Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Gabon's opposition leader 'goes soft'

Dumb dictators repress the opposition, making them into martyrs and fueling public anger. Smart dictators bribe the opposition into joining their own camp. Zaire's Mobutu was a master of this. That's why none of the non-armed political opposition had any public credibility to exploit the situation when his hollow regime finally collapsed.

Another smart strongman is Gabon's Omar Bongo. Though Africa's longest serving ruler, Bongo doesn't make the continental headlines very often. This is part of what makes him a smart ruler. Bongo may treat Gabon as his personal fiefdom, but he doesn't flaunt it to outsiders too ostentatiously. Not making too many enemies has been critical to his longevity in power (40 years), especially since he runs a country with that most coveted of commodities: oil.

According to the pan-African magazine Jeune Afrique, Bongo met with then radical opposition leader Pierre Mamboundou last August in the presidential palace.

Mamboundou asked the head of state for an envelope of 11.4 billion CFA francs [US$23.6 million] to finance 21 projects in Ndendé, the small town in southern Gabon of which he was the mayor. President Bongo, often ready to loosen the purse strings to benefit his visitors, acquiesed and 3 billion [CFA francs] were earmarked later on.

Bear in mind that it was Mamboundou himself who revealed the visit, which insisting that he didn't pocket anything personally.

Normally, this might not seem anything out of the ordinary, even for an opposition politician. After all, he was simply the mayor of a town asking for help; no different than an American mayor trying to squeeze pork out of a governor or Congressman. But as Bongo's archenemy, Mamboundou had repeatedly denounced not simply Bongo, but the entire system in place.

The former radical justified his actions. "It's a system with which we don't agree but we must work with whomever's in power if we want to develop our localities."

One opposition member complained, "He always wanted to appear as a pure, hard core opponent but we see know that his tone vis-a-vis Bongo has softened," adding that "everything depends financially on the head of state, it's against this that he [Mamboundou] rallied around him all the opponents one after the other."

The ex-opposition leader has done a great deal of harm to the cause of transparency and good governance. Petrocracies like Gabon tend to be based on the premise that state money really belongs to the Leader who can dispense it entirely at his whim for his own purpose.

Mamboundou has been co-opted by the system he spent years so bitterly denouncing. He sold his soul for 20 bits of silver. But will his town or his country be any better for it? I doubt it.

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