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Dictator's fall clouds Gabon's future

Omar Bongo exploited the nation's oil riches as citizens languished

July 05, 2009|Rukmini Callimachi

LIBREVILLE, GABON — When longtime dictator Omar Bongo died June 8, he left behind at least 66 bank accounts. The first family owned 45 homes in France, including at least 14 in Paris and 11 on the French Riviera. And it boasted of 19 or more luxury cars, including a Bugatti sports model that cost the Republic of Gabon $1.5 million.

But most of the country Bongo governed for 41 years is still covered in jungle. A third of its people live in poverty so dire that some dig through the trash dump to feed their children.

The contrast makes it all the more striking that hundreds of thousands of those people lined the streets of the capital this week to bid goodbye to the 73-year-old ruler who bled their country dry. Women wept and waved signs that said, "Merci Papa" -- thank you, father. Businesses put up billboards with messages of loss, such as: "Gabon weeps."

On a continent that has seen more than its share of presidents-turned-dictators, Gabon is perhaps one of the best examples of what analysts call "the chief complex." So long was Bongo in power that his countrymen came to view him as a hereditary chief, a man whose authority is unquestioned.

The acceptance raises the question of what will happen now in a nation that calls itself a democracy but has in fact never known one. Gabon -- where Bongo won election six times in a row -- will hold its next elections within 90 days. And already, several of the estimated 30 children he fathered are rumored to be jockeying for power.

"The Gabonese don't know what democracy looks like. Their point of reference is the village -- and in the village, no one questions the chief," said Anges Ratanga Atoz, a political science professor at Libreville's Omar Bongo University. "And after all, what did Bongo do that was so bad? Did he kill anyone? No."

In the village, each family is expected to turn over a share of their harvest to the chief, who uses the grain to feed his people in times of drought. But if the chief also builds himself a brick-and-mortar house while everyone else lives in grass huts, no one says anything. And when he dies, the people mourn.

Masses of Gabon's 1.5 million people waited outside the airport last week for the convoy carrying Bongo's body on a special flight back from Spain. Several thousand white and red roses were flown in from France for the funeral, and the coffin was placed inside the presidential palace, surrounded by cascading bouquets.

Thousands of people made pilgrimages to pay their respects. Some even slept on the pavement outside the palace, including 42-year-old Agathe Niengui.

It took Niengui five days to finally make it there with a group of market women. The women had taken a collection among themselves to pull together the funds for a meager offering. They placed a small wreath of plastic flowers -- the only kind they could afford -- at the foot of the coffin.

By the time they got to the palace, so many wreaths of long-stemmed roses had been placed in and around the coffin that there were dozens of crushed roses underfoot. Each one of the imported flowers costs around $10 -- as much as Niengui earns in a week selling bananas from a plate on her head.

It doesn't strike her as unfair.

"I have a place to sleep. And I have just enough to eat," she offered as an explanation. "He was the only president I knew -- so he was like our father."

Bongo, one of the world's longest ruling heads of state when he died, was only 30 in 1966 when he was tapped to become vice president. The deal was reportedly brokered by France, the country's former colonial ruler intent on maintaining its influence over Gabon. When President Leon M'Ba died of cancer a year later, Bongo took office.

With each passing decade, he consolidated power. He turned his country into a single-party state. Until 1990, he was the only candidate in elections. When opposition parties formed, he allegedly had supporters bused from town to town to vote multiple times. In 2003, Bongo changed the constitution to get rid of term limits so he could continue running for life.

Bongo's rise to power coincided with the country's oil boom. In his first decade in office, oil production jumped tenfold, even as prices rose because of the 1973 Arab oil embargo. In just one year, Gabon's national budget tripled.

But as the money poured in, Bongo ignored basic infrastructure in exchange for grand projects. He spent a reported $800 million to build the sea-facing presidential palace and 52 villas to house his guests during a four-day summit of African heads in 1977, according to John Ghazvinian, an expert on Africa's oil economies. By 1985, Libreville held the world record for per capita champagne consumption.

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