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The murky world of Omar Bongo

Omar Bongo
Omar Bongo has been in office since 1972

French authorities are to investigate the assets of the Gabonese President Omar Bongo, who is accused of misappropriating millions of dollars meant for public services. Here, Christophe Pons of BBC Focus On Africa magazine examines the history of the world's longest-serving republican head of state.

Mr Bongo is one of three African leaders accused of embezzlement by the French arm of the anti-corruption watchdog Transparency International - also under investigation are Denis Sassou-Nguesso of Republic of Congo and Teodoro Obiang Nguema of Equatorial Guinea.

It is alleged that the volume of real estate owned by Mr Bongo's family in France could not have been purchased with official salaries alone. In recent weeks this has been followed by the freezing of Mr Bongo's bank accounts in France following bribery allegations.

Mr Bongo, who has temporarily stepped down from his post on health grounds while visiting Europe, has denied any wrongdoing.

But critics have long argued that Mr Bongo's stay in power has been as a consequence of a combination of violence and corruption.

Quietened opponents

The first tide of violence happened in the 1970s when several opposition members were killed. Then in 1990, the mysterious death of opposition leader Joseph Redjambe sparked riots that rocked the regime for days.

But it is money that is thought to be the ultimate weapon in the hands of the president and his family.

GABON
Full name: The Gabonese Republic
Population: 1.4 million (UN, 2008)
Ethnic groups: Fang, Bapounou, Nzebi, Obamba
Major religion: Christianity
Life expectancy: 56 years (men), 57 years (women) (UN)
Main exports: Crude oil, timber, manganese, uranium
GNI per capita: US $6,670 (World Bank, 2007)

It is money that has helped to ensure peace, silence critics and fuel solid friendships abroad, notably in France, its former colonial power.

And over recent years it has become increasingly clear that, either as a result of intimidation or gifts, all Mr Bongo's political opponents have thrown in the towel.

Even Pierre Mamboundou, leader of the Union for the People of Gabon (UPG) - until recently considered Mr Bongo's most credible rival - has now joined the long list of former opponents turned quiet.

With a reputation as an uncompromising man and no stranger to exile and political imprisonment, Mr Mamboundou had fought and lost two presidential polls.

In 2006, however, he stopped his public criticisms of Mr Bongo. The former firebrand makes no secret that the president pledged to give him $21.5 million for the development of his constituency of Ndende.

The wealth of President Bongo may be a well-kept secret, but he is believed to be one of the world's richest men. His assets abroad may just be the tip of the iceberg, but they provide more than a clue to the extent of his fortune.

In 2007 a police investigation into real estate owned by the president and his family in France disclosed 33 properties in Paris and Nice worth an estimated $190 million.

And back in 1999, an investigation by the American senate into the private practices of Citibank estimated that the Gabonese president held $130 million in the bank's personal accounts. Furthermore, the report stated that there was "no doubt that these financial assets were sourced in the public finances of Gabon."

Mr Bongo was also linked to the 1990s investigation of the French state-owned oil firm Elf-Aquitaine, which exposed a murky world of bribes and secret funding of political parties.

He was named as the final beneficiary of millions of dollars transferred into Swiss bank accounts - but again, he strongly denied any wrongdoing.

Battle for succession

But now, the same wealth that helped Mr Bongo consolidate his grip on power through patronage is generating a new wave of criticism that has unsettled the regime.

In a much-publicised manifesto in December 2008, a Gabonese civil society network launched a scathing attack not only on Mr Bongo, but also his daughter Pascaline, who is his chief of staff, and his son Ali, who is currently Gabon's defence minister.

Both stand accused of ruling the country as their private property and trying to put themselves in prime position to succeed their father.

Denis Sassou-Nguesso of Republic of Congo (right) and Teodoro Obiang Nguema of Equatorial Guinea (left)
Denis Sassou-Nguesso (r) and Teodoro Obiang Nguema are also under investigation

Bruno Ben-Moubamba, a Gabonese journalist living in France and one of the authors of the manifesto, goes even further - claiming that Pascaline Bongo takes all major decisions for the country.

"We are back in a single-party regime. The only means of resistance for the Gabonese people is to go on strike and not to vote in elections," laments Mr Ben-Moubamba, a member of the Free Gabonese Civil Society Network.

A succession of strikes in education and health services over pay and poor working conditions shows that disgruntled civil servants are starting to mobilise.

Even France, which has major oil interests and a military base in Gabon, seems to have doubts about the future of the regime.

In a book on the French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, the investigative journalist Pierre Pean reveals a number of business deals between Mr Kouchner's private consultancy in the early 2000s and the Gabonese government.

Some feel that there is no coincidence in the timing of the release of the book and the current investigation into Mr Bongo's assets. This is believed to be causing a headache for French diplomats.

France, which has an estimated 10,000 expatriates in Gabon, quietly dispatched 300 paratroopers in January to reinforce its base.

The aim is reportedly to protect French citizens abroad.

But the move is also a clear indication that France is in the dark and getting nervous about what may happen when the ageing autocrat's time is up.



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