Omar Bongo Ondimba ruled Gabon from 1967 to 2009. This means he spent 42 years in power. During that time, only his family, multiple women, children and close aides within the ruling Gabonese Democratic Party (PDG) made fortune. The average Gabonese is very poor despite Gabon’s vast natural resources including wood, manganese and especially crude oil.
Rent from these resources went to fattening Bongo, his family, and clique. But perhaps it produced the desired physical changes only in the others, like his son Ali Bongo who was very big. Despite all the wealth, Omar Bongo remained stunted. This ill-gotten money, however, succeeded in other drives. He laundered the money into real estate, a range of other assets and shady off-shore accounts.
Ultimately, the corrupt and corrosive pseudo-democracy Omar Bongo had put in place subjugated common interests to those of the Bongo-PDG cabal. At his death, therefore, Gabon’s kingmakers had to find a champion to perpetuate their rule. They placed Omar’s son, Ali, in power and used elections to legitimize his rule. France, the former colonial master tacitly supported this charade.
The 2009 polls were marred by violence and so were those in 2016 as the population, fed up with years of destructive “Bongoism” took to the streets as the last resort to influence electoral outcomes in a context where the electoral administration of Gabon remains clearly stacked against the opposition.
Ex-regime cronies who have fallen out with Ali Bongo, however, tried to exploit the popular movement for their own self-serving motives, posing as leaders of the opposition. Instead of asking for deep reforms, and forging alliances with the civil society to push for a total boycott of sham elections, these people used electoral violence to twist the de facto balance of forces and negotiate power.
However, the facts are stubborn. With the Bongo dynasty and their surrogates in the PDG in control of the Gabonese post-colony, removing Bongo from power through elections is highly unlikely. Take the example of the Constitutional Court in charge of declaring poll results. It has been headed by Marie-Madeleine Mborantsuo (3M) for the past 28 years. Mistress to Omar Bongo, she had two sons with the late president and reportedly cheated on him for a third.
Under this dispensation, Ali Bongo, Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces is probably set to rule for life like his father before him. Ruling for life here meaning staying in power for as long as possible and as long as he still has some breath left no matter his physical and cognitive state. The fact that Ali has strategized avidly with his clique to remain in power despite becoming seriously impaired due to a stroke he suffered in October 2018, provides some evidence.
The stroke came while he was visiting Riyad, Saudi Arabia. He was transferred to a hospital facility in Rabat – Morocco and stayed there for weeks. Calls for a declaration of his incapacitation were duly rejected by Mborantsuo’s court that instead distributed some of the Presidential powers between the Vice President and the Prime Minister.
A failed coup attempt took place one week after Ali Bongo’s pre-recorded Rabat New Year’s Message in which he appeared flagrantly impaired, suffering from serious strabismus. A few days after, in mid-January 2019, he rushed back, that is if he wasn’t rushed back, to his seaside palace in the capital of Gabon, Libreville but stayed out of public sight.
The pressure from civil society and the opposition for medical expertise on his cognitive abilities was intensified especially after a public appearance of the President during national day celebrations in August 2019 during which he appeared frail and impaired. A judge was asked to rule on the matter but was suspended from her functions before she could do so.
Then on December 5, 2019, Ali Bongo simply appointed his son, Nourredine Bongo Valentin, as the de facto ruler of Gabon. He named him “Coordinator of Presidential Affairs” “in charge of all affairs of the State”. This appointment came after a “witch-hunt among witches” in which a certain power-hungry Franco-Gabonese called Brice Laccruche Alihanga was dismissed from office and jailed.
The implications of Nourredine’s appointment for Gabon and Africa are clear. A non-elected official, with no statutory power, is effectively going to rule Gabon at the behest of an “elected” near-vegetable of a President, so much for democracy. The democratic gains of the 1990s in Africa, if any, are being reversed by the institution of Presidential monarchies. This is detrimental to democracy, peace and stability and progress on the African continent.