Reports from Libreville have indicated that Gabon remains quiet following the announcement of the death of Omar Bongo, Africa’s longest serving head of state. However, the country’s Ministry of Defense announced it was closing all of the country’s land, air and sea ports. Bongo, 73, had been receiving treatment for intestinal cancer at the Quiron clinic in Barcelona, Spain, according to the Gabonews agency.
Bongo seized power in 1967, just 7 seven years after the country gained independence from France in 1960. Like all colonial powers, France wanted to continue to rule from behind and acted just like its neighbor Belgium did in Congo: co-opting corrupted local officials by hiring them as undercover agents working on its behalf. Bongo was said to work for the French secret service for which the French pressured Leon M’Ba, the country’s first president , to name Bongo Prime Minister. Born in 1935 to a peasant family in southeastern Gabon, El Hadj Omar Bongo Ondimba assumed the presidency following the unexpected death of M’Ba. A la Papa Doc, Bongo ruled with an iron fist, silencing his opponents, who accused him of masterminding fraudulent elections in order to stay in power forever.
Bongo ruled over an oil boom that fueled an extravagant lifestyle that included dozens of luxurious properties in and around Paris, a $500 million presidential palace, and a collection of fancy cars while 1.5 million Gabonese are living a hellish life.
Bongo became one of the wealthiest men in Africa. In France, he and his family frequented les grands salons, those of the rich and famous. Like Mobutu, to flex his muscles, he had to go in a buying spree, possessing 39 luxurious properties, 70 bank accounts and at least 9 luxury vehicles worth about $2 million, according to Transparency International, an organization that has sued Mr. Bongo.
Not too long ago, one of his 12 children, his oldest son was spotted in a hotel in downtown Paris with more the a dozen suitcases filled with luxurious items after extravagant shopping on the Champs Elizé, Paris most famous fashion district. Bongo’s wife, Édith Lucie Bongo, who died last March, was said to have made the purchase of an apartment at 15-19 Avenue Rapp that worth more than 3 million euros (about $3.5 million). According to the French human rights organization Sherpa, a plaintiff against Mr. Bongo, the apartment was acquired in 2005.
Well aware of his stealing of public funds, his presidential security staff numbered 1,500, comparable only to the U.S. State Department, while the entire military numbers just 10,000 troops. Human right organizations have accused France of propping up its old colonial partners in Africa and looking the other way as leaders like Bongo siphoned off their country’s resources, leaving a majority of its people mired in poverty. In the early 1990s, an Italian fashion designer testified he had flown call girls to the president along with his suits.
One can remember just 3 years ago, Bongo’s daughter-in-law, married to his son, the defense minister, appeared on the American reality show Really Rich Real Estate, shopping for a $25 million Beverly Hills mansion. According to Agence France Presse, in 2003, an official of French oil giant Elf Aquitaine — which at one time operated in Gabon — testified he had opened several Swiss bank accounts for Bongo into which commissions were paid on multimillion-dollar oil deals. Bongo has vigorously denied receiving any money through the accounts.
Recently, several Human right organizations have filed numerous lawsuits against Bongo for pillaging public funds. The lawsuits have seriously embarrassed French officials because France, which maintains a military base in the capital, Libreville, has extensive oil interests in the country. Last year Mr. Sarkozy fired Jean-Marie Bockel, the head of the ministry in charge of looking after the former colonies, after he “insulted” Bongo in public by accusing him of “squandering of public funds.” Bongo was reportedly infuriated, and one can understand why he chose to go to Spain for treatment instead of France.
According to New York Times journalists Victoria Burnett who reported from Spain, “the allegations have unwound the tight relations between the French Republic and Gabon. [It has also] embarrassed France’s executive branch and shaken the enduring notion of Françafrique, the idea that France’s special dominion in Africa did not end with the independence of former French colonies.”
Gabon’s people may not be celebrating in the street right now, but for sure they are not crying either.