By Tafi Mhaka
Africans love to dance.
The people of Gabon danced to the tune of Omar Bongo’s stifling symphony of misrule for 42 years. Small in stature, Bongo ruthlessly ruled oil-rich Gabon, earning himself the title “little big man”.
A French observer described him as “a diminutive, dapper figure who conversed in flawless French, a charismatic figure surrounded by a personality cult”.
He lavishly bought out opposition leaders with state funds, leaving him to reign freely.
The kingly 5-feet tall Bongo towered over every facet of Gabonese life. His self-indulgent political artistry afforded him the finer things in life. Charmingly affable, Bongo’s debonair style was the hallmark of his look: he strictly dressed in colourful, flamboyant French designer wear.
He spared no expense in his efforts to dress the part of Gabon’s imperial big man by ferrying a plane full of designer wear from France to Gabon every year.
Gorgeous-looking French models, reportedly hired to help Bongo try on the clothes, accompanied the clothes for good measure.
And there’s more.
Bongo lived in a US$800 million presidential palace in Libreville and travelled in style: He had a DC-8 Jet at his disposal for swanky personal jaunts and merry political dance.
The matchless Bongo put up such a fine performance in his four decades in power, he controversially amassed a small fortune for his family: this included US$130 million held in various accounts by Citibank, and 33 properties in Paris and on the French Riviera worth an estimated US$190m.
At the time of his death, in 2009, some independent researchers estimated Bongo had stashed away US$1 Billion in cash and property.
Dancing along to Bongo’s synchronized symphony of corruption and profligacy were the 53 children he sired.
Bongo had 53 known children. Two of Bongo’s heirs, Ali Bongo and Pascaline Bongo, have been under the spotlight for varying reasons.
Miss Bongo, a trendy, jet-setting socialite, reportedly wracked up US$86 million in air travel bills in 24 months. Accompanying her was a motley collection of family and friends that included Michael Jackson’s brother, Jermaine.
Ali Bongo, meanwhile, who has been out of the country for two months, has been trying to convince the people of Gabon he is fit enough to rule the West African nation, even though he reportedly suffered a stroke in October and is convalescing in Morocco.
Ali Bongo appeared on television on New Year’s Day, hoping to allay fears he is unwell. “Today, as you can see, I am better and I am preparing to meet you again soon,” he said in the video.
Presidency spokesperson Ike Ngouoni told AFP: “This speech is proof that President Ali Bongo is fully recovered. His health problems are now behind him.”
But the New Year’s message didn’t do the trick for everyone.
A group of soldiers, led by Lieutenant Kelly Ondo Obiang, the deputy commander of the Republican Guard, attempted to oust Gabon’s strongman on January 7.
Faki Mahamat, the African Union chair who supported a comparable military takeover in Zimbabwe in November 2017, has strongly condemned the coup attempt in Gabon.
How this political upheaval will play out in the future remains to be seen.
What’s certainly clear is: The Bongos have impoverished Gabon for 50 years.
Isn’t it time Gabon danced to a fresh symphony of transparency, hope and equality?