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Africa

President Bongo dead at 73

Text by NEWS WIRES

Latest update : 2009-06-08

Gabon's President Omar Bongo Ondimba, Africa's longest-serving leader, died Monday at the age of 73 at a clinic in Barcelona, Spain, Gabon's prime minister said in a statement. Bongo ruled the former French colony for 41 years.

Omar Bongo Ondimba, who died Monday in Spain, ruled longer than any of Africa's so-called "Big Men", but his legacy was tarnished by allegations that he built a personal fortune out of Gabon's oil boom.
  
A small figure with a neat moustache and a penetrating gaze often hidden behind black glasses, he was a wily political dinosaur who ruled Gabon as a one-party state for more than 41 years.
  
Bongo, who died in a private clinic in Barcelona, according to his prime minister, also gained plaudits late in his life for his mediation efforts -- in the Central African Republic, for example, which is now striving for peace.
  
But many will remember him for his murky ties with France and widespread allegations that he personally profited from Gabon's oil boom in the 1970s and 1980s.
  
Born on December 30, 1935, as one of 12 children to a peasant family in the Bateke region of southeast Gabon, Albert-Bernard Bongo was only 27 when he caught the attention of the country's first ruler, Leon Mba.
  
Obviously an astute political tactician, Bongo was a rising star and Mba made him his vice president five years later.
  
Less than nine months passed before Mba died and Bongo was suddenly Africa's fourth youngest president ever. He set about building the single-party regime that was to dominate Gabon's political scene.
  
Bongo took a new name, becoming el-Hadj Omar Bongo, after his conversion to Islam in 1973, then added his father's name Ondimba to his own in 2003.
  
From one of Gabon's smallest ethnic minorities, Bongo tolerated no opposition but was always careful how he divvied out power, showing respect at the same time for his country's subtle ethnic and regional complexities.
  
In the 1970s and 1980s, Gabon's oil flowed abundantly, but much of the wealth remains in few hands; it was then that the rot of corruption set in, according to many observers.
  
Challenged by a populist surge in 1990, Bongo installed a multi-party system, but his Gabonese Democratic Party (PDG) always held the absolute majority in parliament.
  
When Bongo was re-elected in 1998 with 66.88 percent of the vote, then in 2005 with 79.21 percent, the opposition cried fraud. Ultimately, though, they were out-manoeuvred, as the veteran leader gave key government posts to some of his foes.
  
The handing out of privileges and contracts enabled Bongo to rally some of his oldest and fiercest opponents to his cause, and helped him become the world's longest-serving leader, except for monarchs.
  
The president's wife, Edith Lucie Bongo Odimba, daughter of Congo President Denis Sassou Nguesso, died in March at the age of 45. Following her death, Bongo announced he was "temporarily" suspending his own duties to rest and mourn.
  
At the international level, Bongo was one of the African kingpins in the opaque French politics of the same period as the oil boom, when Paris maintained murky ties with some of its former colonies for "reasons of state."
  
But times changed. A French judge announced in May that he would launch a landmark investigation into whether Bongo, his ally Nguesso of Congo, and Equatorial Guinea's President Teodoro Obiang Nguema had plundered state coffers to buy luxury homes and cars in France.
  
A complaint filed by Transparency International France accused the leaders, who deny any wrongdoing, of acquiring millions of dollars of real estate in Paris and on the French Riviera and buying luxury cars with embezzled public money.
  
An earlier French police report on Bongo's French assets fuelled tensions between the two countries, with Gabon threatening to review relations with Paris.
  
Favoured to succeed him is his 50-year-old son Ali Ben Bongo.

Date created : 2009-06-08

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