Like a colossus, he domineered over his country for so long that his name was as Gabonese as the country’s landscape. Even when he finally ‘became’ human and reached his expiry date, his subjects could not believe it and threatened to drag to court the French newspapers that dared report such a possibility.
In the end, of course, he proved to be only human. El Hadj Omar Bongo Ondimba, whose trade-mark may have been his ‘platform’ shoes, died in a Barcelona hospital, Spain, last 7th June 2009 (May his soul rest in peace).
Born in 1935 in the small, northern village of Lewai in what was then French Equatorial Africa, little Albert-Bernard Bongo could hardly have imagined that he’d reign over his country for almost five decades.
Will today’s Bongoville (the then-Lewai) and Gabon (the country he ruled) live to tell the tale? The country had become so much ‘Gabongo’ that it may disintegrate now that only ‘Ga’ is left!
When he took over the reigns of power in 1967, Albert-Bernard Bongo was bursting with youthful energy and hope. He was in the company of a number of other equally youthful and charismatic African leaders, among whom I remember Michel Micombero and Gnassingbé Eyadéma.
Michel Micombero was the large-whiskered, young army captain who overthrew a génocidaire sectionalist Hutu junta in Burundi, promising to re-unite Barundi. That reunion effort never took off, and Micombero instead oversaw a regime that engaged in revenge killings.
He himself turned to corrupt tendencies and to heavy drinking, until he was overthrown by Jean-Baptist Bagaza, ten years into his leadership.
Gnassingbé Eyadéma, who died in office in 2005, may be remembered for his trade-mark dark glasses. In turn, the glasses may be the reason why he never saw any need to develop his country, Togo!
Instead, he saw the need to have an entourage of 1,000 women praise-singers; to erect a bronze statue in the capital, Lome; to distribute wrist-watches with his portrait; a comic book that depicted him as a super-hero; and to annually commemorate an attempt on his life as “the Feast of Victory Over Forces of Evil”!
Anyway, back to our orphaned ‘Ga’, does she have any hope? I see none because, except for the lucky discovery of oil in the 1970s, she is left as dependent on barely affordable French imports as she was at Independence (pun not at all intended).
For a miracle, therefore, I’d advise whoever inherits Bongo’s platform shoes to look down south. There he/she’ll see a country that went to hell slightly over a decade ago, but beat a hasty retreat and is slowly but resolutely treading the path to the gates of Heaven.
That path is treacherous and thorny and, therefore, only the tough dare walk it. It means swallowing ethnic bigotry and treating one another as equal nationals and working together, even when one section of the nationals stopped short of wiping out the other.
Working as a society on the mend, the leaders and the led must shed their narrow personal interests and together enhance the good of society. This means rejecting corruption in all its forms and taking bold steps to mercilessly punish all wrongdoing.
Rwanda, for that is the miracle that I refer to, is now walking that treacherous and thorny path. It is a lonely path, but she is determined to seek out reluctant neighbours and convince them that a village with multitudes of crops in different fields is better than a homestead with one crop in a family field.
That is why Rwanda is striving to create alliances with others, especially regional neighbours so as to capitalise on regional markets. This necessarily demands entrepreneurial zeal and creativity among her people, because no one will want to consume without producing.
Rwandans are now waking up to the fact that they were not born to be beggars and working hard to finally wean themselves off donor crumbs. There are opportunities galore when your eyes are open, and Rwandans are reaching for them.
Moreover, the climate couldn’t be better: assured security; education opportunities; improved healthcare; land, administrative, judicial, etc. reforms; a variety of primary products that are awaiting transformation; name it.
When one looks at the carcasses mentioned above (Burundi, Togo, Gabon), one can only pray that the leadership in Rwanda be replicated in many African countries. Pray, mother Africa, redeem your sons and daughters that they may all get selfless leaders!
While an African in another country on the continent is not sure about seeing the sun tomorrow, a Rwandan in Kigali is not sure about seeing the rear-view mirror of his/her car. This, I am told, is the only increasingly rampant crime in Rwanda!