For 42 long years, President El Hadji Omar Bongo Ondimba (pictured above and the father to current President Ali Bongo), dominated Gabon as he built close links with successive French presidents, from General de Gaulle to Nicolas Sarkozy. On 8 June 2009, he breathed his last in a hospital in Barcelona, Spain. In this archive piece Anthony Ekanga looked at the colourful life and times of the man once described as the “dinosaur of Gabon”.
Almost 10 Years ago, Omar Bongo Ondimba, the most Francophile African president that ever lived, published Blanc comme Nègre, a book highly critical of France. “Westerners are deceptive and opportunistic,” wrote “the dinosaur of Gabon”, who has known every French president since de Gaulle and who has been France’s strongest ally in Africa for 42 years. On numerous visits to Paris, he would receive in his hotel room French ministers and businessmen eager to seek his patronage. Throughout the 314 pages of the book, he carefully unveils Françafrique’s web of shady dealings. He had strong connections with key players in France, from Presidents de Gaulle to Jacques Chirac, through Georges Pompidou, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, and François Mitterand.
Seeing an arrogant France, which learned nothing from shared failures, Omar Bongo harboured a dark anger against his friends in Paris. He denounced the French attitude towards Africa and Africans in these famous words:
“Do you think, seriously, that I am treated the same way as the heads of state of Germany or Italy? We are treated less well than Vietnam or Bolivia. When an African minister, whoever he is, goes to Paris, he cannot have a meeting with his colleague. He is led to a small head of department, and at best, to the permanent secretary of staf of the ministry. If it comes to discussing money, he is sent to the Treasury where the little chief will give him lessons and talk to him as if he were a stupid Negro. It has always been like that.”
In his 42 years at the helm of Gabon, President Bongo endured a lot of criticism. To those who attacked him, he would say: “There are people like François Mitterrand and I for whom the critics cause no insomnia.”
Besides being a head of state, Bongo was also a paramount chief and a veritable Santa Claus to the Gabonese political elite who enjoyed all the benefits. He would go on tour in the country laden with bags of cash, giving 20 million CFA francs here, and 30 million there, solving big and small problems affecting neighborhoods, attending weddings, resolving divorce issues…
François-Xavier Verchav, the author of Black Silence, accused Bongo of what he called “démocrature” (or “dictatorship legitimised by election fraud”).
It is alleged that the French oil giant, Elf Aquitaine, which has made huge profits in Gabon, helped him to plunder the country’s oil resources through illegal financial manipulations. It is also alleged that he received huge commissions for introducing Elf to Equatorial Guinea and Chad. He once even claimed ownership of Swiss bank accounts opened on his behalf by top French oficials of Elf in Gabon.
Besides being a head of state, Bongo was also a paramount chief and a veritable Santa Claus to the Gabonese political elite who enjoyed all the benefits. He would go on tour in the country laden with bags of cash, giving 20 million CFA francs here, and 30 million there, solving big and small problems affecting neighborhoods, attending weddings, resolving divorce issues, paying teachers, civil servants, farmers, etc. On the political front, a great number of Francophone African leaders owed their successful careers to him. He did not only help them with good advice, but also with a lot of cash.
Helped by a weak opposition, Bongo held the reins of power for 42 years and became one the longest-serving African presidents.
At the presidential palace, there were always a large number of Africans waiting to see him with the aim of profiting from his legendary generosity. You never left empty-handed once you had the privilege of having an audience with him.
Helped by a weak opposition, Bongo held the reins of power for 42 years and became one of the longest-serving African president. Using corruption, intimidation, sabotage, and nepotism, the powerful elite surrounding him did not even bother to maintain the pretence of dialogue with the opposition, which was sadly condemned to playing second fiddle for more than four decades.
Bongo was not prepared to endanger the permanence of the system which he reluctantly put in place under pressure from the democratic forces in and outside the country, a system continually compromised by the inaction of the atavistic cronies opposed instinctively to anything that remotely threatened them.
This article appeared in the July 2009 Edition. You can access all our back issues digitally for free with just one subscription. Click here