Gabon's Omar Bongo – The Last To Go?

For the second time, I have taken liberties with the title of Harold Pinter's revue sketch, Last To Go. In Pinter's two-page duologue a barman talks to an newspaper-seller at a coffee-stall, and as you would expect in a Pinter's play the talk delivers something pithily bathetic while seemingly going nowhere, the sketch is a semi-wistful chat about lost times, a breeze of piquant reticent nostalgia. My earlier dalliance with the phrase was crystallised in the story of a young man who leaves a pub – or beer parlour, in our parlance – last and late, spending his muzak-filled, drawn-out moments in the bar imagining a one-night-stand with the lone young woman serving at the bar.

The use of Last to Go here is somewhat Pinteresque, a nostalgic recall of African dictators of the 1960s to 80s. The death of Omar Bongo, Absolute Ruler and, as it turned out, Life President of Gabon, had triggered remembrances of Africa's recent dictatorial antecedents. Somehow, being too busy to listen to news or trawl the net a couple of weeks ago, I missed the immediate obits of Omar Bongo until I saw the burial on the news channel France 24 early this week. If other western broadcasters like the BBC or CNN had broadcast the burial, then I must have missed it, or possibly they had given it short shrift.

It is easy to see why France 24 would give it considerable airtime. Gabon remains one of the France's suzerain outposts in Africa, it still falls within the shrinking sphere of French influence in the world, particularly in Africa. Gabon is one of the African countries where the fart-stained perfume of French colonial ‘assimilation' pretensions lingers. Period rulers of Francophone African countries like Omar Bongo saw themselves as more French than African. The late Félix Houphouët-Boigny, the coiner of the term Franc?frique, could easily witness to this. Even the co-founder of the Negritude movement, Leopold Sedar Senghor, liked France so much so that he died there in ripe old age of 96.

Perhaps still compensating for how Senghor's interment was snubbed by French Presidency, Nicholas Sarkozy was in attendance during Bongo's burial. But the French President was booed by Gabonese because of the fast-and-loose foreign policy towards Gabon, they think he wants to turn Gabon into an intercontinental Gallic football he could kick any way he likes. His predecessor, Jacques Chirac, was ushered in with claps and plaudits for being less slippery than Sarkozy in his time. Apart from African leaders, these were the only leaders who came from outside of the continent. Anyway the relationship between France and its former colonies is becoming increasingly convoluted and umbrageous, it is bound to destruct in the fullness of time.

There was no surprise that only African leaders presented themselves, in significant numbers, at Bongo's burial. Well, it's not as if the man was Nelson Mandela. He was Omar Bongo Ondimba, not Madiba, this was a Gabonese autocrat, lately notorious as the longest serving leader, bar a monarch like the Queen of England. Bongo has been described as one of the last African strongmen. This is true to a large extent. He was a contemporary of the ferocious twosome of His Excellency President-For-Life Al Hadji Doctor Field Marshal Idi Amin Dada of Uganda and Colonel, later Emperor Jean Bedel Sallah Edeen Ahmed Bokassa, and the less ferocious, if equally ruthless, Mobutu Sese Seko Nkuku Ngbendu wa Za Banga. These three men made the post-Independence history of Africa rather lively - like striding Colossi, severally they cast a heavy pall over the continent for two decades. They reminded me of that effervescent, khaki-coloured Africa. Africa that was compost for Fredrick Forsyth's imagination. Africa that was the pastist paradise, the bourgeois Africa, the arriviste Africa, the prideful Africa, the damask-and-lace Africa, the Africa that gave the world both dan?iki and well, bongo, the drum as well as the upstart head of state.

Omar Bongo could not touch both Amin and Bokassa for being a purveyor of brutality and violence, for being a dispenser of searing counterpoison to every sort oppositional bad blood. A bantam rooster, at 4 ft 3 inches Bongo was a consummate Machiavellian. Using more carrot - and I mean icing-made carrot - than stick he was able to squelch opposition, or more appropriately, stuff their mouths with wafery carrot. He was able to hang on to power for almost forty-two years by rank cunning.

Bongo was cunning in another way too. He was a wily thief, or perhaps not so wily, because stealing state money in Africa has always been a no-brainer. For most of the time he spent in power, Gabon was his demesne. He stole hundreds of millions of pounds, and not with any modesty, he was grandly larcenous. Apparently, now he has gone to join the likes of Mobutu Sese Seko and Sani Abacha and others in the shadowy Hades where African leaders who corner so much lucre go to luxuriate ad nauseam. Bongo was so acquisitive that before his death he had bought more than twenty houses in France and elsewhere. Sometime ago he put down some £153,000 for a Ferrari 612 Scaglietti F1. His equally extravagant son Ali also bought 456 M GT for £156,000. Bongo bought a fleet of limousines for his late wife, Edith, the daughter of another African dictator Denis Sassaou-Nguesso of Equatorial Guinea. No one can really quantify how much Bongo stole before he died but, there have been estimates that run into several billion pounds.

It would take a whole book to inventory Bongo's thievery and extravagance. But the problem is that such minutiae as the money Bongo stole and how the loot was splurged on luxury and dionysian decadence have become a rather trite twice-told African tale.

Mobutu Sese Seko of Congo was the quintessential African strongman-heistman. He was the first African leader to make a virtue of kleptocracy. But again towards the end of his colourful life, these acts of cupidity had become banal and affectless, a mere shaggy-dog story of an African dictator pocketing his country's money and spending it profanely. Big deal! Among what I consider a triad completed by Idi Amin and Bokassa, Mobutu was the least bloodthirsty, he had also used political skulduggery and moneyed patronage like Bongo, although to less masterful effect. But for flamboyance and crass showmanship Mobutu stands over and above any African leader. With a view to muscling his way into history, he invited Mohammed Ali and George Foreman to come and fight in Kinshasa – hence the storied Rumble in The Jungle.

In the 1990 documentary, Echoes From a Sombre Empire the German filmmaker, Werner Herzog, goes to Central African republic to follow journalist Michael Goldsmith with his camera as he retraces his steps in a country where he had been locked up and tortured by Colonel Jean Bedel Bokassa in 1977. Goldsmith had gone to CAR to cover Bokassa's coronation as Emperor of Central African Republic. The coronation was lavish and expensive, gaudy and badly cobbled, it swallowed a third of CAR's annual budget. Bokassa decked himself out in the fashion of Frances Napoleon who died almost two hundred years before. The throne was a towering golden bird of prey, the gouged insides of which Bokassa ensconced himself. As an icky Empire-founder, Bokassa was second only to Eugene O'Neill's Jones.

Never less than brutal against real or imagined enemies, Bokassa was to overreach himself. Early 1979, he lost French support when dozens of people were mowed down in riots that broke out on the streets of Bangui. Some elementary school students were apprehended for protesting against wearing the expensive, government-required school uniforms. Bokassa had joined the orgy of torture and murder the schoolchildren were subjected to, he personally mauled some of the children with his cane. And in those days one of the morbidities Bokassa was said to have indulged in was cannibalism. But this remains unprovable.

Uganda's Idi Amin Dada was also rumoured to be partial to cannibalism. There is even a scene in an earlier feature film of Amin years which depicts the tyrant incantatorily treating himself to what appears to be a sliver from the scalp of his victims. Those who were close to Amin and Bokassa still deny the grave accusation. Beyond such grey corners, Idi Amin Dada was a cruel, power-stoned tyrant who could switch on the gentle-giant, droll-troll persona whenever it suited him. In spite of Amin being a repulsive mass-murderer, I was somehow amused by the man - no, not his buffooneries, but babooneries.

If you really want to see Amin in action do not waste too much time on factive films like The Rise and Fall, or Yaphet Kotto's unlikely interpretation of Amin in The Raid of Entebbe, or even Forrest Whitaker's playacting as Amin in the Last King of Scotland. I recommend Barbet Schroeder's General Idi Amin Dada: Autoportrait. Schroeder had gone to Uganda to capture the primordium of Amin's rule. The film was prognostic of what was to come, it foretold the oncoming of terror. Two scenes recur in the memory: When Amin is addressing a group of Ugandan doctors and when he is presiding over a chamber of ministers. Among his ministers Amin is like a huge hyperthyroidal bully trying to teach a class of intelligent hobbits one or two things about duty, and the ministers are so darkly and mutely cowed as to make it all seem so histrionic.

While Bongo may be the last of this generation of early postcolonial African ‘strongmen,' he was certainly not the last of them. His father-in-law and friend Denis Sassou-Nguesso is still in power in Congo-Brazzaville. Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo is still riding roughshod over his people in Equatorial Guinea. Apart from being ‘strongmen,' and the crude assonance of the final syllables of their names, something that unites Bongo, Mbasogo and Sassou-Nguesso is kleptomania. History books will set them down in purple passages that describe raptorial African rulers. Hollow men, I'd call them, rather than strongmen. And I have almost forgotten Robert Mugabe(!), another peculiar, kooky African ‘strongman' – a thief too.

Didn't we have a strongman of a sort in Nigeria too? General Sani Abacha. He combined the ruthlessness of Amin - although he tried to cover the lineaments of his own leviathan crimiminality with dark goggles - with the venal graspingness of all of the forecited dictators. Now Africa is slowly entering a phase of wary optimism. But then the fact that someone like Abacha could foist himself on Nigeria and Nigerians - considering the immunity we vainly imagined we had build against dictators like Idi Amin - in the last decade of the last century, I am rather feyly apprehensive that the breed of ogreish Africa strongmen may not recede into the swamps so easily. And even if they do, I fear the affinity that the African psyche seems to have long forged with Nietzschean Eternal Return, the vicious historical circle, may resurge.

I hope not.

Re: Gabon's Omar Bongo – The Last To Go?
Ocnus posted on 06-23-2009, 02:00:21 AM
There may be a closer connection of Gabon to Nigeria. It is widely believed that the President's son, Ali Ben Bongo (the current Defence Minister) and putative political heir was an Igbo Biafran orphan adopted by Omar Bongo.
Please register before you can make new comment