June 9, 2009
Gabon’s President Omar Bongo—the world’s longest-serving president—died today in a hospital in Barcelona, Spain. Mr. Bongo leaves behind a political legacy marred by corruption and patronage—marking a throwback to an era when Africa was ruled by “Big Men.”
Mr. Bongo has been criticized for his close, murky ties with France and allegations that he personally profited from Gabon’s oil boom in the 1970s and 1980s. Although the exact amount of his wealth is unknown, the watchdog organization Freedom House estimates that he is one of the world’s richest men.
Recently Mr. Bongo’s wealth had come under intense scrutiny. Earlier this year, a French judge ordered an investigation of Mr. Bongo and other African leaders on accusations of money laundering and other crimes related to their assets in France.
Transparency International France has repeatedly complained of the amount of real estate and other assets that Mr. Bongo and his family own in France. The group reported that the Bongo family owned at least 33 luxury properties in France—estimated to be worth as much as $190 million. The group also says that at one time, Mr. Bongo owned more real estate in France than any other foreign leader.
Much of his wealth is associated with the vast oil fields in Gabon. Gabon is the fifth-largest oil produce in Sub-Saharan Africa. Mr. Bongo has been accused of using the nation’s oil wealth to develop an extensive system of patronage—often handing out money through salaries and government positions, while maintaining a tight grip on the nation’s political system.
But Mr. Bongo was also willing to turn to international lenders in order to spend recklessly. According to Patricia Adams, author of “Odious Debts”, in 1987, after hearing that Canada had forgiven all of Gabon’s debts, Mr. Bongo remarked, “ I even regretted not having had more debts with Canada.”
Because of the Gabon’s over-reliance on the sale of oil for revenue, the nation has more oil pipelines than paved roads and cultivates as little as one percent of its land. Much of the nation’s food is imported, making its capital Libreville (now Bongoville) the eighth most expensive city in the world.