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Omar Bongo, 73, president of Gabon for four decades

Omar Bongo kept a tight grip on power in the oil-rich former French colony since he became president in 1967. Omar Bongo kept a tight grip on power in the oil-rich former French colony since he became president in 1967. (Rebecca Blackwell/Associated Press/File 2008)
By Yves Laurent Goma and Rukmini Callimachi
Associated Press / June 9, 2009
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LIBREVILLE, Gabon - Omar Bongo, the world's longest-serving president, whose 42-year rule of Gabon was a throwback to an era when Africa was ruled by "Big Men," died yesterday. He was 73.

The government responded to Mr. Bongo's death at a hospital in Spain by closing Gabon's international airport and the nation's land and sea borders. Security forces took up positions in front of government buildings and electrical installations in Libreville, the capital.

People rushed home after the news was announced, causing traffic jams. Some residents could be seen hurrying out with empty bags, apparently to stock up on food in advance of possible store closures.

Gabon's constitution calls for the Senate leader to assume power and organize presidential elections within 90 days of Mr. Bongo's death. But there has been speculation that one of Mr. Bongo's sons, who is now defense minister, would try to seize power upon his father's death, as happened in nearby Togo.

Since the head of state had checked into the Spanish hospital last month, Gabonese officials had aggressively denied that he was ill, insisting he had gone to Spain to observe "a period of mourning" after the death of his wife. They initially denied he was in the hospital at all, then later said he had been admitted to the clinic, but only for a checkup.

Just hours before announcing Mr. Bongo's death, Prime Minister Jean Eyeghe Ndong held a news conference at the Quiron Clinic in Barcelona to say the president was "alive and well."

Mr. Bongo, believed to be one of the world's wealthiest leaders, became the longest-ruling head of government - a category that does not include the monarchs of Britain and Thailand - when Cuba's Fidel Castro handed power to his brother last year.

Mr. Bongo had kept a tight grip on power in the oil-rich former French colony since he became president in 1967, and his ruling party has dominated the country's Parliament for decades. Opposition parties were only allowed in 1990, amid a wave of prodemocracy protests.

Elections since then have been marred by allegations of rigging and unrest. In 2003, Parliament - dominated by his supporters - removed presidential term limits from the constitution.

While most Gabonese genuinely feared Mr. Bongo, and there was little opposition, many accepted his rule because he had kept his country remarkably peaceful and governed without the sustained brutality characteristic of many dictators.

Mr. Bongo, meanwhile, amassed a fortune that made him one of the world's richest men, according to Freedom House, a private Washington-based democracy watchdog organization, although nobody really knows how much he was worth.

Earlier this year, a French judge decided to investigate Mr. Bongo and two other African leaders over accusations of money laundering and other alleged crimes linked to their wealth in France.

The inquiry followed a complaint by Transparency International France, an association that tracks corruption. French media have reported that Mr. Bongo's family owns abundant real estate in France - at one time owning more properties in Paris than any other foreign leader.

Born Albert Bernard Bongo, the youngest of 12 children, Mr. Bongo served as a lieutenant in the French Air Force, then climbed quickly through the civil service, eventually becoming vice president. He assumed the presidency Dec. 2, 1967, after the death of Leon M'Ba, the country's only other head of state since independence from France in 1960.

Mr. Bongo set up a one-party state. Six years later, he converted to Islam and took the name Omar.

His presidential security staff numbered 1,500, according to the US State Department, while the entire military numbers just 10,000 troops.

President Nicolas Sarkozy of France expressed his "sadness and emotion" at Mr. Bongo's death and pledged that France would remain "loyal to its long relationship of friendship" with Gabon.

"It is a great and loyal friend of France who has left us - a grand figure of Africa," Sarkozy said in a statement.

France has been accused of propping up its old colonial partners in Africa and looking the other way as leaders like Mr. Bongo siphoned off their country's resources, leaving a majority of its people mired in poverty.

"A great figure for Africa? This guy was a scoundrel on the first order. If there was ever a poster boy for what you want to avoid in terms of leadership on the continent, he would have been No. 1," said Charles Stith, a former US ambassador to Tanzania who is now the director of Boston University's African Presidential Archives and Research Center.

The scandals involving Mr. Bongo's wealth have long been fodder for French gossip columns.

In the early 1990s, an Italian fashion designer testified he had flown call girls to the president along with his suits.

In 2003, an official of French oil giant Elf Aquitaine - which at one time operated in Gabon - testified he had opened several Swiss bank accounts for Mr. Bongo into which commissions were paid on multimillion-dollar oil deals. Mr. Bongo has vigorously denied receiving any money through the accounts.

Gabon is the No. 5 oil exporter in sub-Saharan Africa, and Mr. Bongo built a vast system of patronage, doling out largesse in part through the salaries and benefits that came with Cabinet posts.

But oil dependency means the country has more oil pipeline - 886 miles - than paved roads -582 miles. Only 1 percent of its land is cultivated and Gabon produces virtually no food.

Instead, basics such as tomatoes are imported from France, the former colonial master, and from neighboring Cameroon, pushing prices so high that Libreville, the capital, is the world's eighth most expensive city, according to Employment Conditions Abroad International.

Ndong, the prime minister, went on state TV in Gabon late Sunday night to deny news reports in the French media that Mr. Bongo had died, saying: "I was surprised - like many of my compatriots - to learn from French TV that the president of Gabon is dead," he said.

"If such a thing were to happen, I believe and I know that the family of President Bongo would inform me. That is not the case for the moment. I have not been told of the death of the president of Gabon," he said.