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Page last updated at 16:22 GMT, Friday, 4 September 2009 17:22 UK

Ali Bongo: Like father, like son?

Ali Bongo

Gabon's new leader Ali Ben Bongo Ondimba is stepping into very well-worn shoes.

He may not need the Cuban heels his late father, Omar Bongo, wore for much of the 41 years he ruled the oil-rich nation, but Mr Bongo Jnr will hope they will prove as hard-wearing.

And at 50, he has led a well-heeled life. His father was one of the richest men in the world and owned a string of expensive properties in France, the former colonial power.

Omar Bongo right and his son Ali
Ali Bongo says he has his father to thank for his political genes

He was born in neighbouring Republic of Congo and since the age of nine was educated in France - going to a private Christian secondary school in the upmarket town of Neuilly, west of Paris, and to the Sorbonne where he graduated with a PhD in law.

But unlike his father, it is his association with France which could prove his undoing.

"I was really amazed by the level of anti-French resentment when I was in Gabon in August," says Stephen Smith, a professor of African studies at Duke University in the United States.

"The popular idea is that Paris, France, is still pulling the strings in Gabon."

French President Nicolas Sarkozy was even jeered in June at the funeral for Omar Bongo.

French connection

While analysts say that Ali Bongo feels less loyalty to France than his father, it is perceptions that will count.

Ali Bongo kicking a football
He says he has a kick-around with his security guards nearly every Sunday

His second wife Sylvia is French, although, according to her biography on Ali Bongo's official website, she has lived in the West African country since the age of 11.

Described as very well read, he speaks fluent English, but struggles to speak local languages - further alienating him from the populace.

A former minister of defence and foreign affairs, Mr Bongo won the election with 42% of the vote - hardly a ringing endorsement for a ruling party candidate with by far the best-financed campaign.

So even if he is cut from a different cloth, it may take time for him to emerge as his own man for many Gabonese.

Given the unrest that has broken out since the announcement of the result, one thing observers say is essential for his survival is for him to mend fences with the opposition.

"Omar Bongo was a master of reaching out and I would expect his son to do the same," a Western diplomat told Reuters news agency.

"No-one is talking about reconciliation now but I would expect there to be some reconciliation in the future... It is just how Gabon works."

The BBC French Service's Michel Lobe says as young man it was Ali Bongo who advised his father to accept multiparty democracy.

Yet after 20 years in politics, he was part of the system that kept his father in power and put down the unrest following the 2005 election.

Bossa nova

Something Ali Bongo says he does share with many Gabonese is his love of football.

Ali Bongo's wife Sylvia and some of their children
His wife Sylvia is of French origin

A passionate fan of the Spanish club Real Madrid, he says he has a kick-around with his security guards nearly every Sunday.

His dream, he says, is to see Gabon's national team win the African Cup of Nations.

While he owes his political career to his father, who he says he has to thank for "giving him the genes of responsibility, dignity and honour", his mother gave him his passion for music.

She is the Gabonese singer and musician Patience Dabany, who unofficially oversees his relations with the media.

According to the French newspaper Le Monde, Ali Bongo's career looked likely to take a musical bent until he joined the cabinet in 1989 and shed his image as a party-goer.

He says he plays the piano and drums - has composed jazz, some Brazilian bossa novas and did the soundtrack for a Gabonese film released 10 years ago.

Along with his father, he changed his name in 1973, from Alain Bernard Bongo, when they both converted to Islam.

He has three children and in 2002 adopted a child from Morocco, where he is reportedly a welcome guest of his good friend King Mohammed VI, the successor in another African dynasty.



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