The world’s longest serving President (after last year’s resignation of Cuba’s Fidel Castro) Omar Bongo has gone to meet his creator. Mother nature that comes in the form of death is at times very ferocious. It can neither be postponed nor bribed once your time is up.
Omar Bongo Odimba, was a skilful and shrewd politician who maintained a grip on the levers of power by demanding patronage from his lieutenants and using oil money to co-opt his opponents.
Bongo belonged to the so called class of Africa’s “big men.” A few continue to cling on power like Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi, Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, Equatorial Guinea’s Teodoro Obiang and Angola’s Jose Eduardo dos Santos.
On average, all these individuals have been at the helm of their nations for nearly 30 years. They have amassed wealth and abused their constitutional obligations at the peril of their citizens.
Not until his death, Omar Bongo was not only the world’s longest serving president but also among the world’s richest men. A recent report said Bongo owned 33 properties in France with a combined value exceeding 125 million pounds.
The Americans said he had up 86 million pounds in accounts in New York. And these discoveries were only a tip of the iceberg. Some figures put Bongo’s fortunes between $2-4 billion.
Perhaps to understand this well, one needs to it into context. Lets relate Bongo’s estimated wealth to Rwanda’s current budget estimates.
For the 2009/2010 financial year, Minister James Musoni says government budget will be Rwf 810 billion, roughly $1.4 billion.
If we went by the lowest quotation of Bongo’s net worth, $2 billon (which certainly is higher), you notice that the Gabonese ‘statesman’ was rich enough to comfortably bankroll our government’s needs for the entire year.
Infact, he would remain with a balance that is equivalent to our current annual domestic revenues. Even then, when you look at our estimates, three years from now, our budget will stand at Rwf911 billion ($1.6 billion), meaning that even if Bongo’s money was to lie in the banks without accruing any interest, he would comfortably finance that budget.
The issue here is not entirely about this gentleman’s wealth---no! The issue is the greed and the gross mismanagement of state resources that much of Africa’s leadership has fallen prey to.
Patronage has overshadowed merit. Patriotism has been substituted for greed and nepotism, and family rule is steadily gaining chorus across the continent.
Much as I would wish Bongo a peaceful rest, I must also emphasis that history will judge him harshly. For decades, he presided over an oil boom, choosing to live an extravagant lifestyle for him and his family.
He lived in a $500 million presidential place, owned dozens of luxurious properties in Europe and drove in fancy cars. Meanwhile, his population of 1.4 million continued to live in chronic poverty.
At least 30 percent of his people live on less than a dollar a day and almost 90 percent of the country’s wealth is controlled by his cronies.
In addition an estimated 21 percent of the population are unemployed while basic items such as tomatoes are imported from Paris.
Economists say Gabon’s small population and early oil wealth meant that it had per capita incomes as high as some developed economies like Portugal but sadly this has not translated into domestic social welfare programs.
Am sure few Gabonese will mourn the demise of their leader. Many, who have known no other leader apart from Omar Bongo will sigh a sign of relief hoping to see democracy take its course.
But the test for Gabon now will be whether the institutions have the capacity to accommodate the departure of the man who so dominated the system for such a long period of time.
Many on the African continent will be hoping that a repeat of the Togo’s succession path where son took over from father after his death is not repeated.
And that Gabonese will be given chance to freely elect a successor without forcing “Bongo” dynasty down their throats.
Just like the death of Togo’s Gnassingbe Eyadema, Omar Bongo’s demise should also serve as a wake up call to dozens of Africa’s despots whose grip on power has led to suffering of millions on the continent.
Am talking about those who have chosen dictatorship over democracy, fear over freedom and greed over transparency. Those that have amassed wealth and enriched their families while the ordinary population continue to live under abject poverty.
Those that continue to suffocate their people with unbridled impunity. They can cheat their way now, but certainly they can’t cheat the hand of their maker.