Gabon’s president, Omar Bongo, 73, died last week of heart failure while in Spain on a holiday. In 1967, at just 31, he became the country’s second post-colonial ruler and stayed on to become the longest-serving head of state on the African continent.
Outside Gabon — a West African country with about a million and a half people and lots of oil — he was generally seen as a force for stability and regional peace. He was a dependable ally of Western countries, particularly France and the United States. Marking his death, President Obama said, “President Bongo consistently emphasized the importance of seeking compromise and striving for peace, and made protecting Gabon’s natural treasures a priority. His work in conservation in his country and his commitment to conflict resolution across the continent are an important part of his legacy and will be remembered with respect.”
Some Gabonese were quoted as saying they weren’t sorry to have a leadership change after 42 years. Others were stunned by the death of the only president most of them had ever known. The wailing heard on reports from the BBC reminded us of stories about Americans who grew up during FDR’s dozen years in office. Some never quite got over the trauma of his death, our mother included.
President Bongo appeared in this space a month ago in our post C’est Magnifique! A French magistrate had just ordered authorities to investigate how he and two other African rulers had managed to buy numerous luxury homes in posh sections of Paris and along the Riviera.
And in March we reported the civil lawsuit filed against him in Gabon by Marc Ona Essangui, a 45-year-old Gabonese anti-corruption campaigner. Ona Essangui, who’s confined to a wheelchair, claimed damages after being stopped from leaving the country four times last year, once en route to an anti-corruption conference in New York. In December, he was arrested and jailed for ten days, charged with possessing a seditious document. It turned out to be an open letter to President Bongo that accused his government of mismanagement and corruption.
A couple of days after he died, stories appeared that he had secretly funded Jacques Chirac’s 1981 presidential campaign. The source of the allegations was another former French president, Valerie Giscard d’Estaing. Chirac denied the charges. The U.K.’s Telegraph said: In a startling new claim concerning France’s murky past ties with African leaders, Mr Giscard said the 73-year old Gabonese premier who died on Monday spent years building up a “very questionable financial network”, and that he had broken off ties with him when he allegedly helped fund Mr Chirac’s bid for the presidency.
Gabon was named in the very first Foreign Corrupt Practices Act enforcement action brought by the SEC, but it’s never appeared again. In 1978, a firm called Page Airways, Inc. was accused of using a company owned by President Bongo as an intermediary in a deal to sell Gulfstream II business jets. Page promised not to violate the FCPA any more and was let off without financial penalties. But despite Gabon’s clean FCPA record since then, it ranked 96th on the 2008 Corruption Perception Index, tied with Benin, Guatemala, Jamaica, Kiribati and Mali.
President Bongo’s body was flown home last week as his nation started a month-long period of mourning. On Wednesday, the head of the senate, Rose Francine Rogombe, 66, was sworn in as care-taker president. The constitution requires an election within 45 days. Opposition politicians are questioning whether balloting will be free and fair. Some think Bongo’s son, Ali-Ben, the current defense minister, has already been tabbed to replace his father (reports are here and here).