Born Albert-Bernard Bongo, December 30, 1935, in Lewai, Franceville, Gabon; given name changed to El Hadj Omar in 1973. Married first wife, divorced 1988; married Edith Lucie Sassou-Nguesso, 1990; children: Ali (son).
Military/Wartime Service: Gabonese Air Force, 1958-60.
President of Gabon. Served in Ministry of Foreign Affairs c. 1960; served as vice-president; became president, 1967; served as minister of the interior, 1967-1970, prime minister, 1967-75, minister of planning, 1967-77, minister of information, 1967-80, and minister of defense, 1967-81.
Gabon’s relative prosperity among African nations and its stable political regime have kept it from appearing often in the media. Ruled by President (El Hadj) Omar Bongo since 1967, Gabon is a former French colony in West Africa that enjoys a per capita income of approximately $3,000–high by African standards–due largely to its oil-driven economy. However, depressed oil prices in the world market have resulted in a continued shortfall in oil earnings, which forced the government to adopt austerity budgets in the late 1980s. Like many other African nations with single-party political systems, Gabon has also felt the effects of the democratic reforms that swept through Eastern Europe in 1989-90. Economic and political unrest made 1990 the most turbulent year in President Bongo’s 23-year rule.
Gabon saw rapid economic growth in the 1970s through a liberal economic system that encouraged and protected foreign capital investment. When President Bongo visited the United States in 1987, President Reagan noted that the U.S. had $700 million invested in Gabon. Reagan called Bongo “a champion of African development,” and agreed to reschedule Gabon’s $8- million debt to the U.S. Bongo’s visit came during a year of economic crisis for Gabon that was brought on by declining world oil prices. While Gabon maintains friendly relations with the U.S., France remains the country’s primary trading partner and source of foreign aid.
Since the early 1970s Bongo has imposed a policy of “Gabonization,” in which the government demands state participation in foreign-based companies operating in Gabon, enforces the employment of indigenous Gabonese in managerial positions, and negotiates advantageous terms for the exploitation of Gabon’s natural resources. Although Gabon is sub-Saharan Africa’s most prosperous nation, there has always been concern and disquiet over the dominant role of foreign companies and the excessive and conspicuous wealth of some Gabonese and Europeans living in the country.
To counter worsening economic circumstances in the 1980s, Bongo frequently resorted to imposing strict controls on immigration. In 1985 he criticized the activities of foreign residents in Gabon, notably the 600-member Lebanese community. When his remarks touched off looting and vandalism in Libreville, the nation’s capital, Bongo appealed for calm and condemned the looters. During this crisis foreigners without proper papers were arrested. That same year Bongo ordered a census of aliens during which Gabon’s borders were closed and illegal immigrants expelled. Employers were told to give priority to employing Gabonese.
In 1986 worsening economic circumstances led to even stricter controls on immigration. Resident permits were introduced and financial restrictions were imposed on immigrants wishing to leave and reenter the country. In June of 1988, 3,500 foreign nationals described as illegal immigrants were arrested. This was followed by the announcement of new nationality regulations. The measures to restrict immigration were designed to insure the employment and prosperity of native Gabonese; they were economically rather than politically motivated.
Bongo began his political career in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 1960 after serving two years in Gabon’s Air Force. He held several administrative posts and was vice-president under Leon M’ba, the first president of the Gabonese Republic. With M’ba’s death in 1967, Bongo became president; he was 31. In January of 1968 a government reshuffle resulted in several close associates of President Bongo becoming ministers. In March he announced the formal institution of a one-party government and created the Parti democratique gabonais (PDG). The party’s motto was “Dialogue-Tolerance-Peace,” and it stood for national unity, the abolition of ethnic and tribal discrimination, and the principles of the RDA (Rassemblement democratique africain). The RDA, based in the neighboring Ivory Coast, stood for independence rather than federation with other former French colonies in West and Central Africa.
In the 1973 elections for the national assembly and the presidency, Bongo was the sole candidate for president. He and all PDG candidates were elected by 99.56% of the votes cast. In addition to the presidency, Bongo held several ministerial portfolios from 1967 onward, including Minister of Defense (1967-1981), Information (1967-1980), Planning (1967-1977), Prime Minister (1967-1975), the Interior (1967-1970), and many others.
In April 1975 Bongo abolished the post of vice-president and appointed his former number-two man, Leon Mebiame, as prime minister, a position Bongo held concurrently with his presidency from 1967. Mebiame would remain as prime minister until his resignation in 1990. Following an extraordinary congress of the PDG in January 1979 and the December 1979 elections, Bongo gave up some of his ministerial portfolios and surrendered his functions as head of government to Prime Minister Mebiame. The PDG congress had criticized Bongo’s administration for inefficiency and called for an end to the holding of multiple offices. A measure of democracy was introduced into PDG party politics at the congress; elections were held for the central committee, and several senior party members lost their seats.
During the 1979 election campaign Bongo toured the country, appealing for national unity and an end to tribal differences. Gabon is home to at least 40 distinct tribal groups, the Fang group accounting for roughly 40% of the population. Bongo is a member of the Bateke tribe, which along with the Eshira and Bapounou are other dominant tribal groups in Gabon. Throughout his tenure as president, Bongo has sought to maintain a delicate ethnic balance in his administration. Bongo was again reelected for a seven-year term in 1979, receiving 99.96% of the popular vote.
Opposition to President Bongo’s regime first appeared in the late 1970s, as economic difficulties became more acute for the Gabonese. The first organized, but illegal, opposition party was MORENA, the Movement for National Restoration (Mouvement de redressement national). This moderate opposition group sponsored demonstrations by students and academic staff at the Universite Omar Bongo in Libreville in December of 1981, when the university was temporarily closed. MORENA accused Bongo of corruption and personal extravagance and of favoring his own Bateke tribe; the group demanded that a multi-party system be restored.
Further arrests were made in February of 1982, when the opposition distributed leaflets criticizing the Bongo regime during a visit by Pope John Paul II. In November of 1982, 37 MORENA members were tried and convicted of offenses against state security. Severe sentences were handed out, including 20 years of hard labor for 13 of the defendants; all were pardoned, however, and released by mid-1986. Despite the pressure, Bongo remained committed to one-party rule. Pledged to non-violence, MORENA continued to play a role in Gabonese politics, often from exile.
The 1985 legislative elections followed past procedures; all nominations were approved by PDG, which then presented a single list of candidates. The candidates were ratified by popular vote on March 3, 1985. During that year Bongo repeated an earlier invitation to opposition members in exile to return to Gabon. His mid-year tour of the country was conducted with extremely tight security following an attempted assassination in May of 1985.
In November of 1986 Bongo was reelected by 99.97% of the popular vote. The third congress of the PDG, held in September of 1986, displayed an orientation toward liberalization. The central committee was increased to 297 members, with many new entrants from the young, the armed forces, and even one former MORENA member. Five women were appointed to the central committee’s political bureau. Following his reelection Bongo restated his opposition to a multi-party system, contending that the introduction of choice into local government elections had led to unacceptable conflict within Gabonese communities. Economic circumstances forced the government to impose compulsory reductions in salaries in late 1988, which resulted in strikes by the staff of Air Gabon and other public-sector employees. The situation was resolved following negotiations. Labor unrest continued, however, as the government was forced to introduce austerity budgets for 1989 and 1990.
In September of 1989 a conspiracy to overthrow the government was discovered. The plot involved senior members of the security forces and prominent public officials acting on behalf of Pierre Mamboundou, leader of a little-known opposition group based in Paris, the Union des peuples gabonais (UPG). Although Amnesty International and other international humanitarian organizations were invited to “witness further developments,” two of the principals in the plot died, reportedly from disease. In February of 1990 Mamboundou was expelled from France and relocated to Senegal under theauspices of the French Minister of the Interior.
In January of 1990 legal proceedings continued against 21 Gabonese for their alleged roles in plots against Bongo; these stemmed from the Mamboundou affair and an internal conspiracy led by Lt.-Col. Georges Moubandjo, a former aide-de-camp to Bongo. At an extraordinary session of the central committee of the PDG, Bongo called for urgent action to stamp out corruption. He stressed the need for greater democratization of the country’s institutions in the face of political unrest. However, he continued to reaffirm the PDG’s leading role and dismissed the possibility of a multi-party system.
Immediately following the close of the session, students boycotted classes at Universite Omar Bongo, protesting inadequate facilities and a shortage of academic staff. The unrest escalated and Lebanese shops were looted, resulting in 250 arrests. In February doctors and teachers went on strike demanding better pay and conditions; they were joined by telecommunications workers and airport staff. President Bongo blamed the wave of strikes on reduced purchasing power, the result of austerity measures imposed at the insistence of the International Monetary Fund.
As labor unrest continued a “special commission for democracy” established in January by the PDG condemned Gabon’s single-party system. Bongo announced that immediate reforms would be introduced and that a national conference would be held later in March to discuss democracy and political reform. Before the national conference began, though, over 1,000 demonstrators, many of them unemployed, looted supermarkets and shops owned by Lebanese traders in Port Gentil, where oil workers had gone on strike on March 21st. Strikes by civil servants and bank employees continued in Libreville.
When the national conference began on March 27th, the government imposed a curfew and banned strikes. In his opening address President Bongo said that anarchy would impede economic development and drive away foreign investors. The conference was attended by some 2,000 delegates representing over 70 political organizations, professional bodies, and other special interest groups. Rejecting Bongo’s earlier proposal for a five-year transitional period, the conference voted for the immediate creation of a multi-party system and the formation of a new government to hold office until legislative elections were held in October of 1990.
Bongo agreed to abide by the decisions of the conference and appointed a new prime minister, Casimir Oye Mba, a prominent banker. Making several concessions, Bongo granted legal status to all opposition groups participating in the conference; some 13 groups immediately formed a United Opposition Front. On May 3rd Oye Mba was formally installed as prime minister, replacing Mebiame and heading a 29-member transitional administration. Several members of opposition movements received ministerial posts. Father Paul Mba Abessole, former leader of MORENA, was nominated for a post but declined to accept. President Bongo resigned as secretary-general of PDG, claiming that such a partisan role was incompatible with his position as head of state. On May 22nd the PDG central committee and the national assembly approved constitutional amendments to facilitate the transition to a multi-party system. The existing presidential mandate, effective through 1994, was to be respected. Subsequent elections to the presidency would be contested by more than one candidate, and the presidential term of office was changed to five years with a limit of one re-election to the office.
The very next day, May 23rd, a vocal critic of Bongo was found dead in a hotel, reportedly murdered by poison. The death of Joseph Rendjambe, a prominent business executive and secretary-general of the opposition group Parti gabonais du progres (PGP), touched off the worst rioting in Bongo’s 23-year rule. Presidential buildings in Libreville were set on fire and the French consul-general and ten oil company employees were taken hostage. A state of emergency was declared in Port Gentil, Rendjambe’s hometown and a strategic oil production site. During this emergency Gabon’s two main oil producers, Elf and Shell, cut output from 270,000 barrels per day to 20,000. Bongo threatened to withdraw their exploration licenses unless they restored normal output, which they soon did. France sent in 500 troops to reinforce the 500-man battalion of Marines permanently stationed in Gabon to protect the interests of 20,000 resident French nationals.
The first multi-party elections under President Bongo’s rule were held on September 16th. Only the 13 legalized opposition parties that had participated in the national conference earlier in the year were allowed to put up candidates. The most serious challenge to the PDG was mounted by MORENA-Bucherons, a splinter group led by Mba Abessolo. Mba Abessolo had been dismissed as leader of MORENA in January of 1990, when he decided to return to Gabon from exile and participate in national politics.
In the first round of elections on September 16th voters attacked election officials and smashed ballot boxes, claiming the election was rigged in favor of Bongo. The largest polling station, in the city hall in Libreville, was forced to close when angry voters ransacked the building, reportedly having discovered ballot boxes already stuffed as voting began at 6 a.m. There were also disturbances at Port Gentil. The government annulled results of 32 out of 120 constituencies. A second round of voting scheduled for September 23rd was suspended after the government acknowledged irregularities at a number of voting centers. Opposition groups claimed the government had halted voting in areas where the PDG appeared close to defeat. Fresh elections were set for October.
Legislative elections were completed in November, with the PDG winning 63 seats out of 120. The largest opposition party, MORENA-Bucherons, won 20 seats. A total of eight parties were to be represented in the new parliament. On November 19th Prime Minister Oye Mba tendered the resignation of his transitional government, but was re-appointed two days later by President Bongo. On November 26th a government of national union was announced, with the PDG holding one-third of the ministerial portfolios and the five largest opposition parties represented. After considerable unrest, difficulty, and debate, democratic pluralism had come to Gabon.
- Africa South of the Sahara 1991, Europa, 1990.
- International Who’s Who 1990-91, Europa, 1990.
- Keesing’s Record of World Events, Longman, 1990.
- Business America, April 11, 1988; April 25, 1988; November 20, 1989.
- Department of State Bulletin, October 1987.
- The Economist, June 2, 1990.
- Jet, October 8, 1990.
- Time, May 21, 1990.