When Omar Bongo was propelled to the presidency of Gabon in 1967, General De Gaulle still held the reins in Paris and Jacques Foccart, his Africa adviser, was busy establishing the political, commercial and intelligence networks that allowed France to continue exerting influence in its former African colonies. If this shadowy world, dubbed Francafrique, endured for decades to come, it was partly thanks to Bongo, one of its canniest operators. His death after nearly 42 years in power marks the end of an era.
He was a linchpin of the system – no slave to France, more the skilled manipulator of its establishment. He was the last survivor of Africa’s 1960s era autocrats, a man whose wealth and diplomatic acumen allowed him to punch well beyond the weight of the small oil-rich nation he ruled.
It is remarkable that in 2009 this was still so. Mr Bongo’s excesses have been well documented in a series of court cases and inquiries in Washington and Paris. The latest alleges that at the expense of the Gabonese state he and family members accumulated 70 bank accounts, 39 luxury French properties and cars worth millions of dollars in France.
He always denied wrongdoing. He also insisted there was no such thing as corruption in Africa. Like other African “big men” of his era, the diminutive Bongo ruled in the style of a village superchief. He accumulated riches and used them to defuse ethnic tension, co-opt opponents and administer handouts to the poor who saw few other benefits from Gabon’s oil.
Like many of his peers he also fashioned the state in his own image and was reluctant to groom a dauphin. Speculation about the succession centres now on his children. The most recognisable institution in Gabon is the Bongo family name.
Other African states, weakened by years of personalised rule, have disintegrated in its aftermath. France will try to ensure that in Gabon this is not so. Given its size, and relative affluence, this is not an impossible task. But it should mark the final chapter of post-colonial relations in which European support for African autocrats came at the expense of Africa’s long-term development.
The African Union has recently adopted a principled stand against unconstitutional takeovers and must be attentive in Gabon’s case. This will be a delicate task for its chairman, Jean Ping, who served for years as Bongo’s foreign minister and is a close friend of the family.