By 1967, Bongo was made Vice-President, pushing out Paul-Marie Yembit, the then Vice-President. Yembit ‘s only virtue was that he was a Bapounou and thus from the south of Gabon, a balance for the two strongest figures of the first Gabonese government, the President and the Foreign Minister, Jean-Hilaire Aubame, both members of the northern ethnic group, the Fang.
Bongo and I were just the same age, born a few months apart, young at the time for him to hold political power where age is respected as a sign of experience and possible wisdom. At the time, his first name was Albert. He became Omar with a ‘conversion ‘ to Islam in 1973 on the advice of Colonel Khadafi of Libya – in exchange for cash, some say – and on the eve of Gabon joining the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). After the 1972 oil crisis, OPEC gained in importance in setting the price and production quotas of oil. Gabonese oil production was growing – the 1970s and early 1980s were the peak years – and Bongo wanted a say in OPEC politics. Since the key OPEC states were Muslim, joining the faith was not bad politics. There is a well-known saying in French history when the King Henry IV changed his religion from Protestant to Catholic "Paris is well worth a Mass". So Bongo could change from Catholic to Muslim to sit at the head table of oil producers. After 2003, when his father’s spirit appeared to him in a dream, he added his father’s name ‘Ondimba’ to Bongo.
Becoming a Muslim was not related to internal Gabonese politics as there are no indigenous Muslims. There is a small population of merchants, usually called ‘Haussas’ after the northern Nigerian ethnic group. A few have become wealthy so that a mosque was built in the capital, Libreville, but they have no political influence.
Bongo came from the Franceville area on the frontier with the Congo (Brazzaville) and did his education in Brazzaville. His parents were from two small related tribes, the Teke and the Obamba, so that he had no important tribal base on which to build his support. He was, however, from the south so that when he replaced Yembit, it kept the north-south balance.
His advancement in Gabonese political life was probably due to French influence. He realized that he had no tribal base on which to call and so friendship with the French advisors to Leon Mba, the officers of the French military stationed in Gabon and the French business milieu was an alternative source of power. However, it was his loyalty to Leon Mba in a time of crisis that brought him Mba’s gratitude and the post of Vice-President.
Early in 1964, there was a military coup against Leon Mba by young Gabonese military officers who had trained together in France and had decided that a change of government in Gabon was necessary for progress. With some of the Gabonese troops under their command, early in the morning, they attacked the President’s office. The building had been the home of the French colonial governor: it had no walls around it, and there were virtually no guards. The military officers arrested Leon Mba easily and took him to a military camp some 50 miles outside the city. Then the military did not know what to do since they had not planned to take power for themselves.
The officers asked the Foreign Minister, the other political ‘heavyweight’ to become president and then asked other government ministers who had been in opposition to Leon Mba prior to Independence to form a government. The only thing the new government members had in common was that they had opposed the President before Independence. At Independence in late 1960, a coalition government was formed of all the people who had been politically active before – a rather small group.
During the four days that Leon Mba was held prisoner, people in the administration had to decide what to do: to serve the new government, to wait-and-see, or to continue to support Leon Mba. Bongo chose to support Mba. While Gabonese administrators were deciding what to do, the French government was also looking at its options. As there had been shortly before a military coup in Togo – thus indicating a possible chain of coups – the De Gaulle government decided to reverse the coup and brought in by air soldiers from Brazzaville, the center of French forces in Equatorial Africa.
Leon Mba was restored to power, but his authority and mental health declined fast. When I returned to Gabon in 1966 (having worked there as an advisor in the Ministry of Education from 1961 to 1964) Leon Mba feared a new coup and thought that people were constantly plotting against him. He thought that the center of the plots was the Catholic and Protestant churches. The President of the Protestant church and the Catholic Bishop were cousins, and Leon Mba thought that as relatives they must be together plotting against him. In 1966 I had gone to Gabon at the request of the Protestant church to help in a study of social development planning: What was likely to happen in the next ten years and what could be the response of the churches to these new needs. During the colonial period in Gabon, the Catholic and Protestant churches had led in the development of education and health services. After Independence, there was a trend to ‘nationalize’ schools and health centers. Were there different socio-economic needs and could the churches take a lead as they had done earlier in education and health?
The Protestant church office where I worked had most of the government planning documents. A large percentage of the high civil servants were Protestants, although there were more Catholics in the general population. The early 1960s was still the golden days of French five-year planning efforts, transferred to Africa, more flexible guidelines than the Soviet five-year plans, but the idea that there could be no progress without a plan was widely held. Thus, I had access to the bulk of government documentation – not secret but not easily available to the public. The Gabonese government was none too happy at the idea of a team of church people ‘second guessing’ the administration on the future of the country and potentially highlighting areas that the government was neglecting – housing being a particular gap in the planning. Thus two weeks after my arrival, there were a series of government arrests of Protestant leaders, expulsions of foreign Catholic priests who had objected by solidarity. I was constantly watched by the police. They study could not be completed, and the leading Protestant members of the team spent a year in prison under different charges.
By 1967, Leon Mba’s physical and mental health was fast declining. He went to Paris where he stayed until his death late in 1967. His last administrative act was to make Albert Bongo Vice-President so that there could be a smooth transition of power. Thus, since late 1967-early 1968 Bongo has been in power – the longest serving African president. We both ended older if not wiser. What is sure is that Bongo ended up richer than I. In recent years there have been increasing press reports and law cases concerning his wealth in US banks and in French real estate, especially in Paris. It is certain that the difference between State funds and personal finance was never a distinction that Bongo made. He also knew how to invest his money in Gabon, having set up an import-export company and he had financial interests in a good number of small Gabonese businesses. Oil being a key world industry, he was able to have influence on decision-making in OPEC, and no doubt, received money from oil companies and oil-producing states.
Bongo used part of the money to build up a fairly large circle of people who supported him such as government ministers, high administrators and army officers. He had learned from Leon Mba how to give government ministries to different tribal groups so that someone from every important group had a representative in the government. Bongo had a acute political sense and was able to buy off anyone who might lead an organized opposition. He had no ideology beyond self interest, but there was no opposition with an ideology either. Thus, he ruled by knowing how the self-interest of others could be manipulated. Although Bongo held all the cards of power in his hands, there was relatively little violence against those who might have been tempted by opposition. One does not stay over 40 years in power without a coup or widespread unrest unless one has certain political gifts. As time went on, he depended more and more on his close family members. His son Ali by his first wife has been the Minister of Defense since 1999. His daughter, Pascaline, is the head of the President’s secretariat while her husband is the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Paul Tongire.
After the death of his first wife, he married the daughter of the President of the Congo (Brazzaville), Denis Sassou Nguesso, another oil producing country. Bongo’s second wife died in March 2009. Courts in France are investigating if the large sums of money that she had in French banks came from public funds of Gabon and Congo, she serving as a cover for her husband and her father, a likely hypothesis. However, it is probable that the investigations will not go very far, good relations with Gabon being in French government interest.
What will happen now? According to the Constitution, there should be elections for a new President within 45 days – the interim administration being held, as in France, by the President of the Senate, Mme Rose Rogombe. The most competent of the Gabonese administrators, a long time Foreign Minister, Jean Ping, is the Chairman of the Secretariat of the African Union. His father was Chinese so that he has no tribal base on which to build. Most likely, there will be a certain struggle for power between Bongo’s son-in-law, the current Foreign Minister, and Bongo’s son, Ali, Minister of Defense. The struggle is likely to be in the President’s house – now much larger than the colonial governor’s, with real walls around – but not in the street. Will Bongo’s talent of playing one person’s interests against another be passed on? Only time will tell.
For the lead up to Independence and the Mba government see Brian Weinstein. Gabon: Nation-Building on the Ogooue (Cambridge, MA: The M.I.T. Press, 1966, 287pp.)
For an uncritical but useful overview including some of Bongo’s rule see F.P. Nze-Nguema L’Etat au Gabon de 1929 à 1990 (Paris: L’Harmattan, 1998, 240pp.)
Rene Wadlow, representative to the UN, Geneva, Association of World Citizens