Dynasty: Ali Bongo (above) has been president since 2009, replacing his father, Omar, who ruled from 1967. Photo: Ludovic Marin/Getty Images
For years, Gabon’s President Ali Bongo Ondimba struggled in the shadow of his charismatic father, Omar, who ruled the oil-rich central African country for more than four decades.
Then nearly five years ago came a stroke that sidelined him for months, spurred rumours about his fitness for office and fuelled a minor attempted coup.
Today, Bongo’s doubters are on the back foot as the 64-year-old, seemingly fresh for the fray, seeks a third term in elections on Saturday. Visitors who have seen Bongo close up say he has stiffness in his right arm and leg that affects his mobility, but his mind is sharp.
Emerging from a long convalescence after his 2018 stroke, he embarked on an image revamp, putting himself forward as a man of rigour bent on rooting out “traitors” and “profiteers” in his inner circle.
Those targeted include his powerful chief of staff, Brice Laccruche Alihanga, now in prison along with several ministers and senior civil servants.
As elections approached, he began a whirlwind national tour, made high-profile foreign visits and pitched Gabon’s credentials as a proclaimed guardian of the forests.
To compare Bongo between youth and middle age is to see a stark change in persona.
The carefree scion of a wealthy ruling family, Bongo was once known by his initials of ABO, Ali B — or, less flattering, as Monsieur Fils (Mr Son).
He was born to a teenage girl, Josephine Kama, in the Congolese city of Brazzaville, which at the time was still part of France’s rapidly shrinking colonial empire. Because he was born abroad and out of wedlock, Bongo for years fought rumours that he was a foreigner who had been adopted.
He nurtured ambitions as an aspiring funk singer — in 1977 he recorded an album, now a YouTube curiosity, featuring top-class musicians and entitled A Brand New Man.
Within three years, shepherded by his father, he abandoned the path of entertainment and entered politics, renaming himself Ali Bongo and converting to Islam like his parents.
Bongo senior, who took office in 1967, had the reputation of a kleptocrat — one of the wealthiest men in the world, with a fortune derived from Gabon’s oil.
He was also a pillar of “FrancAfrique” — a now much-contested strategy by which France bound itself to its former African colonies through cronyism, often tainted with corruption and rights abuses.
Bongo worked as his father’s faithful lieutenant, travelling the world and forging contacts at the time of the second oil boom.
But to his detractors, Bongo lacked his father’s charm and communication skills.
He attended some of Brazzaville’s top schools and studied law in France but did not learn any of Gabon’s local languages — a major disadvantage.
His lavish spending, especially on luxury cars, also raised eyebrows in a country where oil wealth contrasts with widespread poverty.
In 1989, he was appointed foreign minister aged just 30 but had to step down two years later when a new Constitution stipulated that cabinet members had to be at least 35.
He was back in government by 1999, heading the defence ministry.
There he remained until shortly before the start of the election campaign caused by his father’s death in 2009.
The handover was not a surprise, given all the years of grooming by his father and Bongo’s own ambitions, despite some opposition within the ruling Gabonese Democratic Party (PDG).
In 2016, Bongo was re-elected by 5 500 votes, edging out opposition challenger Jean Ping after a campaign marred by bloody clashes and allegations of fraud.
Pitching to a country that had been run for decades by his family, Bongo tried the difficult task of posing as an agent of change — packing each speech with pledges of “renewal” and “innovation”.
He unveiled a string of projects, including diversifying the economy, opening up markets to Asian investors, trimming the state sector and promoting Gabon’s environmental treasures.Bongo married French-born Sylvia Bongo Ondimba in 1989. They have four children. — AFP