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Last Updated: Wednesday, 28 November 2007, 09:30 GMT
Bongo's 40 years of ruling Gabon

Mark Doyle
BBC world affairs correspondent

A joke that does the rounds in the salons of the Gabonese capital Libreville is that the quickest way to become a minister there is to start an opposition party.

President Omar Bongo of Gabon
Mr Bongo has led Gabon since 28 November 1967

President Omar Bongo is celebrating 40 years as leader of Gabon - the longest-serving head of state in Africa.

His rule has been characterised by the co-opting of the opposition - using the country's considerable oil revenues to grease the path to power.

Omar Bongo is also widely believed to have used his wealth to influence political parties in the former colonial metropole, France.

It is said that to cover his bets he helped finance a variety of French politicians - including some not known for their sympathies with Africa.

Cult of personality

Mr Bongo took over as leader of now oil-rich Gabon on the death of President Leon Mba on 28 November 1967.

CEMAC summit in N'Djamena, 25 Apr 07
Short in stature, but Mr Bongo (c) is the longest-serving African leader

He was officially inaugurated a few days later.

A cult of personality has helped make President Bongo the continent's longest-serving leader.

In the United States his style of dispensing favours in exchange for votes would be known as "pork barrel politics".

In Africa it's known as the "African big man" tradition.

But Mr Bongo is himself short in stature, as are many of his minority Bateke ethnic group.

He often wears raised platform shoes to boost his height.

Journey from poverty

Mr Bongo's official website says he is the son of a farmer and that he was born the twelfth child.

You have to learn to obey orders before you can become a commander yourself
Omar Bongo

His father died when he was just seven years old.

To emphasise the journey he has made from poverty to success, the website recalls: "He didn't come into the world on a hospital bed, and he didn't have a cot or a nanny."

His path to power began - as for many Africans in colonies where their choices were few - in the colonial military.

He joined the French Air Force and says he was the first black man to serve in the force in Chad.

"The military trained me," Mr Bongo says.

"I learnt there what discipline means. You have to learn to obey orders before you can become a commander yourself."

Religious conversion

Under President Bongo's leadership some of the elite middle classes of Libreville and the second city, Port Gentil, have grown rich - as indeed have the expatriates, mostly French, who have been attracted to live in the country.

President Omar Bongo of Gabon with his wife on the campaign trail
Mr Bongo with his second wife who is the daughter of Congo's president

A little of this wealth has spread to rural areas but many villages deep in the forests of Gabon are untouched by oil money.

Omar Bongo's name was connected in the late 1990s with various alleged financial scandals involving the French oil company Elf Aquitaine.

Mr Bongo insisted the affair was a domestic French matter.

Despite these controversies, many ordinary Gabonese count their blessings.

The country is in a rough neighbourhood near the war-torn states of Congo and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

But Gabon has avoided direct spill over from these conflicts.

Over the years Gabonese have seen a one-party state transform into a multiparty system - although, thanks to patronage politics, there has rarely been any serious prospect of a challenge to Mr Bongo's power.

President Bongo's wife, Edith Lucie, is a medical doctor and businesswoman.

She is also the daughter of the current president of neighbouring Congo, Denis Sassou-Nguesso.

Albert Bernard Bongo was born 30 December 1935 and is now 71.

He changed his first name to Omar in 1973 when he converted from Christianity to Islam.

He later added his father's traditional African name to his title and now goes by the name Omar Bongo Ondimba.

SEE ALSO
Country profile: Gabon
17 Oct 06 |  Country profiles
Timeline: Gabon
17 Oct 06 |  Country profiles

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