Monday, May 12, 2008

Portrait of the head of state as a very wealthy man

The Guardian has a piece on the interminible reign of Omar Bongo. Gabon's head of state is now the world's longest serving leader, a particularly remarkable achievement given the difficult neighborhood of central Africa.

Much like Mobutu in neighboring Zaire, Bongo, while certainly a dictator, has generally used petrodollars to buy off the opposition rather than brutalize it a la Mugabe or Meles.

When multipartyism was ushered in during the early 1990s following months of unrest, Bongo again found that money could solve any problem. Opposition politicians who criticised him in public, or showed any signs of popularity, were brought into the government, and soon compromised, notes The Guardian.

The scale of the high-level cronyism and corruption astonishes diplomats from other African countries.

The most choice cabinet positions are reserved for Bongo's immediate family. His son, Ali-Ben Bongo, is the minister of defence, and, it is whispered on the streets, the heir apparent. Bongo's daughter, Pascaline, is the head of the cabinet. Her husband, Paul Toungui, is minister of finance.

But like many dictators, one of Bongo's main appeals is to stability, something that resonates in such a volatile region.

[M]any Gabonese are proud of their country, and of Bongo. His success in keeping peace in a country with 40 different ethnic groups, while neighbouring countries have all experienced serious strife, is regarded as a significant accomplishment.

But there is a serious lack of schools, health clinics and paved roads, astonishing for a country with so much oil money and so little civil conflict. Agricultural production is virtually nil; fruits, vegetables and even milk are imported. With oil running out and food prices on the rise, Bongo's control of the country may finally be seriously tested.

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