Bongo, Omar (Gabon)
El Hadj Omar Bongo Ondimba was Africa’s longest serving head of state, ruling as president of Gabon from 1967 to 2009. After Fidel Castro of Cuba stood down in Feb. 2008 Bongo became the world’s longest-serving president. His period in office was characterized by political stability, with Gabon having the highest per capita wealth in West Africa. Despite introducing multi-party democracy in the early 1990s, he was widely accused of corruption and a flawed electoral system gave concern to the international community.
Bongo, given the name Albert-Bernard, was born in 1935 in what was then French Equatorial Africa. He was educated in Brazzaville (in present-day Republic of the Congo), went to Chad for military training and served in the French air force. He joined the civil service in 1958 and developed a close relationship with Leon M’ba, who became president following Gabon’s independence in 1960. M’ba appointed Bongo director of the president’s office in 1962.
The military attempted a coup in 1964 and held both M’ba and Bongo in custody until M’ba was returned to power with the support of French forces. Bongo was appointed minister of defence in 1965 and minister of information and tourism the following year. Bongo then became vice president and assumed the presidency following the death of M’ba in Nov. 1967.
Bongo declared Gabon a one-party state in 1968 and under this system was re-elected to the presidency in 1973, 1979 and 1986. In 1973 he converted to Islam and took the name Omar. In 1982 an opposition group, the Movement for National Renewal (MORENA), was founded and pushed for the return of a multi-party system. Gabon’s economy had benefited greatly from oil revenues but was affected by declining world oil prices in the late 1980s. Popular dissatisfaction spilled over into violent protests in 1990, during which French forces entered the country to protect its nationals. With the democratic movement newly invigorated, Bongo agreed to a national conference which included opposition figures. Multi-party politics were formally reintroduced in 1991.
Bongo was again victorious at the presidential elections of 1993 but his leading rival, Father Paul M’ba Abessole, voiced widely-held suspicions of electoral irregularities. Serious civil unrest was narrowly averted when Bongo agreed a deal, known as the Paris agreement, which allowed for the establishment of an electoral commission and improved electoral processes. In 1997 a constitutional amendment extended the presidential tenure from 5 to 7 years, and Bongo’s victory at the 1998 presidential polls was again widely questioned. An offer by Bongo to meet for talks with Pierre Mamboundou of the Gabonese People’s Union (UPG) was rejected. The UPG called for a boycott of the 2001 parliamentary elections, which were dominated by Bongo’s Gabonese Democratic Party (PDG). In an apparent gesture of reconciliation, the PDG invited opposition figures into the government.
A controversial constitutional amendment was then passed allowing the president to serve two consecutive 7 year terms, potentially granting power to Bongo until 2012. This was followed in June 2003 by further revisions permitting the president to contest the presidency as many times as he wished. In the following elections in Nov. 2005, Bongo was again re-elected with 79.2% of the popular vote, and in Dec. 2006 the PDG maintained its majority in polling for the National Assembly. In Jan. 2008 the government temporarily banned 20 non-governmental organizations for alleged interference in domestic politics.
In foreign policy, Bongo was involved in attempts to resolve regional conflicts, notably in Burundi, the Central African Republic, and in both the Republic of the Congo and Democratic Republic of the Congo. In March 2003 Cándido Muatetema Rivas, then prime minister of Equatorial Guinea, claimed Gabon’s occupation of the oil-rich island of Mbagne was illegal. Both countries agreed in Feb. 2006 to start talks over the disputed territory. In April 2001 Bongo signed agreements with Russia on military and technical co-operation as well as trade and culture. Despite Gabon’s relatively prosperous economy, boosted by oil sales and high levels of foreign investment, Bongo’s lavish expenditure attracted international criticism.
Following a period of ill health, Bongo died from cancer on 8 June 2009.