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1967-2009 - Omar Bongo

Albert Bernard Bongo changed his name to Omar Bongo in 1973 when he converted to Islam. Omar Bongo died in 2009 after 42 years in office. Late in 1966, the constitution was revised to provide for automatic succession of the vice president should the president die in office. In March 1967, Leon M'Ba and Omar Bongo (then Albert Bongo) were elected President and Vice President. M'Ba died later that year, and Omar Bongo became President.

Omar Bongo was born into the minority Bateke ethnic group in a remote corner of what was then French Equatorial Africa, reportedly in 1935. Orphaned at an early age, Bongo found schooling in Brazzaville, and through luck, brains and hard work emerged as a figure in the ferment of the era's labor and independence politics. He was also, and not coincidentally, employed by a French intelligence service.

With Gabon's independence in 1960, Bongo rose to become aide-de-camp to first president Leon Mba. Sticking by Mba during the attempted 1964 coup, in which he was briefly imprisoned by Mba's opponents and rescued by the French, Bongo was rewarded with the vice presidency. Mba died in France in 1967 and Bongo took office at the announced age of 31 - though his actual age remained uncertain.

In March 1968, Bongo declared Gabon a one-party state by dissolving the BDG and establishing a new party--the Parti Democratique Gabonais (PDG). He invited all Gabonese, regardless of previous political affiliation, to participate. Bongo sought to forge a single national movement in support of the government's development policies, using the PDG as a tool to submerge the regional and tribal rivalries that had divided Gabonese politics in the past. Bongo was elected President in February 1975; in April 1975, the position of vice president was abolished and replaced by the position of prime minister, who had no right to automatic succession. Bongo was re-elected President in both December 1979 and November 1986 to 7-year terms.

The President reorganized the country, administratively and politically. Aided by the two oil booms that Gabon experienced in 1973 then in 1979, Omar Bongo Ondimba transformed the country. He endowed it with the necessary infrastructure to accompany its development. From then on, Gabon was able to reorganize its economy. Several major mining and forestry companies were formed (COMILOG, COMUF and SNBG, etc.). Libreville was transformed, with the building of modern infrastructure, mostly in 1977 for the summit meeting of the Organisation for African Unity (OAU), which the country hosted. Two major harbour complexes were built, one in Owendo and the other at Port-Gentil. Each province was endowed with an airport, two of international stature, at Libreville and Franceville. He launched the third largest public works project in the world at the time, the backbone of Gabon's development: the Transgabon railway.

Economic discontent and a desire for political liberalization provoked violent demonstrations and strikes by students and workers in early 1990. In response to grievances by workers, Bongo negotiated with them on a sector-by-sector basis, making significant wage concessions. In addition, he promised to open up the PDG and to organize a national political conference in March-April 1990 to discuss Gabon's future political system. The PDG and 74 political organizations attended the conference. Participants essentially divided into two loose coalitions, the ruling PDG and its allies, and the United Front of Opposition Associations and Parties, consisting of the breakaway Morena Fundamental and the Gabonese Progress Party.

The April 1990 conference approved sweeping political reforms and major changes to Gabon's political system, including creation of a national Senate, decentralization of the budgetary process, freedom of assembly and press, and cancellation of an exit visa requirement. In an attempt to guide the political system's transformation to multiparty democracy, Bongo resigned as PDG chairman and created a transitional government headed by a new Prime Minister, Casimir Oye-Mba. The Gabonese Social Democratic Grouping (RSDG), as the resulting government was called, was smaller than the previous government and included representatives from several opposition parties in its cabinet. The RSDG drafted a provisional constitution in May 1990 that provided a basic Western-style bill of rights, a National Council of Democracy to oversee the guarantee of those rights, a governmental advisory board on economic and social issues, and an independent judiciary; the constitution retained strong executive powers for the president.

Opposition to the PDG continued after the April 1990 conference, and in September 1990, two coup d'etat attempts were uncovered and aborted. The untimely death of an opposition leader was followed by anti-government demonstrations. In September-October 1990 the first multiparty National Assembly elections in almost 30 years took place, although opposition parties had not formally been declared legal. Despite the PDG garnering a large majority, the elections produced a representative, multiparty National Assembly.

In January 1991, the National Assembly unanimously passed a law governing the legalization of opposition parties. After review by a constitutional committee, the National Assembly, the PDG Central Committee, and the President, the Assembly in March 1991 unanimously adopted the May 1990-drafted constitution. Although the Senate was created in the 1990-91 constitutional rewrite, it was not brought into being until after 1997 local elections.

Following President Omar Bongo's re-election in December 1993 with 51% of the vote, opposition candidates refused to validate the election results. Serious civil disturbances led to an agreement between the government and opposition factions to work toward a political settlement. These talks led to the Paris Accords in November 1994, under which several opposition figures were included in a government of national unity. The Accords also provided a framework for the next elections. Legislative and local elections were delayed until 1996-97. This unity arrangement soon broke down, however, and the 1996 and 1997 legislative and municipal elections provided the background for renewed partisan politics. The PDG won a landslide victory in the legislative election, but several major cities, including Libreville, elected opposition mayors during the 1997 local election. In 1997, constitutional amendments put forward years earlier were adopted to create the Senate, re-establish the position of vice president, and set the president's term at 7 years.

President Omar Bongo coasted to easy re-election in December 1998, with large majorities of the vote due to a divided opposition. While Bongo's major opponents rejected the outcome as fraudulent, some international observers characterized the results as representative despite many perceived irregularities, and there were none of the civil disturbances that followed the 1993 election. Peaceful though flawed legislative elections held in 2001-2002, which were boycotted by a number of smaller opposition parties and were widely criticized for their administrative weaknesses, produced a National Assembly almost completely dominated by the PDG and allied independents. In November 2005, President Omar Bongo was elected for his sixth term. He won re-election easily, but opponents claim that the balloting process was marred by irregularities. There were some instances of violence following the announcement of Omar Bongo's win, but Gabon generally remained peaceful.

President Omar Bongo preserved Gabonese stability over his long time in office in part by reaching out to and including representatives of different regions and ethnic groups. Political struggles within the PDG could be analyzed in terms of Ali Bongo's "renovators", a group of moderates or "appellists" centered around Toungui, and aging but influential party barons known as the "caciques".

Ali Bongo and his associate Mba Obame controlled all security forces except the Republican Guard, who report directly to the President. Opposition figures claimed neither will hesitate to order security forces to suppress perceived threats to the regime, using violence if necessary. Leaders of the so-called "appellistes" faction -- Finance Minister Paul Toungui and his ally Mines, Energy, and Oil Minister Richard-Auguste Onouviet -- both retained their posts in the new 2006 cabinet. Lemboumba Lepandou was considered the king maker by many Gabonese analysts, and remained an implacable enemy of Ali Bongo (Lemboumba believes Ali Bongo tried to assassinate him in 1992).

Backing some of the younger ministers, and holding important positions in their own right, are the "Caciques" (big shots), the old guard of Bongo's PDG (Gabonese Democratic Party). Their power and influence date from the early years of the Gabonese Republic. They were survivors of decades of political infighting, and had built their own empires within the system, sometimes in collaboration, but frequently in competition, with each other. They held power while Ali Bongo was still in grade school (Idriss Ngari, see para 10, has said as much publicly), and are not inclined to surrender power to a younger generation of Gabonese. Many Caciques maintain strong connections with France, and France is thought to share their opposition to the prospect of Ali Bongo's assumption of power (President Bongo once told Ambassador Walkley,"The French don't like my son").

This attribution of the allegiances of different ministers obscures the ever-changing ties of family and organization binding the Gabonese elite. Many of the bitterest rivals are related by blood or have children or grandchildren in common (opposition figure Zacharie Myboto is the grandfather of two of President Bongo's many children), or are tied together ethnically or in organizations such as the Freemasons. Abessole and Kombila's reconciliation after eight years of bitter animosity is not unusual, nor is Bongo's reaching out to and including two of his most outspoken rivals.

National Assembly elections were held again in December 2006. Several seats contested because of voting irregularities were overturned by the Constitutional Court, but the subsequent run-off elections in early 2007 again yielded a PDG-controlled National Assembly.

On June 8, 2009, President Omar Bongo died of cardiac arrest at a Spanish hospital in Barcelona, ushering in a new era in Gabonese politics.

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Page last modified: 06-09-2016 19:52:23 ZULU