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 Monday, 20 January, 2003, 09:11 GMT
Profile: Gabon's 'president for life'
Omar Bongo
Omar Bongo looks set to stay in power until 2012

Anyone who would like to know how to rule a country for decades should consult President Omar Bongo of Gabon.

As head of state for 35 years, he is outdone only by Togo's President Gnassingbe Eyadema in terms of longevity of leadership.

Not even Zaire's Mobutu Sese Seko and Malawi's Kamuzu Banda, who proclaimed themselves as presidents-for-life, ruled for so long.

Born Albert Bernard Bongo in 1935, he changed his name to El Hadj Omar Bongo when he converted to Islam in 1973.

He went to school in Brazzaville, and received military training in Chad. He is married and has more than 30 children - though not all of them with his wife.

Bongo's political career kicked off after he won the trust of the father of Gabon's independence, President Leon Mba. He was appointed the director in the president's office in 1962, when he was only 27 years old.

Military coup

During a military coup attempt in 1964, Mba was kidnapped and Bongo was held in custody in a military camp in Libreville. Both were rescued by French paratroopers. France, which has huge oil interests in Gabon, has always played a key role in the African country's stability.

That was the only coup attempt in Gabon's history. The renegade soldiers attempted to install a civilian, Jean Hilaire Obame, as president in order to legitimise their actions. He was in office for just two days, before being forced to return power to the Mba-Bongo alliance.

Having remained faithful to Mba when the military tried to seize power, Bongo was rewarded with the vice-presidency in 1967. When Mba died after a short illness in the same year, Bongo was the obvious successor.


He ruled over a one-party state for 16 years, until presidential elections were held in 1993 which he won.

However the poll was marred by allegations of rigging, with the opposition claming that chief rival, Father Paul Mba Abessole, was robbed of victory. Gabon found itself on the brink of a civil war, as the opposition staged violent demonstrations.

Determined to prove that he was not an autocrat who relied on brute force for his political survival, Bongo entered into talks with the opposition, negotiating what became known as the Paris Agreement in a successful attempt to restore calm.

When Bongo won the second presidential elections held in 1998, similar controversy raged over his victory. The president responded by meeting some of his critics to discuss revising legislation to guarantee free and fair elections.

The main opposition leader, Pierre Maboundou of the Gabonese People's Union, refused to attend the meetings, claiming that they were merely a ploy by Bongo to lure opposition leaders.

Maboundou called for a boycott of the legislative elections held in December, 2001, and his supporters burnt ballot boxes and papers in a polling station in his hometown of Ndende.


But despite threats from Bongo, Maboundou was never arrested. The president declared that a policy of forgiveness was his "best revenge".

After Bongo's Gabonese Democratic Party scored a landslide victory in the legislative elections, Bongo offered government posts to influential opposition members. Father Paul Mba Abessole accepted a ministerial post in the name of "convivial democracy".

This may have gone a long way to raise the level of unity in the country, but it has weakened the opposition. The next presidential election is due in 2005 and it seems unlikely that the splintered opposition will mount a strong challenge.

Now in his late 60s, Bongo is showing no signs of giving up. Having changed the constitution to allow a president to serve two seven-year terms, Bongo could be in office until 2012.


On the international stage, the Gabonese president has cultivated an image as a peacemaker, playing a pivotal role in attempts to solve the crises in the Central African Republic, Congo-Brazzaville, Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

In Gabon he is seen as a charismatic and straightforward figure. He is also popular amongst the Gabonese because his reign has guaranteed stability.

He regards the principle of keeping the youth happy as sacred.

Like a godfather, he uses his own money to solve the problems of those who call on him. In 2000 he put an end to a student strike by providing about $1.35m for the purchase of the computers and books they were demanding.

A full version of this article appears in the January-March 2003 issue of

See also:

29 Nov 02 | Country profiles
10 Dec 01 | Africa
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