‘Papa’ Omar Bongo’s death after 42 years as President of Gabon was deemed also to represent the death of the big men of Africa.
The recent elections and dynastic politics raise big questions over the realism of such claims, what does the aftermath of the death of the dictator say about the state of African politics?
Omar Bongo resided amongst the best of the big men, with such notables as Mobuto, Moi and Rwanda’s own big men.
The trends include cosy relations with former colonial powers, embezzlement of funds and the death of foetal pluralist politics.
Gabon’s Bongo, much loved by some, was undoubtedly marred by similarly unsavoury trends.
Bongo’s charm couldn’t hide his excesses. He was purported to own over 33 luxury properties in France and was one of the world’s richest men. Similar big men traits include resistance to multi-party democracy - permitted since 1993 - with widespread fraud and intimidation, including the 1990 murder of major critic Joseph Rendjambe.
His death afforded the prospect of change for the beleaguered state, which despite stability in a region blighted by conflict, has seen an increasing gap between rich and poor, unresolved by the sale of over 2.5 billion oil barrels.
The recent elections, decried as fraudulent by the opposition despite being deemed by electoral commissions as ‘largely fair’ have destroyed prospects of change in Gabon.
The riots post election are indicative of people’s unrest with French interests targeted, it raises doubts over the longevity of another big man.
In the run-up to elections Ali Bongo assured voters ‘if I am elected I will not stay for 40 years’, his power for resting control is however a topic for debate.
His political career as interior minster gives him authority over apparatus for control, the army and police.
Equally, his personal wealth risks bribery of political opposition as the country wakes from an era of corruption and nepotism.
However there are hopes for an end to Gabon’s rule as a big man’s fiefdom, most notably with the inception of Ali Bongo amidst symbolic demonstrations, and the countdown to oil profits; supplies are expected to run dry within 10 years.
The oil profits have driven political unaccountability. This perilous balance is perhaps best indicative of Africa as a whole; motions for change stalled, but hopes lingering.
The age of the big man is not over, perhaps most clearly shown by Gaddafi at the helm of the African Union.
In February he asserted that Africa was ‘not ready for plural politics’. He has himself resided over Libya for 40 years, joining other despots such as Bashir of Sudan, Dos Santos of Angola and Zimbabwe’s Mugabe.
The age of big men isn’t over, but there are still definite prospects for change.
There have been many disillusioned hopes since the professed dawn of the 1994 South African elections; however countries have also battled for representation and accountability.
Nigeria, despite issues, experienced its first civilian exchange of government in 2007, whilst innumerable states have enjoyed responsible leadership, from Ghana and Benin to Senegal and Botswana.
Many in Africa could be persuaded by Gaddafi’s scepticism, whilst others would see the justification of his leadership and his self-proclamation as the ‘king of African kings’ as archaic, a vestige of African politics many have struggled against.
The big men era is not over and Gabon’s dynastic elections are a step backwards, however many more leaders and populations are looking forwards.