Gabonese see few reasons
by Reuters South Africa
Along Libreville's slick oceanfront boulevard, giant hoardings announce Gabonese President Omar Bongo's 40th anniversary in power, but in the capital's nearby shanties residents see little to celebrate.
Like most Gabonese, Solange Mba was not born when Africa's longest serving leader took office on Dec 2, 1967. But she knows that despite Gabon's oil wealth, conditions are dire in the neglected Kinguele slum, where rubbish rots in the street, men find no work, and water and electricity are intermittent.
"This anniversary is not for us. It's for him to rejoice," said the 27-year-old mother of two, seated in a dark, dank wooden shack. "He's not a bad president. We have had peace, unlike other countries, but life here is hard."
Bongo's accession to power coincided with the discovery of oil in the late 1960s, boosting the president's popularity and providing billions of petrodollars to grease one of Africa's most effective patronage machines. Diplomats joke the fastest way to become a minister is to enter the opposition.
While on paper the former French colony is one of Africa's few middle-income countries, drawing migrants from across the region, the majority of its 1.6 million people live in poverty while the elite has grown wealthy.
Bongo rules virtually unopposed after comfortably winning three elections since the return to multiparty politics in 1990. He has pledged to seek a fresh seven-year term in 2012, when he will be 76.
Regarded as one of the world's richest rulers, Bongo's vast pink mansion perches on a hilltop next to the French military base in Libreville, with ostriches roaming its grounds.
Bongo hit the headlines in the 1990s, when a French court case unearthed the corrupt dealings of oil company Elf in Gabon.
"This is a state riddled with ethnic rivalry, clientelism, corruption, politicisation and nepotism, which have contaminated public institutions," the president said in a speech on the eve of Sunday's anniversary, which was marked by a military parade along the oceanfront boulevard and a big pop concert.
Diplomats have welcomed recent efforts to tackle corruption but question whether the president, who has repeatedly tried to deflect blame onto the political elite, has the power to undo the patronage system his government created.
AFRICAN BIG MAN
Bongo is one of the post-independence generation of Africa's "Big Men", like Paul Biya of neighbouring Cameroon, with whom he has a long-running feud.
The youngest of 12 children whose father died when he was 7, the president worked his way up from poverty through the French Air Force. Born Albert Bernard Bongo, he changed his name when he converted to Islam in 1973, apparently at the behest of Morocco's King Hassan II. His bodyguards are still Moroccan.
A pillar of the shadowy "francafrique" network linking France with its former colonies, Bongo was one of the few African leaders to meet French President Nicolas Sarkozy on his first tour of the region after winning office in May.
Like many of his minority Bateke tribe, Bongo is short and wears platform shoes in public. His large spectacles, handlebar moustache, and penchant for shiny suits means he cuts a dapper figure among African heads of state.
Bongo's personality cult is all pervasive: his photo hangs in government offices, businesses and bars, dominates state television and newspapers, and his home town even changed its name to Bongoville. Official protocol can be stifling.
"Unless you go directly to the president nothing gets done in this country," said one foreign aid worker who asked not to be identified.
Many Gabonese express fears about what will happen when his rule ends, with his son Ali Bongo, the defence minister, tipped as a likely successor. Oil revenues are also steadily declining and the economic future appears less certain, despite major Chinese investment in iron and manganese mining.
"Bongo remains popular with many people, but not like before," said Mohamed, a taxi driver, adding people had grown accustomed to Bongo's dominance. "Here in Africa we say that every goat loves the place where it is tethered."