Saturday, March 22, 2008

Belly Politics in Gabon

"God brought him to us and only God can call him away. For us there is only Bongo. He is irreplaceable."

Gabon , population 1.5 million people (life expectancy, 53) , the fifth biggest oil exporter in sub-Saharan Africa , is ruled by Omar Bongo , now the longest-ruling head of state, not counting the monarchs of Britain and Thailand . He has ruled for 40 years . Born Albert Bernard Bongo, the youngest of 12 children on Dec. 30, 1935, Bongo served as a lieutenant in the French Air Force, then climbed quickly through the civil service and assumed the presidency on Dec. 2, 1967, after Gabon's first post-independence leader died. Six years later he converted to Islam and took the name Omar.

Bongo has displayed plenty of dictatorial tendencies. His government has jailed journalists who dared criticize him personally, and has cowed most of the rest into self-censorship. But Gabon's prisons are not filled with political prisoners and rivals don't disappear or turn up mysteriously dead in the night.
Instead, he "attacks" his opponents by bringing them into his fold, offering them top posts, giving them a piece of the pie . Bongo's principal opponent in the 2005 election was Pierre Momboundou. After losing the vote by a landslide, Momboundou asked for and got $7 million a year later for development in his constituency (he's now a member of parliament).

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 neighboring Cameroon, pushing prices so high that Libreville, the capital, is the world's eighth most expensive city, according to Employment Conditions Abroad International. Gabon once boasted world's highest champagne consumption per capita . 90 percent of the country's income goes to the richest 20 percent the population, while the bottom 30 percent lives on less than $1 a day.

Bongo, by contrast, has amassed a fortune that makes him one of the world's richest men, according to Freedom House, a private Washington-based democracy watchdog organization. Nobody really knows how much he is worth, but there have been clues. French media have reported his family owns abundant real estate in France — at one time more Paris properties than any other foreign leader. In 2003, an official of French oil giant Elf Aquitaine testified he had opened several Swiss bank accounts for Bongo into which commissions were paid on multimillion-dollar oil deals. . Bongo's daughter-in-law, married to his son the defense minister, appeared on the American reality show "Really Rich Real Estate" in 2006, shopping for a $25 million Beverly Hills mansion.

Gabon today is "neither dictatorship nor democracy, neither paradise nor hell," said Louis-Gaston Mayila, who heads a pro-Bongo political party "We are something in between."

Moussirou Mouyama, a linguistics professor at Libreville's Omar Bongo University , however , says "It's belly politics . If you don't go along, you don't eat."

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