/ 9 June 2009

Lockdown as Gabon mourns veteran leader Bongo

Gabon was in lockdown on Tuesday as it went into mourning for the death of President Omar Bongo Ondimba, Africa’s longest-serving leader whose marathon rule was tainted by corruption.

Bongo’s death was announced by the West African’s nation prime minister on Monday in Barcelona where the 73-year-old had been undergoing treatment for several weeks in a private clinic for intestinal cancer.

His body is to be repatriated to Libreville on Friday and the official funeral will be held before next Monday. Flags are being flown at half-mast and mourning will last for 30 days.

Bongo’s 50-year-old son Ali Ben Bongo, Gabon’s defence minister and favourite to succeed him, issued appeals for public calm — indicating his pivotal role in coming days and weeks.

”I am calling for calm and serenity of heart and reverence to preserve the unity and peace so dear to our late father,” he said in a televised appeal after his ministry announced the closure of air, land and sea borders.

The appeal was echoed in the state-run L’Union newspaper which carried a massive portrait of the late president on its front page, showing him taking office in January 2006 after being re-elected to another seven-year term.

”One of the main lessons that he taught us and left with us is this: Fortune will favour those who are united over those who are divided,” said an editorial.

Public and private broadcasters interrupted their usual schedules to play programmes commemorating his achievements and a stream of religious music.

Tributes came from across the globe, with United States President Barack Obama saying he had earned respect for ”his commitment to conflict resolution”.

Other African leaders heaped praise on Bongo, saying he had played a key role as a peacemaker across the continent.

The South African government said he deserved particularly credit for helping to put a halt to conflict in the Central African Republic.

”Bongo has contributed enormously to the African continent through his involvement in peaceful resolution of conflict in the Central African region and the continent as a whole,” said a foreign ministry statement.

In Paris however, the death prompted soul-searching about the intricate links between Gabon and its former French colonial masters.

Former French president Valéry Giscard d’Estaing said that he had broken off contacts with Bongo after discovering that the Gabonese leader had bankrolled his rival Jacques Chirac’s 1981 presidential campaign.

”I called Bongo and told him ‘you’re supporting my rival’s campaign’ and there was a dead silence that I still remember to this day and then he said ‘Ah, you know about it’, which was extraordinary,” Giscard told Europe 1 radio.

”From that moment on, I broke off personal relations with him,” said Giscard, who lost to Socialist Francois Mitterrand in a run-off vote in 1981.

Bongo came to power in 1967 with French support and ruled over a state that grew rich on abundant oil while most of the 1,5-million population remained poor.

Gabon was the first African country to host French oil giant Elf in the 1960s, from where the company operated as a state within a state, serving as a base for French military and espionage activities.

Bongo’s final months were marked by a row with Paris over a French inquiry into luxury properties he had bought in France and claims by anti-corruption activists they were acquired with embezzled state funds.

A French court decision in February to freeze Bongo’s bank accounts added fuel to the fire, and his government accused France of waging a ”campaign to destabilise” the country.

Noel Mamere, a lawmaker for France’s Green party, said that he would not be shedding any tears over Bongo’s death.

”Anyone who cares for democracy will not mourn his passing,” he told France Inter radio.

”He symbolised everything that we have been campaigning against for the last 30 years, these incestuous mafia-like relations between African and French governments — of the right and left.”

His demise raised fears of a power vacuum and the announcement of his death saw police and troop reinforcements posted at key points across the capital. – AFP