Monday, June 8, 2009

On Sunday night, French media reports suggested that Africa’s longest-serving ruler had died.

TO BE NOTED: From the FT:

Gabon’s president confirmed dead in Spain

By Matthew Green in Lagos and Christopher Thompson in Paris

Published: June 8 2009 18:39 | Last updated: June 8 2009 18:39

Omar Bongo, Gabon’s president, one of Africa’s wealthiest men and historically a linchpin of French interests on the continent, died on Monday in a Spanish hospital at the age of 73.

On Sunday night, French media reports suggested that Africa’s longest-serving ruler had died. Ending 24 hours of speculation in which Mr Bongo’s death was first reported, then denied, Jean Eyeghe Ndong, the country’s prime minister, announced the death in a written statement on Monday evening.

Mr Bongo’s passing marks the end of an era in francophone Africa, where he was a central figure in the shadowy political, commercial and intelligence networks dubbed “Francafrique”.

Run by pliant leaders protected by French troops, the network allowed France to exert great influence in its former colonies in central and west Africa in the decades after independence and ensure preferential access for its companies.

By harnessing Gabon’s oil income to project a level of diplomatic clout remarkable for his sparsely-populated homeland, Mr Bongo cultivated an extraordinary degree of influence within the French political establishment, although he also courted Chinese and Arab allies in more recent years.

However, relations with France have come under strain, and in May a French magistrate ruled that an anti-corruption investigation could proceed into whether Mr Bongo and the leaders of both Equatorial Guinea and the Democratic Republic of Congo had embezzled public funds to buy luxury homes and cars. The three leaders have denied wrongdoing.

An indictment against Mr Bongo seen by the Fin­ancial Times lists 39 properties, mostly in the chic 16th arrondissement of Paris, nine cars worth nearly $2m, and 70 bank accounts registered in both his name and those of family members.

William Bourdon, a French lawyer acting on behalf of anti-corruption watchdog Transparency International, said the case would go ahead in spite of Mr Bongo’s death and could include members of Mr Bongo’s family.

Stories of Mr Bongo’s ­lavish lifestyle have tended to obscure his reputation as one of Africa’s most astute political operators, maintaining stability in Gabon by co-opting opponents and building coalitions among 40 ethnic groups.

The death of long-serving autocrats of his vintage has triggered chaos and even civil war in several other African countries, but analysts say the stability in Gabon could continue. They believe Mr Bongo will be succeeded by a family member, Ali Ben Bongo, his son and defence minister, being the most obvious candidate.

It is unclear how changes will affect Gabon’s relations with trading partners. US and Chinese companies seeking access to its raw materials have begun to win a foothold alongside French multinationals, although the global slowdown and disputes with Mr Bongo’s government have sapped China’s enthusiasm for its planned $4bn Bélinga iron ore project.

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