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World leaders honour late President Omar Bongo

Text by FRANCE 24 (with wires)

Latest update : 2009-06-18

Heads of state honoured Gabon's late President Omar Bongo Ondimba as he was laid to rest. French President Nicolas Sarkozy arrived for the funeral amid jeers from the crowd, underscoring France's awkward relations with former colonies.

Some 15 heads of state gathered in Gabon on Tuesday morning to honour the late President Omar Bongo Ondimba at his funeral in the capital, Libreville.  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.

Dozens of Gabonese jeered and yelled at the French leader as he arrived at the presidential palace.

“You French, you come here to eat Gabon,” a man in the crowd told Agence France-Presse. “All the presidents who have come to this palace have left again with their pockets full, and then you criticise us.”

Security guards quickly ushered Sarkozy into the palace and away from the crowd.

The chairman of the African Union commission, Jean Ping, who is originally from Gabon, and the presidents of a number of African countries -- including Paul Biya of Cameroon, François Bozize of the Central African Republic, Faure Gnassingbe of Togo and Denis Sassou Nguesso of Congo-Brazzaville -- were also expected to attend.

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.

Problematic patronage

Soon after Bongo's death, Sarkozy vowed that France would remain close to its former colonial outpost despite some tense moments in relations.


"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.

“France has concrete national interests in Gabon,” said Douglas Yates, a Gabon affairs analyst at the American University in Paris.

A significant oil exporter, Gabon supplies France with petrol, uranium for its nuclear activities, manganese and wood.

Relations between the two countries have at times been described as mutually beneficial, with France importing raw materials and Gabon enjoying the patronage of a world power.

But the Gabonese have sometimes turned on their former colonial masters, accusing it of bleeding their country dry.

Despite the country’s natural wealth, the 1.3 million Gabonese remain predominantly poor and the nation has failed to modernise either its infrastructure or its institutions.

"They think France has been looting their country for decades," Yates told FRANCE 24.


It is sentiments like these that may account for Sarkozy's cool welcome. Yates says that across France's former colonies in Africa, "there is increasing understanding that the relationship since independence [has] weighed heavily on the people."

Bongo is credited with uniting Gabon's multitude of regional and ethnic groups under a central government. But this legacy is tarnished by widespread criticisms that he used the country's oil boom during the 1970s and 1980s to enrich himself and his allies while allowing his country to deteriorate.

Bongo cultivated his ties with France very carefully, which helped him consolidate his personal wealth and power.

"He built up a strong network with French politicians [but] didn’t do very much with developing his own country," said Billy Okadameri, Africa editor for Radio France International.

Date created : 2009-06-17