- diplomacy - Gabon - obituary - Omar Bongo
International heads of state joined thousands of mourners to honour Gabon's late President Omar Bongo Ondimba at his funeral in Libreville on Tuesday. He will be buried later in Franceville, near the town where he was born.
Most of the leaders in attendance are from Africa, but a large French delegation is also present, highlighting the importance French leaders still give to their former colonies on the African continent. French President Nicolas Sarkozy was joined at the ceremony by Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner and former president Jacques Chirac.
African Union commission president Jean Ping, who is originally from Gabon, and presidents Paul Biya of Cameroon, François Bozize of the Central African Republic, Faure Gnassingbe of Togo and Denis Sassou Nguesso of Congo-Brazzaville also attended the funeral.
Bongo's death at the age of 73 at a medical clinic in Barcelona, where he was being treated for intestinal cancer, was announced on June 8.
Born on December 30, 1935, Bongo ruled Gabon for 41 years, and his death has raised the inevitable questions of who will succeed him.
Under the rules of the country's constitution, elections must be called between 30 and 45 days of the Constitutional Court's declaration of a power vacancy, which it did on June 9. But a source close to the presidency told Agence France-Presse that holding elections by the constitutional deadline would be unlikely because the country lacks adequate records on its eligible voters.
The court named the Senate speaker, Rose Francine Rogombe, 66, as interim head of state on June 9.
Some observers speculate that Bongo's politician son is a likely choice to succeed him. Ali Ben Bongo, 50, currently serves as the country's defence minister.
Other possible contenders include the late president's daughter, Pascaline, who headed her father's inner cabinet, and Paul Toungui, the country's foreign minister and companion of Pascaline Bongo.
Bongo was a gifted political tactician who managed to outmanoeuvre his opponents by showing tact in how he divvied up power, often offering political rivals government posts but ensuring that his Gabonese Democratic Party always held a majority in the country's parliament.
Bongo is credited with uniting Gabon's multitude of regional and ethnic groups under a central government. But his legacy is tarnished by widespread allegations that he used the country's oil boom during the 1970s and 1980s to enrich himself and his allies.
The Gabonese people as a whole have never benefited from the nation's energy resources, which has bred resentment across the population.
Anti-corruption watchdog Transparency International filed a joint complaint with a Gabonese citizen in late 2008 accusing Bongo — along with Congo's President Denis Sassou Nguesso and Equitorial Guinea's Teodoro Obiang Nguema — of misusing state funds to buy real estate and luxury goods in France.
In February, France froze nine of Bongo's personal bank accounts, and in May a French magistrate announced the launch of an investigation into allegations that the three African leaders had embezzled state funds.
But French prosecutors later said they would block the corruption investigation on the grounds that Transparency International had no right to file its complaint since it had not been directly harmed by the alleged criminal activities.
Following Bongo's death, Sarkozy vowed that France would remain close to its former colonial outpost Gabon despite some tense moments in relations earlier this year following the corruption allegations.
"France, faithful to a long friendship, remains by Gabon's side, that of its institutions, and by its people at this testing time," a communiqué from Sarkozy's office said.
The French military maintains some 1,000 troops in the capital, Libreville, and France's energy giant Total is one of the largest investors in the country.