Gabonese President Ali Bongo defies illness, father’s shadow

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Gabonese President Ali Bongo Ondimba has defied doubters after years in his father’s shadow and dispelled rumours of his demise due to ill health with the announcement Sunday that he will run for a third term.

The 64-year-old Bongo, who suffered a stroke five years ago, has been the subject of fevered speculation around his health — further fuelled by his rare public appearances or live broadcasts.

But the third term challenge has put paid to some of the doubts surrounding the president, who came to power in 2009, taking over from his father, Omar Bongo Ondimba, the oil-rich West African country’s ruler for 41 years.

Small and stocky, Bongo became known variously by his initials of ABO, Ali B — or, less flatteringly, as “Monsieur Fils” (Mr. Son).

He was born to a teenage girl, Josephine Kama, in the Congolese city of Brazzaville, which at the time was still part of France’s rapidly shrinking colonial empire.

Because he was born abroad and out of wedlock, Bongo for years fought rumours that he was a foreigner who had been adopted.

Amateurs of pop psychology keen for signs of filial insecurity would be sure to pounce on a record that Bongo made in 1977 as an aspiring funk singer.

Now a YouTube curiosity, the album features top-class musicians, lavishly produced by associates of James Brown, with the title “A Brand New Man”.

In those days, Bongo called himself by his birth name, Alain Bongo.

Within three years, though, shepherded by his charismatic father, he abandoned the path of entertainment and entered politics, a “new man” in career terms.

He renamed himself Ali Bongo, converting to Islam like his father.

  • Oil wealth –

Bongo senior, who took office in 1967, had the reputation of a kleptocrat — one of the wealthiest men in the world, with a fortune derived from Gabon’s oil.

He was also a pillar of “FrancAfrique” — a now much-contested strategy by which France bound itself to its former African colonies through cronyism, often tainted with corruption and rights abuses.

As a young man, Bongo worked as his father’s faithful lieutenant, travelling the globe and building up extensive contacts in the United States and Arab world at the time of the second oil boom.

In 1989, he was appointed foreign minister aged just 30 but had to step down two years later when a new constitution stipulated that cabinet members had to be at least 35.

He was back in government by 1999, heading the defence ministry.

There he remained until shortly before the start of the election campaign caused by his father’s death in 2009.

  • ‘Renewal’ –

The handover to Bongo junior was not a surprise, given the years of grooming and his own ambitions, despite some opposition in the ruling Gabonese Democratic Party (PDG) and the shadow of corruption left by his father.

In 2016, he was narrowly re-elected for a second term by a few thousand votes, beating opposition challenger Jean Ping after a campaign marred by bloody clashes and allegations of fraud.

Pitching to a country that had been run for decades by his family, Bongo tried the difficult task of posing as an agent of change — packing each speech with words such as “renewal” and “innovation”.

He unveiled a string of projects, including diversifying the economy, opening up markets to Asian investors, trimming the state sector, and building a giant marina in the heart of the capital, Libreville.

“He made all these big announcements, but did they lead to anything?” asked one unemployed Libreville resident, who gave his name only as Jean.

One of his enduring achievements, though, was to foster the environment, notably creating a wildlife park that surrounds the capital.

He presented himself as a champion of the environment, leader of a country covered 88 percent by forest and which the World Bank has described as a “leader in net-zero emission initiatives”.

Bongo turfed out a string of long-standing officials and replaced them with a younger generation — “he wanted to chase away his father’s ghost and exercise control,” a diplomatic observer said.

But to his detractors, Bongo lacked the charm and communication skills of his father.

He attended some of Brazzaville’s top schools and studied law in France but did not learn any of Gabon’s local languages — a major disadvantage.

  • Lavish –

His lavish spending, especially on luxury cars, also raised eyebrows in a country where oil wealth contrasts with widespread poverty.

But in October 2018, he suffered a stroke while on a visit to Saudi Arabia.

Months of absence and official silence followed.

Speculation about his health and fitness to govern were further inflamed when he returned home.

His public appearances were rare, and the times when he spoke live outside the confines of the presidential palace were rarer still.

His supporters say that although he still experiences stiffness in the right leg and arm — which prevents him moving about easily — it has not affected his ability.

In 1989, Bongo married Sylvia, a Franco-Gabonese, with whom he had four children.

©️ Agence France-Presse

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