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POLITICS-GABON: Will Bongo’s Death Signal a New Chapter?

Analysis by Arsène Séverin

BRAZZAVILLE, Jun 18 2009 (IPS) - As Omar Bongo Ondimba, the Gabonese president who died at age 73 in Barcelona on Jun. 8, is buried in Franceville in the south-west of Gabon on Thursday, his 41-year-reign as absolute ruler of this oil-producing country of 1.5 million has received mixed reviews.

End of a 41-year reign ... Omar Bongo Ondimba Credit:  Wikicommons

End of a 41-year reign ... Omar Bongo Ondimba Credit: Wikicommons

In neighbouring Congo, a seven-day period of national mourning has been declared. Congolese President Denis Sassou Nguesso was closely aligned with Bongo; his daughter, Edith Lucie, was married to the Gabonese president at the time of her own death in March.

Bongo was instrumental in negotiations between former enemies in Congo’s 1997-1998 civil war. Sassou Nguesso returned to power for the second time in October 1997 after Angolan troops helped him depose the incumbent, Pascal Lissouba, in October 1997. Bongo mediated the accord in December 1999 between Sassou Nguesso and many of his rivals for power, and a later national dialogue in 2001 that further consolidated his government and permitted his opponents to return from exile.

Several members of the Congolese opposition have acknowledged Bongo’s role in enabling their return to the country. Although deposed President Lissouba and his two prime ministers, did not participate in the dialogue, Jacques Joachim Yhombi Opango and Bernard Kolelas subsequently returned to the Congo in 2005 and 2007 respectively.

“It is thanks to him (Bongo) that we were able to speak, and we were able to destroy weapons held by civilians,” says Michel Ngakala, high commissioner for the re-integration of ex-combatants of the Congo.

Too close to France


But according to less forgiving analysts, Bongo sold his own country, Gabon, to France. “He was practically the Vice-President of France, responsible for Africa. He knew everything about France’s involvement in Africa, even coups. Either he was financing them or supporting them – as was the case in the Central African Republic when Ange Félix Patassé left, or in the Congo with Pascal Lissouba’s departure,’ Ernest Ibambo, a sociologist and researcher in Brazzaville told IPS. “(Bongo) was France’s valet in Africa.”

Some critics, including French ones, accuse President Bongo of financing the campaigns of presidential election candidates in France. After Bongo’s death, former French president Valery Giscard d’Estaing also accused his former rival Jacques Chirac of having received financial support from the Gabonese president for the 1981 presidential election. The accusation has been rejected by those close to Chirac.

Journalist Joseph Bital Bitemo, author of a documentary entitled “De Gaulle, man of Brazzaville”, sees things differently. “I do not subscribe to the view that Bongo sold Gabon to France. It was a reciprocal relationship. Bongo had very privileged relations with all the French presidents of the Fifth Republic, but he never sold his country. Those who say so make a shallow analysis,’ he tells IPS.

Bital Bitemo added, “While managing crises, Bongo used money, strength and tact. This is a combination of forces France-Africa will miss (referring to relations between France and some African states). A noticeable gap will be created.”

Domestic legacy

However other observers believe the man did nothing for socio-economic conditions in his country. “Here’s the proof – if everything was going well in his country, he wouldn’t have gone to die far away in Europe. The recent general strikes in the health sector show that Bongo achieved nothing. Instead, he realised the dream of all dictators; dying peacefully while still in power, “says Bouka Owoko.

In fact, in spite of its natural resources, notably oil, minerals and timber, Gabon ranks 124th out of 177 countries, according to the 2007 UNDP report on human development. According to the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), only 14 percent of Gabonese can afford a doctor’s consultation.

In 2007, Gabon’s debt stood at $2.5 billion including $ 1.1 billion owed to France, while the country imported 60 percent of its food. Also, according to UNDP, 33 percent of Gabonese live on less than one dollar a day.

Professor Hervé Diata, Dean of the Faculty of Economics at the University of Brazzaville, says the situation in Gabon is not good. “This is a cash economy based on oil and mining. No effort is made to create competition. Gabon’s economy cannot survive like this much longer.

“The death of Bongo will not change things. The new authorities must shift attitudes by incorporating the concept of good governance. This has been the case in Mali and Ghana, where the departure of rulers has produced a powerful economic system,” says Diata. “The way I see it, the economic situation in Gabon is very negative,” he adds.

“Those who criticise his economic record must also recognise that he created almost constant growth in Gabon, even if there was little development,” says President Sassou Nguesso.

Gabon’s gross domestic product grew by three percent in 2008, according to the Economic and Monetary Community of Central Africa. According to the UNDP, growth was two percent in 2005, against 0.7% in 2003.

Who leads Gabon next?

Thoughts in the country – and the region – have turned to the future. Boaka Owoko says, “This is an opportunity; Gabon must hold honourable elections and prevent the ghosts of the past, particularly Bongo’s children, from returning to perpetuate the system with the help of fraudsters and cheats. Because if they do, in an instant the country will begin to regress. We need to close the Bongo chapter. ‘

For the moment, he has been succeeded by the president of the senate, Rose Francine Rogombé, as interim head of state in line with the constitution.

Roger Bouka Owoko tells IPS, “We congratulate the people of Gabon for following the constitution. But it would be even better if they could successfully organise free and fair elections. This would truly be an appropriate succession to the Bongo era.’ Owoko is executive director of the Congolese Observatory of Human Rights, a non-governmental organisation based in Brazzaville, the capital of Congo, a country with which Gabon shares its longest border to the east.

She is expected to organise a presidential election – in which she cannot be a candidate – within 45 days.

 
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