El Hadj Omar Bongo Ondimba (born Albert-Bernard Bongo; 30 December 1935 - 8 June 2009) was a Gabonese politician who served as President of Gabon from 1967 to his death in 2009, a term lasting 42 years. He was initially promoted to numerous positions as a young official in President Leon M'ba's administration before being elected as Vice President in 1966. He succeeded M'ba after his death in 1967.
Bongo's party, the Gabonese Democratic Party (PDG) led a one party regime until public pressure forced him to allow multi-party politics in 1990. Despite widespread opposition to his rule in the 1990s, he managed to consolidate political power by bringing opposition leaders to his side. He won a controversial election in 1993 and continued to win elections in 1998 and 2005. These elections saw opposition power in parliament increasingly diminished. After the resignation of Fidel Castro in Cuba, Bongo became the world's longest serving non-royal leader, and is one of the longest serving non-royal leaders since 1900.
Bongo is criticized for enriching his family with Gabonese money. His regime is accused of building only 5 km of roads a year and having one of the highest infant mortality rates in the world despite one of the highest GDP growths in Africa.
He was succeeded by his son, Ali Bongo, following his death in 2009.
Early Life Edit
Bongo was born in the village of Lewai (now Bongoville) in the colony of French Equatorial Africa as the youngest of 12 siblings. He changed his name to El Hadj Omar Bongo Ondimba following his conversion to Islam in 1973. He completed primary and secondary education in the colonial capital of Brazzaville before joining the French military. He served successively as a second and first lieutenant. He was eventually honorably discharged as a captain.
Political Career Edit
Early career Edit
Following Gabonese independence in 1960, Bongo served a number of positions in the cabinet of President Leon M'ba, most prominently as Assistant Director of the Presidential Cabinet, eventually Director of the Presidential Cabinet. He was briefly imprisoned for two days during a coup in 1964. In 1965, Bongo was appointed as Presidential Representative and gained control of defense and coordination. He also briefly served as Minister of Information before being appointed as Vice President due to the declining health of M'ba. This was confirmed in the 1967 election, although Bongo had effectively been in control since November of 1966.
Single-party regime Edit
Bongo succeeded M'ba following the latter's death in 1967. This was supported by French troops in the country. Bongo was the third youngest African leader at age 31. He declared Gabon a single party state in 1968, under the rule of the PDG. He was re-elected in 1973 in a single-candidate election with 99.56% of the vote. He would abolish the role of Vice President in 1975, re-appointing his Vice-President as Prime Minister. He had held many ministerial positions concurrently with his role as President, such as Minister of Defense, Information, the Interior and Planning along with Prime Minister. He was criticized by the PDG congress for this. He was re-elected in 1979 with 99.96% of the vote. Opposition to his regime also began to appear in the 1970s, with the opposition party MORENA, founded by staff and students of the Universite Omar Bongo in Libreville due to the temporary closure of the university. The party accused Bongo of corruption and racial discrimination and handed out pamphlets during a visit from Pope John Paul II in 1982. This lead to 37 arrests of party members, with some being sentenced to 20 years of labor, however all were acquitted and released in 1986. Despite the unrest this caused, Bongo continued one-party rule, although the last one-party election was held in 1986 where Bongo was re-elected with 99.97% of the vote.
Multi-party politics Edit
In 1990, following a period of strikes and protests, the PDG amended the constitution to allow for a transition into multi-party politics. Bongo's existing mandate, lasting until 1994, was to be respected, however. The presidential terms were also shortened from 7 years to 5 years, renewable once. The day after these amendments were approved, a prominent opposition leader, Joseph Rendjambe, was found poisoned in his hotel room. This caused the strongest riots Bongo had faced in his term, including the burning of several executive buildings and the taking of several French diplomats and oil executives as hostages. This lead to a state of emergency being declared in Rendjambe's home town and the evacuation of French nationals. Gabon's two main oil producers, Elf and Shell, cut their production from 270,000 barrels a day to 20,000, although they were forced to return to normal output following threats from Bongo to revoke their licenses. France sent in an additional 500 troops to reinforce their permanent installation of 500 troops along with tanks to aid in the emergency as well. Bongo went on to win re-election in 1993 with a small margin of 51.4%. Opposition candidates criticized the election, and further unrest forced the government to make a settlement, leading to the Paris Accords of 1994. This saw opposition figures included in the government, however this would not be honored as in 1996 and 1997 legislative elections saw partisan politics return. These elections gave the PDG a crushing victory, although many major cities elected opposition candidates (including Libreville). Bongo continued to buy off opposition candidates, giving himself an easy re-election in 1998. In 2003, the constitution was amended to remove term limits and changing the length of terms back to 7 years. Critics accused him of wanting to establish life rule, although he still managed to win in 2005 with 79.2% of the vote. This term lasted until his death in 2009.
Bongo was alleged to have been incredibly corrupt, examples including:
- Francesco Smalto, an Italian fashion designer, admitted to providing Bongo with French prostitutes in return for opening a tailoring business worth $600,000 in Gabon.
- Bongo was one of the richest leaders in the world, with an investigation by Citibank estimating he held $130 million in private accounts, likely sourced from public funds.
- An investigation by the US Senate found that lobbyist Jack Abramoff had attempted to set up a meeting between President George W. Bush and Bongo for $9,000,000. While the payment has not been proven, Bush did meet with Bongo 10 months following the investigation.
- The TV show Really Rich Real Estate featured Bongo's former daughter-in-law attempting to purchase a mansion in California for $25,000,000.
- Bongo was stated to have received 50 million euros every year from French oil company Elf Aquitaine to exploit Gabon's oil. He was also claimed to have used these payments to acquire luxury real estate in France. Bongo denied the claims.
- A report by the Sunday Times found that Bongo had purchased (most likely with public funds):
- A £15m mansion in Paris near the Elysee Palace
- Four properties and a nine room apartment on the Avenue Foch
- Four other properties in Paris
- Seven properties in Nice, including four villas, one with a large swimming pool
- Two properties in Paris and one in Nice owned by his wife
- A large fleet of luxury limousines, including a £308,823 Maybach
- Numerous luxury cars, some valued over £150,000
- Bongo and his family were found to be spending £55m a year in personal spending.
- Bongo's bank accounts were frozen by the French government in 2009, leading him to accuse the French government of attempting to destabilize Gabon.
Bongo was known for being the last of Africa's so called "Big Men". His leadership was held up by French intervention, revenues from Gabon's 2.5 billion barrels of oil and his general political skill. Bongo was a major Francophile, most notably shown by his constant deals with France and giving oil company Elf Aquitaine major stakes in Gabonese oil. Bongo was also notorious for his extravagance, using oil funds to fund his numerous properties in France and to construct an $800m presidential palace. The accumulation of wealth he perpetrated made him one of the wealthiest world leaders, although he gave just enough revenue to the people of Gabon to prevent unrest. He built only basic infrastructure in the capital, Libreville, and instead of establishing a major road network he built a $4bn railway through Gabon's jungles. Most of the population were able to be fed and dressed, however, through an incredibly bloated civil service program. He also used much of his fortune to surround himself with supporters, including those of many ethnic groups to prevent unrest. He was also quite good a persuasion, convincing many opposition leaders to join him using oil stakes or outright payment rather than directly crushing dissent. Examples include negotiating the Paris Agreement which brought a multi-party system to Gabon, giving $21.5m to the development of the main opposition leader and buying $1.35m in computers and books to end a student strike against his government. He was also an ardent lover of nature, setting aside 10% of land in Gabon for national parks. He was also notorious for his ego, leading to such locations as Bongo University, Bongo Airport, many Bongo Hospitals, Bongo Gymnasium and Bongo Stadium. This is most prominent in the renaming of his home village of Lewai to Bongoville. He was also an active diplomat, attempting to bring peace to the Central African Republic, Burundi, and the Congos. He even won the Dag Hammarskjold prize for attempting to negotiate an end to the Chad-Libya conflict in 1986. He was also popular domestically for keeping Gabon at peace despite being surrounded by numerous war-torn countries. Gabon never had a coup beyond the one that imprisoned Bongo in 1964, nor faced a civil war.
The Gabonese government announced in May of 2009 that Bongo was temporarily leaving official duties to mourn his wife in Spain. This conflicted with international media, who reported that Bongo was undergoing treatment for terminal cancer in Barcelona, Spain. The government maintained that he was merely resting in Spain for a few days, although eventually admitted he was going for a "check-up" in Barcelona. On June 7, 2009, sources close to the French government claimed Bongo had died in Barcelona from cancer. The government of Gabon denied this, although they eventually admitted on June 8 that Bongo had died of a heart attack shortly after midnight. His body was flown back to Gabon where it lay in state for 5 days before a large state funeral was held. His funeral was attended by nearly 24 African heads of state, along with former and then current Presidents of France Jacques Chirac and Nicolas Sarkozy. His body was then transported to his home province, where he was buried in a private family burial.