15 JULY 2009
|LESSON OF OMAR BONGO: FORTY-ONE YEARS OF ABSOLUTE
RULE, BUT FINAL WORD WAS FOR THE MEDIA: AN OBITUARY
Initially, Gabon Prime Minister Jean Ndong denied vehemently reports in a French newspaper that President
Omar Bongo had died. "I had visited the President this morning," he claimed in a statement and all was well. Indeed, he
added, his government intended to officially protest to France "repeated deviations by its press concerning the health
of President Bongo." The Ambassador of France in Libreville was called to the Foreign Ministry for a vehement rebuke.
"Everyone has followed with surprise and dissatisfaction the wrong information circulated by public and private media
in France and remarks by some French officials," the official note announced. President Bongo, it assured everyone,
had merely entered a hospital for a simple regular check-up seeking some rest following the death of his wife last
month. Reports that he had cancer of the pancreas were unfounded.
President Omar Bongo was one of the closest allies of Paris, a prominent symbol of what was famously known as "France
Afrique," a complex interrelationship of military, business, social, political and personnel set-up throughout a
number of Francophone countries. Unchecked use of his country's oil revenue to buy off overwhelming influence in
France allowed unquestioned rule for over 40 years. "France without Africa is like a car without a carburetor," he
often said. He did not shy away from getting involved in French politics when he felt necessary. Le Canard
Enchaine repeated last week the famous story about President Bongo's financial support for Jacques Chirac in his
first presidential bid against incumbent Valery Giscard d'Estaing. When the then French President telephoned the Gabonese in
Libreville to raise the question, the only response he got after a brief pause was: "Oh, you know." As Mr. Chirac knows,
Mr. Bongo was emboldened further in his absolute rule, entrusting Internal Affairs to his son Ali and Finances to his
daughter Pascaline. When some French newspapers wrote about questionable real estate deals, extravagant expenditures
or political payoffs, President Bongo and his multi-faceted friends swiftly clamped down using what the French
described as "raison d'etat" (reasons of state interest). Even his serious illness was treated as a state secret.
However, it was the muzzled media that eventually has the last word: his obituary.