Omar Bongo is dead. He died while undergoing cancer treatments in a Barcelona hospital. Can’t say I’ll be sorry to see him go. The late leader of Gabon could be proud of the fact that his oil-rich nation was significantly more stable than others in West Africa. But his 41-year rule was a naked kleptocracy, and he ruled in classic “big man” fashion, subverting and paying off all opposition. He was a nepotistic crook… and that’s not my opinion, but the headline in the New Zealand Herald about his death.
The Onion’s brilliant “Our Dumb World” – their farcical atlas – describes Gabon as “President Bongo’s Private Residence”. That’s a bit off – while he certainly ran the country for his personal benefit, his most impressive residences were in France, where Bongo and his family owns 33 properties valued at over $190 million. His taste for French property gave the French arm of Transparency International a brilliant opportunity to seek legal action against him for corruption – alas, the other leaders TI is suing probably won’t ever be brought to justice either.
You’d think that the passing of a man who systematically looted his country for four decades would be the cause for celebration. Unfortunately, there’s no reason to believe it’s going to get better any time soon. Several African big men have passed on in the past decade, and the situation hasn’t improved much for their beleaguered subjects. When Togo’s Eyadema Gnassingbe died in 2005, the military installed his son, Faure… who was “elected” soon after. Lansana Conté died in December 2008, and within six hours of the announcement of his death, a military government voided the constitution and took over in a coup d’etat. No one’s predicting a coup in Gabon – the minister of Defense is Ali Ben Bongo, Bongo’s son and almost certain successor. (Reuters has a good set of reactions from Africa experts on Bongo’s death – it’s interesting to see how many reference Guinea and Togo in talking about the transition.)
Even if there were elections in Gabon, it’s hard to believe they’d be competitive. Bongo systematically paid off opposition politicians so succesfully that the running joke was that the best way to become a millionaire in Gabon was to start a political party. The country isn’t even a one-party state – it’s a one-man affair. When Bongo died, officials were so afraid of announcing his death that we saw the Prime Minister insisting Bongo was alive and well hours before AFP and other French media made clear that this was no longer the case. It’s going to take years to develop an independent political culture in Gabon… and that will likely only happen if the younger Bongo doesn’t create a similar government structure to his father’s.
Elia Varela Serra has a good roundup of Francophone bloggers reactions to Bongo’s death, including a quote from commenter Akin on AfricanLoft: “The greatest indictment of his lamentable regime of 42 years is that Gabon does not have hospitals that could treat either himself or his wife. What kind of leadership is one that cannot bring any appreciable benefits to its people whilst the leaders jet off to foreign lands for the slightest sign of discomfort?” While most are excited to see another “crocodile” go, few predict Gabon will be a democracy any time soon. The estimable Elizabeth Dickinson of Foreign Policy Passport notes that stores have been closed in Libreville in anticipation of insecurity and AFP is reporting that the country’s land, sea and air borders have been closed.
A closing note – as Gabon works through the transition away from the rule of Africa’s longest serving dictator, watch France. ELF has an enormous presence in the country, and Bongo worked hard to maintain his relationship with the former colonial power. Whether or not France meddles in Gabonese politics, they will be accused of meddling… and I’d be very surprised to see a leader emerge who wanted to remove France’s continuing military and commercial presence.