Page last updated at 11:19 GMT, Monday, 8 June 2009 12:19 UK

Obituary: Omar Bongo

Omar Bongo Ondimba at the Elysee Palace in Paris, 2006
Omar Bongo enjoyed strong support among the Gabonese people

Africa's longest-serving ruler, Gabon's President Omar Bongo Ondimba, has died. He was 73.

A charismatic figure surrounded by a personality cult, he led the oil-producing West African state for more than four decades.

Many in Gabon saw him as a guarantor of the former French colony's stability.

But critics said his rule was based on violence and corruption, accusing him of amassing a personal fortune from the country's oil boom.

Mr Bongo's wealth was a well-kept secret, but he is thought by some to have been among the world's richest men.

In May, it emerged he had been admitted to a Spanish clinic, amid reports he was suffering from cancer.

A month later the Gabonese prime minister announced the veteran leader's death from a heart attack at the Quiron hospital in Barcelona.

He was born Albert Bernard Bongo on 30 December 1935, one of 12 children, to a peasant farming family in the Bateke region of south-east Gabon.

Moment of peril

His father died when he was seven years old.

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

President Omar Bongo Ondimba celebrates his 40th anniversary in power in Libreville on 2 December 2007
Omar Bongo often wore raised platform shoes to boost his height

Mr Bongo went to school in Brazzaville in Congo, and his path to power began - as for many future African leaders of the time - in the colonial military.

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

The veteran leader's political career was made after he won the trust of the father of Gabon's independence, President Leon Mba.

He was appointed director in the president's office in 1962, when just 27 years old.

Mr Bongo's moment of peril came in 1964 when renegade soldiers arrested him in Libreville and kidnapped the president himself.

French rescue

The plotters attempted to install a civilian, Jean Hilaire Obame, as leader in order to legitimise their actions - but he lasted just two days in office.

Gabonese president Omar Bongo (R) and President of Zaire Mobutu Sese Seko (L) on 10 December 1984
Mr Bongo (R) was often described as one of the last of Africa's "big men"

French paratroopers rescued the abducted president and Mr Bongo, restoring them to power. It was the only coup attempt in Gabon's history.

France, which has huge oil interests in Gabon, has always played a key role in the African country's stability.

Mba rewarded Mr Bongo for his loyalty with the vice-presidency in 1967.

Less than nine months later, Mba suddenly died and Mr Bongo became Africa's fourth-youngest president ever.

The Gabonese president changed his name to El Hadj Omar Bongo when he converted to Islam in 1973.

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

He was a short man, like many of his minority Bateke ethnic group, and often wore raised platform shoes so as to appear taller.

But his diminutive height belied his towering stature on Gabon's political stage - which he ruled shrewdly for nearly 42 years - and on the African continent as one of the last of the so-called "big men".

Riots rock regime

With a neat moustache and piercing gaze often hidden behind dark glasses, he ruled over a one-party state for 26 years.

Gabonese President Omar Bongo (L) meets Chinese leader Mao Tse-Tung (R) in Beijing on 15 October 1974
Mr Bongo (R) met, and outlived, many world leaders during his tenure

Critics long argued that Mr Bongo's stay in power was not simply down to popularity.

Several of his political opponents were killed during the 1970s.

Then in 1990, the mysterious death of opposition leader Joseph Redjambe sparked riots that rocked the regime for days.

Mr Bongo introduced multi-party elections in 1993 and Gabon held a presidential poll, which Mr Bongo won, but the vote was marred by allegations of rigging.

The country soon found itself on the brink of civil war, as the opposition staged violent demonstrations.

Determined to prove that he was not an autocrat, Mr Bongo entered into talks with the opposition and managed to restore calm.

Murky scandal

When Mr Bongo won the second presidential elections held in 1998, similar controversy raged over his victory, but he was able to appease his political opponents by offering them government posts.

Undated file photo of Gabonese President Omar Bongo Ondimba
Mr Bongo is survived by more than 30 children - not all with his late wife

Mr Bongo's name was connected in the late 1990s with various murky financial scandals involving the French oil company Elf Aquitaine, but he insisted the affair was a domestic French matter.

Analysts say credit is due to Mr Bongo, given that Gabon is in a rough neighbourhood, yet it avoided during his rule any direct spill-over from conflicts in the nearby states of Congo and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

On the international stage, the Gabonese president cultivated an image as a peacemaker.

He played a pivotal role in attempts to solve crises in the Central African Republic, Congo-Brazzaville, Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Observers say he had a style of exchanging favours for votes that was characteristic of Africa's "big man" tradition.

He built a powerful dynasty, which analysts say benefited from the development of off-shore oil production.

Map of Gabon
Led Gabon for 42 years
Kept close economic and political ties with France
Oil money means Gabon officially one of richest countries in Africa
Reportedly had cancer
His son is defence minister
His daughter is his chief of staff
He denied corruption charges in French courts
Allowed multi-party polls in 1993; they were rigged, said opposition

But the country's wealth remains concentrated in a small proportion of its 1.4 million population.

Last month, a French judge launched a landmark investigation into whether Mr Bongo and two other African leaders had plundered state funds to buy homes and cars in France.

His bank accounts in the country were subsequently frozen. Mr Bongo denied the corruption allegations.

Shortly afterwards, he announced he was suspending official duties - for the first time since taking power - to mourn his wife.

Edith Lucie Bongo Odimba - daughter of Congo President Denis Sassou-Nguesso - died in March after a long illness, aged 45.

At the same time it emerged Mr Bongo was being treated at the clinic in Barcelona, where the Gabonese authorities announced on 8 June 2009 that he had died.

He is survived by more than 30 children - not all of them with his late wife.

Mr Bongo's daughter Pascaline, is his chief of staff, and his son Ali, is currently Gabon's defence minister - and some say he is being manoeuvred to replace him.

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