/ 17 June 2009

Jeers for Sarkozy at Gabon president’s funeral

Onlookers jeered French President Nicolas Sarkozy on Tuesday at the state funeral for Gabon’s President Omar Bongo Ondimba which was attended by more than a dozen other African leaders.

The issue of succession in the oil rich nation buzzed behind the scenes and Sarkozy insisted that France was not supporting anyone to take over in its former colony.

Polite applause as Sarkozy arrived at the presidential palace in Libreville was quickly drowned out by jeers and boos shouted by dozens among a few hundred onlookers who were allowed into the palace courtyard.

Many hurled insults such as ”We don’t want you! Leave!” at Sarkozy.

Security guards quickly formed a cordon around the French leader as he went into the presidential palace.

Bongo (73) died in a Spanish clinic last week. He had been a symbol of France’s privileged ties in the region, but those relations had soured as Bongo’s controversial 41-year rule came to an end.

A French judge is investigating his purchase of luxury properties in France amid embezzlement allegations.

One man in the crowd told Agence France-Presse: ”You French, you come here to eat Gabon. All the presidents who have come to this palace have left again with their pockets full and then you criticise us.”

Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner and former president Jacques Chirac were also present in a heavyweight French delegation that reflected the importance Paris still gives to its former colonies in Africa.

Sarkozy and Chirac were applauded when they laid a wreath together at Bongo’s coffin.

”People are rather up in arms against the French media … You know the damage that can be done by the premature announcement of a
death and some of the commentaries,” Sarkozy said of the reception he got.

He contended that the boos were ”more against the media” than himself.

Sarkozy denied there was any French interference in the selection of a successor. ”France has no candidate … it is not supporting anyone,” he said on the sidelines of the service.

”The Gabonese must choose who they want and France will work with the president chosen by the Gabonese,” he said, while highlighting that ”institutions and deadlines” had to be respected to avoid chaos.

”You have to do everything to keep the unity of the country when you see what has happened in Ivory Coast,” he said referring to the West African neighbour’s civil war.

After a minute’s silence, guests took turns to kneel briefly in front of Bongo’s coffin draped with the national flag, before it was taken out for a two-hour military parade on the Atlantic seafront.

Defence Minister Ali Ben Bongo (50) the late president’s son widely tipped as likely to take over, spoke for the family and gave a speech preaching the ”philosophy of forgiveness [and] dialogue” he attributed to his father.

”We, your children, your family, make a solemn commitment to keep alight with the aide of our fellow citizens the sacred flame of family harmony, republican concord and national unity,” he said.

The defence minister has frequently appeared on television and at the side of interim president Rose Francine Rogombe, the Senate

Sources close to the presidency have reported a tussle between Ali Ben Bongo and Prime Minister John Eyeghe Ndong over the handling of the transition period scheduled to end with presidential elections.

Ndong urged Gabonese people ”to reject dissent, petty squabbles, and bitter struggles, personal or otherwise.”

Leaders from the African Union, Congo-Brazzaville, Central African Republic, Cameroon, Togo, Senegal, Chad, Democratic Republic of Congo, Benin, Burundi, Mali, Equatorial Guinea, Burkina Faso and São Tomé and Príncipe were among the mourners.

Bongo’s coffin was taken to Franceville, capital of his native south-eastern Haut-Ogouue region, where he will be buried on Thursday. – Sapa-AFP