Gabon: Omar Bongo is dead, long live France-Afrique?

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According to French government sources, Gobonese President Omar Bongo passed away Sunday June 7, 2009 after 41 years in power. With his passing, an era of Franco-African relations comes to a screeching halt. It would come as no surprise that many would welcome his inability to do a proper hand over to ensure continuity. Others will surely be biting their lips. An epilogue of an African saga.

After 41 years in power at the head of Gabon, Omar Bongo, considered as one of the African continent’s rock of ages in the presidential circles, has kicked the bucket. Gabonese citizens, who have been expecting this piece of information for several weeks now, following his emergency hospitalization in Spain, were very much aware of their president’s deteriorating health.

Although his death was announced Sunday evening by French officials, this death had still not been confirmed in Libreville, instead the Gabonese capital is reportedly under the total control of the army, whilst supporters of the main opposition leader, Pierre Mamboundou, fearing for his safety gathered around him in order to protect him. They have called for a respect of constitutional order. Gabonese Prime Minister, Jean Eyeghe Ndong, Monday morning overtly denied the news of Bongo’s death, saying he personally paid him a visit along with several government officials.

Cunning politics

All those who met the Late Gabonese President were left with a strong impression: subtle, often funny, very direct, but carefully keeping secrets. Omar Bongo was a crafty politician, suave and skilful in driving his opponents into incalculable impasses. He was a strange mix of authoritarian and cunning, seductive and frightening.

His long stay in power made him one of the patriarchs of African politics. This made his involvement in conflict mediation in the Central African region an obligation rather than a necessity. He possessed both the political experience and a highly developed international network to enable him pawn Gabon to serve and defend his interests.

International influence

His influence, based on the oil resources of Gabon, built over several decades as well as a comfortable income give him the necessary impetus to forge political links with several French politicians. It must be noted that a day after his presidential inauguration, Nicolas Sarkozy welcomed Omar Bongo, making him the first foreign head of state to meet with the new French administration. This demonstrated a natural transfer of historical ties from Jacques Chirac to his successor (Nicolas Sarkozy) … It must also be noted that Franco-Gabonese links under the presidency of General de Gaulle at the initiative of Jacques Foccard had not eroded under Georges Pompidou nor Giscard d’Estaing and had been maintained during François Mitterrand’s fourteen year term as President. One man has marked half a century of Franco-Gabonese relations.

Power to ruin

Jean-Marie Bockel, the short lived Minister Delegate for Cooperation under the first François Fillon (French Prime Minister) government, recently paid his dues after he explicitly criticized the dubious management of “some African leaders who chose not to develop their countries after ruling for decades…” The statement was implicitly directed towards the occupant of the “seafront presidential Palace ” in Libreville. A few months later, Jean-Marie Bockel was removed from office, albeit his “promotion” to the veterans department. He should have seen it coming.

Bongo’s longevity in politics was, in fact, the cornerstone of the so-called “France-Afrique”, whose opponents unceasingly denounced some of the glaring “arrangements”… causing others to file a number of lawsuits, particularly in France. The diplomatic-financial bond was often questioned.

With the disappearance of Omar Bongo, an era of Franco-African relations comes to a screeching halt. It would come as no surprise that many would welcome his inability to do a proper hand over to ensure continuity. Others will most certainly be biting their lower lips.

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By Khaled Elraz, journalist specializing in African societies (communities, rites and traditions). A passionate photographer, he has been traveling the continent for 20 years.
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