Connect to share and comment

Opinion: What next for Gabon?

The oil-rich West African nation must find new leader after 42 years under Omar Bongo.

Gabon's President Omar Bongo, right, and France's President Nicolas Sarkozy wave to the crowd as they arrive in Libreville, July 27, 2007. Bongo's death was announced on June 8, 2009, leaving Sarkozy hoping that the next leader of small but oil-rich Gabon will be another strong ally with France. (Pascal Rossignol/Reuters)

WASHINGTON — After the rule of Omar Bongo in Gabon for 42 years, it is difficult to imagine the country's future without the national father figure. Yet the future depends on finding a new leader who can satisfy competing economic, ethnic and political demands.

The news of Gabonese President Omar Bongo’s death was announced Monday by the official state media with a mixture of disbelief and distress. After first denying and fiercely criticizing French media reports of the autocrat’s demise, government leaders grudgingly acknowledged what the rest of the world had known for almost a full day. Days later the presidential website still made no mention of the fact that Bongo is no more.

On Wednesday Gabon's Senate speaker Rose Francine Rogombe, 66, was sworn in as acting head of state at an official ceremony in Libreville. She is charged with making the preparations for new national elections within 30 to 45 days.

Shortly after the official death announcement, the minister of defense, Ali-Ben Bongo, 50, who is also the president’s son and heir apparent, appeared on national television to appeal for “calm and serenity.” In a tacit recognition that not all of his fellow citizens would be be receptive to this conciliatory message, young Bongo also deployed troops at key points throughout the capital, Libreville, and sealed the country’s borders.

The 1.5 million Gabonese have every right to be nervous. As long as Bongo held sway over his nation like a medieval monarch, oil-rich Gabon was spared the bloodshed and chaos of many other countries in the region.

However, there is an abundance of examples of nations imploding following the end of long-term autocratic rule, most notoriously Yugoslavia upon the death of Marshall Tito. Closer to Gabon, when in 1997 long-time dictator Zairian President Mobutu Sese Seko fell ill (and died later that year, like Bongo, of cancer), the country now known as the Democratic Republic of the Congo descended into a spiral of war, death and devastation from which it has yet to recover.

Likewise, upon the death of Houphouet Boigny, who was president of Cote d’Ivoire for 33 years, the West African oasis of peace and prosperity was wracked by war and misrule. Arguably Somalia’s metamorphosis from nation-state to no man’s land can be traced to the end of Siad Barre’s 22-year reign.