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Published: Wednesday, 6/17/2009

The end of an African kleptocrat

THE longtime president of Gabon, El Hadj Omar Bongo Ondimba, died in Spain earlier this month.

Mr. Bongo had been president of his small, oil-rich West African state since December, 1967. When he died, he had been the longest-serving African president.

In his case, though, it would be more appropriate to use the term "self-serving." In French, the reflexive of "serve" means "to help oneself," and that is what Mr. Bongo did.

The people of his country remained pathetically poor, in spite of Gabon's oil wealth, while Mr. Bongo and his family accumulated great wealth. In France, reports indicate he had some 39 properties and 70 bank accounts.

His approach to governance was to keep the 1.5 million people of his country impoverished, uneducated, unserved by health care, and isolated in the interior by lack of transportation infrastructure. They were easier to rule that way.

His partners in this exercise across the years have been the French. French oil companies exploit Gabon's offshore oil wealth. There have long been French Foreign Legionnaires stationed in Gabon to protect the French citizens who live there and to make sure that power remained in sympathetic hands.

Former African colonies have always been important to France in maintaining its pretensions to being a world power. One wag observed that France without its former colonies would be Spain with nuclear weapons.

France does keep them close at hand, particularly oil producers such as Gabon, the Republic of the Congo (Brazzaville), and Chad. Some would say there was even a physical resemblance between Mr. Bongo and French President Nicolas Sarkozy. Both were relatively short, self-conscious about it, and felt it necessary always to have an attractive woman in the vicinity.

I met Mr. Bongo twice. Both of my visits to Gabon were vaguely life-threatening. The first was in 1975, when I was a special assistant to the head of the Africa bureau of the U.S. State Department. Mr. Bongo lodged us in a complex of VIP villas that he had built at great cost on a hill outside Libreville, the capital, for a summit conference of the Organization of African Unity.

We were driven from the Organization of African Unity village to Mr. Bongo's palace in a Mercedes with motorcycle outriders. The route took us through narrow, winding streets, with the sirens blaring and pedestrians, chickens, goats, and cyclists diving for the edges as we screeched through.

I thought it was all over, but we got there. Mr. Bongo received us in his office, adorned with a huge chromium desk. In the next room, loud rock music played and his wife at the time, Jacqueline, danced alone to it.

That evening, after more hair-raising trips to and from the Organization of African Unity village, we had dinner at the palace, on gold service, with white waiters in white gloves.

Jacqueline eventually left the scene and Mr. Bongo's final marriage was to the daughter of Congo (Brazzaville) President Denis Sassou-Nguesso, an African president's version of "keeping it in the family."

The second time I met him was with another U.S. assistant secretary of state for African affairs.

This time, in the early 1980s, at the instigation of the French, it was to try to sign Mr. Bongo on to helping the countries of southern Africa - South Africa, Angola, Namibia, et al - reach an agreement that would bring independence to Namibia and get Cuban troops out of Angola.

Mr. Bongo was considered to be potentially helpful for several reasons. First, the South Africans liked him - or, at least, his style.

He provided support to the Angolan rebel movement UNITA, one of the more difficult players in the equation. And he was known for using Gabon's money to achieve ends that he desired.

Unaccountable money can be useful in such affairs. (Mr. Bongo would have played well in Pennsylvania.)

It was arranged that the U.S. delegation would travel from Paris to southern Africa by Air France, which stopped in Libreville. We got off at the transit stop there to go see Mr. Bongo.

He was late, basically to underline his importance. The meeting didn't come to much, although the French said it made Mr. Bongo happy, which was their objective.

The scary part came when we had to get back on the plane, having kept it waiting for well over an hour. I adopted my best "Who, me?" expression and strolled down the aisle, looking neither to the left nor the right. Fortunately, most of the passengers were old Africa hands who understood the drill.

Mr. Bongo's propensity to get his way with money unfortunately spilled over into his relations with the United States.

He was always particularly keen on being received at the White House. America's custom - not shared by Gabon - to change presidents every four or eight years did not lend itself to fulfilling this goal on Mr. Bongo's part. It would have meant that he would have had to start his quest over again some nine times during his happy reign in Libreville.

He got the idea, which we pray isn't true, that the way to be received at the White House was to make a large financial contribution to the American president or his party. (Hey, it worked for him in Africa and France, why not in Washington?)

Some not-totally scrupulous American businessmen and politicians took advantage of this belief on Mr. Bongo's part and some money did in fact change hands.

Mr. Bongo was received by American presidents on various occasions. Each time, a different reason was given.

He kept going for more than 41 years that way, outliving some of Africa's other masters at looting their countries, such as President Mobutu Sese Seku of Congo (Kinshasa) and Uganda's Idi Amin. Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe lives on.

Gabon's constitution says that a deceased president is to be succeeded by the president of the Senate, in this case Rose Francine Rogombe, who has a few months to organize elections.

Mr. Bongo has a son, Ali, who is minister of defense. It is not unimaginable that Ali Bongo will want to "keep it in the family."

Poor Gabon. But then, people like the Bongos, Mobutus, and Mugabes of this world will do to you what you let them do.

Dan Simpson, a retired diplomat, is a member of the editorial boards of The Blade and Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

E-mail dsimpson@post-gazette.com



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