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Record-breaking rule thanks to oil cash but cronysim and corruption taint future

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  • bobutne
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2008/may/05/1 There are many ways of measuring Omar Bongo s rule. You could count the monuments: the Omar Bongo Triumphal
    Message 1 of 1 , May 5, 2008
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      http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2008/may/05/1

      There are many ways of measuring Omar Bongo's rule. You could count
      the monuments: the Omar Bongo Triumphal Boulevard, the Senate Palace
      Omar Bongo, and the university, football stadium, gymnasium and
      military hospital that all bear his name. You could look at a map of
      Gabon, and find the name of his hometown, Bongoville, or work out how
      many French presidents he has befriended and outlasted: five, from
      Charles de Gaulle to Jacques Chirac.

      Or you could gaze at any of the dozens of giant billboards dotted
      around the capital, Libreville, congratulating "Papa Bongo", who is
      pictured with his trademark moustache and his hands clasped together,
      for completing 40 years as president in December. Had it been known
      that Fidel Castro would step down as Cuba's leader just two months
      later, the signwriters would surely have stencilled on the title that
      Castro passed on to Bongo: the world's longest-serving leader that
      isn't a monarch.

      That is no mean achievement, considering Gabon's neighbourhood. Since
      gaining independence, most countries in west Africa have experienced
      lengthy civil wars or successive military coups. Yet Bongo, who came
      to power in 1967 aged 31, has ruled largely unchallenged, and mostly
      without force, despite squandering much of the country's natural
      wealth and leaving it facing a deeply uncertain economic future.

      "The man is a political genius," said Guy Rossatanga-Rignault, a
      political science professor at Omar Bongo University. "You think he's
      coming near to the end, but it's never the end with Bongo."

      Bongo's rule has been a masterclass in the use of patronage. His
      ascent to the presidency coincided with Gabon's rise to being
      Africa's third-biggest oil producer, and he quickly realised that
      money could be more effective than bullets in keeping power.

      He built some basic infrastructure in Libreville and, ignoring advice
      to establish a road network instead, constructed the $4bn (£2.02bn)
      Transgabonais railway line deep into the forested interior.

      Petrodollars funded the salaries of a bloated civil service,
      spreading enough of the state's wealth among the population to keep
      most of them fed and dressed. France, whose companies were happily
      extracting Gabon's oil, guaranteed security by maintaining a military
      base in Libreville that still exists today.

      When multipartyism was ushered in during the early 1990s following
      months of unrest, Bongo again found that money could solve any
      problem. Opposition politicians who criticised him in public, or
      showed any signs of popularity, were brought into the government, and
      soon compromised.

      "This is Bongo's main secret to remaining in power for 40 years:
      corruption," said Mark Ona, the head of Brainforest, a leading NGO
      that was recently suspended by the government for speaking out about
      the misuse of state funds. "Nobody ever leaves the president's
      cabinet empty-handed."

      The best cabinet positions, however, have always been reserved for
      Bongo's family. His son, Ali-Ben Bongo, is the minister of defence,
      and, it is whispered on the streets, the heir apparent. Bongo's
      daughter, Pascaline, is the head of the cabinet. Her husband, Paul
      Toungui, is minister of finance.

      The scale of the high-level cronyism and corruption astonishes
      diplomats from other African countries. "In Gabon, government and
      business are one and the same," said one. "If you want to do business
      here, you must know a minister, or at least somebody with the surname
      Bongo."

      Indeed, they may be one of the richest first families in the world.
      Bongo has a vast hilltop mansion, where passing motorists can view
      ostriches roaming the gardens and a couple of Rolls-Royces.

      Most of his wealth is hidden overseas. In the 90s, US investigators
      found that more than $100m had passed through US bank accounts linked
      to Bongo, while in France it was alleged he had received tens of
      millions of dollars in kickbacks from the oil company Elf.

      Last year, French prosecutors found the Bongo family owned 33
      properties in France alone, including a $27m villa. At the same time,
      Ali-Ben Bongo's wife, Inge, appeared on a US reality television show,
      Really Rich Real Estate, shopping for a $25m mansion in California.

      The theft of billions of dollars of oil money has stalled the
      country's development. Nearly 50 years after independence, Gabon has
      fewer miles of paved road than it has of oil pipelines.

      Even within Libreville - which can seem deceptively well-off if you
      keep to the seaboard, with its hotels, casinos and patisseries - the
      lack of infrastructure is glaringly obvious. Many houses are
      connected by tiny footpaths filled with rubbish and tangles of
      hosepipes that serve as the mains water supply.

      There is a serious shortage of schools and clinics. On paper, Gabon
      has one of the highest per-capita incomes in Africa, yet half of the
      population remains poor.

      Paskhal Nkoulou Nguema of the Bongo Must Go political party, said
      that Gabon, with its small population of 1.3 million and its vast
      natural riches, should be like Dubai. "Bongo has somehow put in the
      mind of all Gabonese that this is the best place in Africa, the
      richest country that everybody wants to visit. He is like
      Machiavelli."

      It is true that many Gabonese are proud of their country, and of
      Bongo. His success in keeping peace in a country with 40 different
      ethnic groups, while neighbouring countries have all experienced
      serious strife, is regarded as a significant accomplishment. But
      there is growing worry about what sort of legacy he will leave.
      Gabon's oil, which still provides the vast bulk of government
      revenue, is fast running out.

      Gabon produces some sugar, beer and bottled water. Despite the rich
      soil and tropical climate, there is only a tiny amount of
      agricultural production. Fruit and vegetables arrive on trucks from
      Cameroon. Milk is flown in from France.

      And years of dependence on relatives with civil service jobs means
      that many Gabonese have no interest in seeking work outside the state
      sector - most manual jobs are taken by immigrants.

      "I love the president; he is our father, our chief," said Louis
      Gaston Mayila, a wealthy lawyer, and a former top government
      minister. "But stability is not enough. Our world is changing, and we
      need to look to the future."

      A future without Bongo? Shortly after winning the 2005 election,
      Bongo quashed any public talk of succession by saying that he would
      run again in 2012. "The best is yet to come," he likes to say.
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