the spotlight. According to a 1997 US Senate report, his family spends £55m a year. In a separate French investigation into corruption at the former oil giant Elf Aquitaine, an executive testified that it paid £40m a year to Bongo via Swiss bank accounts in exchange for permission to exploit his country's reserves. Bongo has denied this.
The latest inquiry, by the French antifraud agency OCRGDF, followed a lawsuit that accused Bongo and two other African leaders of plundering public funds to finance their purchases. 'Whatever the merits and qualifications of these leaders, no one can seriously believe that these assets were paid for out of their salaries', alleges the lawsuit brought by the Sherpa association of jurists, which promotes corporate social responsibility.
In 2009 Bongo spent his last months in a major row with France over the French inquiry. 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 converted to Islam in 1973, taking the name El Hadj Omar Bongo. In 2003, he added Ondimba as his surname. Bongo's first marriage was to Marie Josephine Kama, later known as Josephine Bongo. He divorced her in 1986. Later she would be known as Patience Dabany, an African musician. They had a son, Alain Bernard Bongo, and a daughter, Albertine Amissa Bongo. Alain Bernard Bongo, later known as Ali-Ben Bongo, served as Foreign Minister from 1989 to 1991, becoming Defence Minister in 1999. Omar Bongo's 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 10 March 1964 - died 14 March 2009) in 1990. She was the daughter of Congolese President Denis Sassou-Nguesso. She was a trained pediatrician, known for her commitment to fighting AIDS. Edith Lucie Bongo died on 14 March 2009, four days after her 45th birthday 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. She was buried on 22 March 2009 in the family cemetery in the northern town of Edou, in her native Congo. Omar Bongo Ondimba is alleged to have sired more than 30 children .
Illness and 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.
It was reported by the international media that he was seriously ill, and undergoing treatment for cancer in hospital in Barcelona, Spain. The Gabonese government maintained that he was in Spain for a few days of rest following the "intense emotional shock" of his wife's death, but eventually admitted that he was in a Spanish clinic "undergoing a medical check up". AFP eventually released a report stating among other things that "While Gabon's government has insisted he was undergoing a medical check-up, several sources said he was being treated for intestinal cancer, which they said had reached an advanced stage".
On 7 June 2009, unconfirmed reports quoting French media and citing sources "close to the French government" reported that Bongo had died in Spain. The Government of Gabon denied the report. The same day, Gabon's prime minister released a statement saying that he went to visit Bongo in the Quiron clinic in Barcelona: "This morning I visited the President, accompanied by the President of the National Assembly, the Foreign Minister, the head of the President's cabinet and senior members of the presidential family and after a meeting with the medical team we can confirm that the President is alive." The Prime Minister made no comment on Bongo's state of health after reading the statement to reporters.
On 8 June 2009, the BBC released a report stating that: The Spanish foreign affairs ministry backed [Prime Minister] Ndong's assertion, saying: "We have confirmed that he [President Bongo] is alive. We have no further information about him". But later on Monday, reports in the Spanish media said Bongo had died shortly after Ndong's news conference. They quoted members of Bongo's entourage as saying the African leader had died at 12:00 GMT. The clinic and the Spanish government refused to comment on the latest reports.
The Gabonese government maintained its position. Sky News reported that a Gabonese government spokesman had stated: "The presidency of the Gabonese Republic would like to stress that the President of the Republic, the Head of State, His Excellency Omar Bongo is not dead ... He is continuing his holiday in Spain following his checkup at the Quiron Clinic in Barcelona". Speaking on French radio, spokesman Raphael N'Toutoume added that the latest update he had heard was good news - and that Bongo was preparing to leave the clinic. "We are getting ready to welcome the head of state. No date for his return has been set", the spokesman said.
Bongo's death was confirmed by Prime Minister Jean Eyeghe Ndong in a written statement on June 8, 2009. In his statement, Eyeghe Ndong said that Bongo had died of a heart attack shortly before 12:30 GMT on June 8. At the time of his death, Bongo had been Africa's longest serving leader.