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Having a laugh with Omar Bongo

Omar Bongo in 1978 (left), in 2003 French President Jacques Chirac welcomes Omar Bongo to a meeting (centre), Omar Bongo in 2003 (right)

African commentator and National Public Radio correspondent Ofeibea Quist-Arcton remembers her encounters with Omar Bongo, who died on Monday after serving as Gabon's leader for 42 years:

There are two things that come to mind when I remember President Omar Bongo.

The first is that I could swear I once saw Bongo in Cuban heels - and I am convinced he wore built-up shoes to give himself a little extra height.

Bongo would publicly cut people down to size - including other heads of state or former presidents - without a second thought

He was shorter than me - and, believe me, Ofeibea Quist-Arcton is no giant.

Secondly, Omar Bongo had a wicked sense of humour. He really did.

I was not one of the journalists in Bongo's francophone circle, but he shared jokes with all and sundry and sounded very pleased with his punch-lines and stories.

I have been wracking my brain to recall our first encounter.

Was it at an African summit, somewhere on the continent, when we waited hours to interview him?

Or was it while covering a return to multiparty elections in Gabon in 1993, killing time in a marble-tiled waiting room somewhere in Libreville?

Gabon, incidentally, was the only African country I have visited where the candidates - presidential and other - appeared to campaign in four-wheel drive vehicles, hardly stopping to get down and talk to prospective voters.

Sparring with journalists

Omar Bongo seemed charming and approachable, but then I never got to ask him face to face the tough questions about the ins and outs of the political, corruption and sexual scandals linked to his name over the years.

Omar Bongo doing tai chi moves
Omar Bongo, not in Cuban heels, practising tai chi in Paris in 1970

Perhaps he would not have been quite as friendly if I had, though he clearly liked to spar with journalists and did not suffer fools gladly.

Bongo would publicly cut people down to size - including other heads of state or former presidents - without a second thought.

I remember him taking umbrage at something Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade said during an African Union summit session. Bongo stormed out of the hall.

And once - on radio - he rather unkindly described former President Alpha Oumar Konare of Mali - then head of the African Union Commission - as a chatterbox, someone who witters on and on, saying:

"My friend Konare loves to talk, talk, talk. But he should remember that he's no longer a head of state, eh?"- implying that what Konare said was of little importance.

It seemed a little spiteful. But Omar Bongo was like that - he spoke his mind.

French President Jacques Chirac and Omar Bongo touring Libreville in a official Rolls Royce in 1996
Africa without France is like a car without a driver. But France without Africa is like a car without petrol
Omar Bongo

And while it is true that he was a staunch ally of French presidents - from Charles de Gaulle to Jacques Chirac - it is hard to imagine Bongo taking orders from anyone, even de Gaulle who demanded unquestioning loyalty from France's former colonies.

Perhaps in those days Bongo obeyed orders, but he held even his friends' feet to the fire, on occasion, using Gabon's oil wealth as leverage.

Wasn't it Bongo who once said, about the continent's misused oil riches, "Africa without France is like a car without a driver. But France without Africa is like a car without petrol"?

The last time I heard Omar Bongo on the radio - a while back now - he was being asked about the political succession in Gabon, with feverish talk about one of his children, who have run key ministries in government, being the heir apparent.

Daddy's boys and girls

And I remember laughing out loud at my radio at the indignation in his voice when Bongo retorted.

He said he had given his children a good education, so now they would have to make their way in the world - the implication being that they weren't daddy's boys and girls.

Yet isn't his son Ali-Ben Bongo the defence minister and his daughter Pascaline, a former foreign minister, his chief of staff when he died?

Surely that is more than a leg-up and a clear indication of a man planning to impose dynastic politics on Gabon, as the fiefdom of the Bongo family?

His faults notwithstanding, Omar Bongo will be missed as a prominent character on the continent's political vista.

His death marks not only the end of an era in African-French politics, but the disappearance of one of Africa's more colourful and memorable leaders.



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Country profile: Gabon
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