Thousands pay their respects to late president Bongo

Thousands of mourning Gabonese flock to Libreville's presidential palace, where late president Omar Bongo's remains will be exposed to the public until his funeral takes place on June 18.


AFP - Thousands of Gabon's people on Friday filed past the coffin of their late leader Omar Bongo Ondimba as he lay in state, while away from the spotlight, the government pondered the succession.

Ordinary Gabonese paraded through the flower-filled chapel in Libreville's presidential palace where the body of Africa's longest-serving head of state lay after a 41-year reign, some weeping and others in silence.

"I'm one of the 'Bongo generation," that of all the Gabonese born under his authority and who knew only him. It's a loss, a real loss," one woman, Pelagie Zang, 32, told AFP.

The cabinet met in the same complex of buildings under the chairmanship of Senate speaker Rose Francine Rogombe, who became Gabon's acting president when the Constitutional Court swore her in at a ceremony on Wednesday.

Prime Minister Jean Eyeghe Ndong later said that the cabinet agenda was to prepare for Bongo's state funeral next Tuesday, but conceded that preparations would begin at once for an election in line with the constitution.

"The president (Rogombe) has all the same asked the government to take steps to organise the presidential election," Ndong said. "The government must begin work at once."

Ever since Ndong on Monday announced Bongo's death, aged 73, at a private clinic in Spain, the government has moved fast to avoid any power vacuum in the oil-rich, equatorial country and tightened security around public buildings.

Gabon is currently in 30 days of official mourning and Bongo's body was on Thursday flown home from Barcelona, where he had been treated for intestinal cancer, to lie in state until the funeral.

On Friday it was the turn of the people to pay homage. Bongo will be buried on June 18 in his native Haut-Ogouue region in the southeast of the nation of some 1.5 million people.

"If I'm here, it's to show my gratitude and thanks towards the president," mourner Elie Lebimbe said on the forecourt of the presidential palace. "It's thanks to him that I've got a job."

Rogombe's job, at 66, is to organise an election. She has all the powers of an elected president apart from the authority to dissolve parliament or hold referenda. As interim leader, she cannot stand at the polls.

Gabon is essentially a one-party state ruled by Bongo's Gabonese Democratic Party (PDG). Though multi-party politics were introduced during his tenure, the PDG has an overwhelming majority in parliament.

The PDG will be debating the succession, and one name that has come forward is that of Bongo's son, Defence Minister Ali Ben Bongo, 50, who closed down the borders for a day after his father's death was announced.

But on Friday he warned: "Not only is it too early, but it's indecent. Today I'm like all Gabonese, uniquely preoccupied with paying a last tribute to their vanished father. We want to pay him homage and bury him with dignity."

Government and opposition sources have both pointed out that the electoral roll needs to be revised before a presidential election, which is likely to lead to a delay in the vote.

However, Rogombe's interim rule can be extended "in the event of duly noted force majeure by the Constitutional Court," according to the constitution, and Interior Minister Andre Mba Obama said Friday that "if there is really a case of force majeure, we'll handle it. I can't say time's too short."

Likely opposition candidate Pierre Mamboundou, a long-standing foe of the ruling elite, has called on Gabon's citizens to back Rogombe's decisions while she organises the elections.

Presidents Denis Sassou Nguesso of Congo and Francois Bozize of the Central African Republic have arrived in Libreville, ahead of the state funeral, while Nicolas Sarkozy of France was due by Tuesday, along with Abdoulaye Wade of Senegal and Mali's Amadou Toumani Toure.

"Today, we're uniquely preoccupied with ceremonies and with meeting foreign delegations," Ali Ben Bongo said. "The rest, we'll see."


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