Gabon’s Leader, Ali Bongo Ondimba, Was More Admired Abroad Than at Home

As the omnipotent ruler of oil-rich Gabon, Ali Bongo Ondimba had two passions, music and forests, that cast {powerful} ties internationally.

An completed musician, Mr. Bongo recorded a disco-funk album and lured James Brown and Michael Jackson to Gabon. As president, he constructed a music studio at his seaside palace and performed improv jazz to overseas diplomats at state dinners.

More not too long ago, Mr. Bongo allied with Western scientists and conservationists, entranced by each the paradisiacal great thing about Gabon, an Arizona-sized nation coated in lush rainforest and teeming with wildlife, and by his dedication to defending it.

But to his personal individuals, Mr. Bongo, 64, embodied a household dynasty, based by his father, which had dominated Gabon for 56 years — till this week, when it got here crashing down.

Military officers seized energy on Wednesday, hours after election officers declared Mr. Bongo the winner of a disputed election final weekend. Few noticed it coming, not least the president. When his personal guards got here for him, Mr. Bongo appeared genuinely bewildered.

“I don’t know what’s going on,” Mr. Bongo, talking from his dwelling, stated in a video that was authenticated and circulated by a few of his many Western advisers. “I’m calling on you to make noise.”

It was the most recent in a blaze of army takeovers of African nations, toppling weak governments. (“Déjà coup,” stated one analyst from Sudan, which had its personal coup in 2021.) But whereas different takeovers have been prompted by violent upheaval, in peaceable Gabon it was one thing else: An indication that the Bongo rule, which held quick for a half-century, had run its course.

There was no signal of Mr. Bongo on Thursday, a day after his plaintive cry for assist. The coup chief Gen. Brice Oligui Nguema — a cousin of Mr. Bongo — introduced he could be sworn in as “transitional president” subsequent Monday.

Other African leaders, fearing they is likely to be subsequent, took precautions. In neighboring Cameroon, President Paul Biya — in workplace for 40 years and, at age 90, the world’s oldest serving chief — introduced a sudden reshuffle of his nation’s army management. So, too, did Rwanda, which like Gabon has for many years been dominated by one man.

As Mr. Bongo’s destiny hung within the stability, reactions differed. Foreign conservationists expressed worries about what comes subsequent for a rustic that labored so laborious to protect its pristine forests and seas. Recently, Gabon negotiated a landmark $500 million debt refinancing deal that freed $163 million for marine safety.

“A power vacuum could lead to a free-for-all where poaching, illegal logging and deforestation increase,” stated Simon Lewis, a professor of world change science at University College London, who has suggested Gabon on local weather coverage. “The prospect of the Gabonese people gaining major income from their forests could evaporate.”

In Libreville, Gabon’s crowded seaside capital, the decision was extra combined. “I am free!” cried Alaphine, a younger lady in a crowd of coup supporters who declined to offer a surname. But Christopher Ngondjet, a 25-year-old legislation pupil, stated he felt torn.

He welcomed a change from the Bongos, he stated, however anxious about army rule. “The president did a lot of good things, especially with the environment,” he stated. “I don’t know if the generals will have the same interest.”

In some ways, Gabon has extra in frequent with some Persian Gulf states than with its African neighbors. It has a tiny inhabitants of 2.3 million individuals, big oil wealth and a rustic that’s sparsely inhabited; 88 p.c of the land is forest and roads are few.

As oil costs soared within the final quarter of the 20th century, the Bongo household reigned like an undeclared monarchy. President Omar Bongo took energy in 1967 and have become a detailed ally of France, Gabon’s former colonial ruler. By most estimates, he fathered at least 53 kids with completely different women, a method of cementing political alliances.

After Omar Bongo died in 2009, the torch handed to Ali, one in all his seven “official” sons, who gained the presidential election that yr.

The Bongos liked the baubles of tremendous wealth — the Bentleys, the Parisian villas, the holidays on the Côte d’Azur. Ali Bongo frequently rode round Libreville in a Rolls-Royce and socialized with King Mohammed of Morocco, an outdated buddy who has a non-public palace in Gabon.

French investigators accused Mr. Bongo and his household of corruption. But what distinguished their nation from close by oil-rich kleptocracies, like Equatorial Guinea, was that some wealth additionally flowed down.

Education and health care ranges are considerably greater in Gabon than elsewhere within the area. Gifted college students are despatched to France on authorities scholarships. Its timber trade supplies 30,000 jobs, largely due to Mr. Bongo’s insistence that worth be added in Gabon, not overseas.

With its orderly markets and palm-lined corniche, Libreville lacks the fixed chaos of neighboring capitals. The U.S. Agency for International Development classifies Gabon as a middle-income nation.

Certainly, poverty is rife: a report by McKinsey in 2013 estimated that 30 p.c of Gabonese lived on $140 a month. Yet even within the poorest elements of Libreville dwelling situations are higher than in a lot of the area.

Mr. Bongo’s kitchen cupboard is stuffed with Western advisers who stroll by authorities places of work and in a single case was appointed a minister: Lee White, a British-born scientist, who since 2019 has been minister of water, forests, the ocean and setting.

About 15 years in the past, Mr. Bongo started specializing in the nation’s forests — dwelling to western lowland gorillas, forest elephants, chimps and mandrills, and a part of the Congo Basin, one of many world’s most vital carbon sinks.

Omar Bongo, created 13 nationwide parks overlaying 10 p.c of Gabon’s landmass, and Ali Bongo continued that keenness. He flew by helicopter to his personal reserve, the place he saved lions, tigers, cheetahs, cougars and leopards.

He turned an everyday at worldwide local weather conferences, and courted {powerful}, rich allies. Last yr King Charles, who has praised Mr. Bongo’s insurance policies, welcomed him to Buckingham Palace. On a go to to Gabon, Jeff Bezos, the Amazon founder, pledged $35 million for forest preservation.

Mr. Bongo’s advocacy was partly pushed by self-interest. It burnished his overseas picture and opened doorways to a possible fortune in carbon credit — billions of {dollars} that Mr. Bongo has urged the West to pay Gabon to assist protect its rainforests.

But overseas officers who met Mr. Bongo stated his soft-spoken, genteel method might vanish as he enthused about nature. In a 2016 interview with the Times, Mr. Bongo reminisced about rising up with a pet Siberian tiger and gushed over his present pets within the presidential reserve. “There are so many,” he stated, ticking off the names of a few of his lions, Goliath and Greta, and a cheetah referred to as Sahara.

But Mr. Bongo’s system started to indicate cracks. After the monetary crash of 2008, a fall in oil costs hit Gabon laborious. As the economic system slumped, inequality grew extra pronounced.

The fleets of Mercedes and Rolls-Royce automobiles that rolled by the small streets of the capital, parking at fancy seafood eating places or exterior the president’s palace, started to jar greater than normal.

In forest communities, farmers complained that rising numbers of hungry elephants — a direct results of Mr. Bongo’s anti-poaching efforts — have been eating their crops. Despite oil revenues, they complained, satisfactory roads barely existed exterior the capital. “Let the elephants vote for him,” was a slogan of critics in the course of the 2016 election.

In that vote, Mr. Bongo bared his knuckles to remain in energy. In his strongholds, voter turnout was an inconceivable 99 p.c. Security forces encircled the opposition celebration headquarters and at least one person was killed.

Daniel Mengara, founding father of the exiled opposition group Bongo Must Go, stated oil revenues did assist Gabon’s individuals, however the Bongos skimmed off an excessive amount of. “We deserve better than what we’ve got and what we’ve got is misery,” he stated.

In 2019 Mr. Bongo suffered a stroke and disappeared for 10 months, re-emerging with a cane. His relationship with France faltered: He welcomed Chinese and different funding, and final yr Gabon joined the British Commonwealth.

Since 2020, a sequence of coups has shaken West Africa: first in Mali, then Burkina Faso, Guinea, Sudan and, final month, Niger. Despite threats and sanctions from African and Western powers, none was reversed.

President Bola Tinubu of Nigeria warned of a “contagion of autocracy,” with emboldened troopers in different nations deciding they need to take over, too.

Few imagined Mr. Bongo was in instant hazard. But then he pushed forward with a contentious election, and the coup makers, led by his personal cousin, introduced contagion to his door.

Declan Walsh reported from Nairobi, Kenya, and Dionne Searcey from New York. Yann Leyimangoye contributed reporting from Libreville, Gabon.

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