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Death And The African Despot – (A Monody For Omar Bongo) 

By Peterkins Manyong

"Death is the end of man as well as his thinking parts." H. Fielding – A Modern Glossary. By this observation the author means that death is not only physical. Anybody who stops thinking progressively is as good as dead.

When Christ said the dead should bury  the dead, he  simply meant  that those who were spiritually dead should be the ones to occupy themselves with disposing of those who had died  physically. On Sunday June 7, Barcelona added something to the reputation it has acquired from football. It was privileged to be the death place of  Gabon’s President, Omar Bongo Ondimba, the world’s longest reigning dictator.

Bongo called it quits with this world at the age of 73.  He thus had a bonus of three years on the three score and ten life span of a human being prescribed by the Holy Bible. But that is beside the point. It does not matter how or at what age a man dies; what is important is how he lived.
Bongo didn’t seize power through a coup. 

He became President following the death of his predecessor, President Leon M’ba.  He could, therefore, speak with far more confidence than some of his fellow Cameroonian counterpart, Paul Biya, told all those who clamoured for him in the early 90s to go that they didn’t put him at the presidency in the first place.  What, however, kept Bongo in power for so long was something more than   force. He combined his training as a soldier with his learning as a Machiavellian.

Although small in stature, Bongo succeeded in cutting the figure of a model, with his unique moustache and sophisticated dressing style. His talents as a Casanova were said to have been demonstrated through his sexual escapades, with French and Italian women. Bongo is reputed to have "floored" the lover of the rock ‘n’ roll star, Johnny Haliday, who earlier had the effrontery to play Don Juan on him right in Gabon’s capital Libreville.

Haliday was paid back in the French capital, Paris. A suit case full of FCFA bank notes reportedly did the trick. At one time press reports stigmatized him as sero-positive, but Bongo proved his detractor wrong by producing a sero-negative medical report. It cannot be said with absolute certainty whether the report was genuine or counterfeit. It would be grossly misleading to say that Bongo’s military prowess and  playboy characteristics enabled Gabon to live in peace for the over four decades that he ruled Gabon.

He managed  to make  life tolerable for the average Gabonese, while making his family members exceptionally comfortable. The celebrated Lord Chesterfield, in the  famous "Letters to His Son" advises that women should be attentively listened to. But says that whereas a fool takes them  seriously,  a wise man only pretends to do so.

As a  politician, Bongo knew that those in the same game were not different from women. He pretended to be under the influence of the democratic wind that blew across the world when the Perestroika was set in motion in 1990 by   accepting multiparty politics and  entering  into talks with the opposition.

The opposition in Gabon has since been a pack of toothless hellhounds, while Bongo amended the constitution at will and prolonged his stay in power, like fellow African dictators. But perhaps the most memorable thing about Bongo is a statement attributed  to him that if he had to return to life after death, the country he would love best to  rule is Cameroon.  There are two implications  to this statement.

The first is a hint that he believed in the doctrine of reincarnation which Revivalist  Michael Bame Bame condemns outright as being both time wasting and stressful.  Bame  Bame, who spoke during a memorial service for late Christopher Nsahlai’s father, recommended eternity and perfect rest for the soul after death because being born several times also means growing old and dying as  many times. It is equally provocative that the Gabonese President should think he can only live in this world as a head of state.

But that is not the most insulting aspect of the statement. By choosing Cameroon and not South Africa, Nigeria, Libya or any other country, Bongo was conveying the accurate  message  that Cameroon is the only country whose people can stomach the worst forms of injustice; abusive (70%) salary cuts after an equally devastating devaluation, corruption, human rights violations and a president who visits rather than rules the country.

Like Bongo Odimba, Like Biya Bi Mvondo

Bongo shared similar characteristics with Biya,  Like Biya, he paid more than common  attention to his dress. Biya is said often to pay more attention to a flatterer  who hails him for excellent dressing  than to a performing minister.

Like  Narcissus,  the handsome boy in Greek mythology who fell in love with his own reflection, nothing pleased Bongo more than the general opinion that he was an incomparable playboy. In terms of appointments, loyalty influenced Bongo’s choice of ministers than competence, hence the appointment of his family members to top government positions. Biya  also believes in giving top positions in government to old classmates and  his clansmen.

Biya has  the same degree of contempt for the opposition.  Although he ruled  only 1.5 million people, far less than the population of Cameroon’s Northwest Region, Bongo felt  he was   more competent than Biya to lord it over  the CEMAC Zone. In this domain of conceitedness, Equato-Guinean President, Obiang Nguema, is Bongo’s pupil. The common denominator for this unholy trinity of dictators (Bongo, Biya and Obiang Nguema) is petroleum, the arithmetic of which all three  think is too complicated for the unsophisticated mind.

The "superiority complex" which both Bongo and Biya felt soon contaminated their wives. Convinced that whoever was not for her husband must be against her, Chantal Biya picked on Omar Bongo’s wife as her rival among CEMAC First Ladies. The very fact that Mrs. Bongo held an opinion was a sufficient reason for Chantal to embrace the opposite. Luckily, no  real harm was done as the competition centred on dressing and who to sit where or speak first at the meetings of First Ladies.

In every situation where there are similarities, there are differences. In the case of Bongo and Biya,  there are two main ones; Bongo was not as efficient on keeping his wealth from prying international eyes as Biya. This explains why at the time of his death, Bongo was to face trial in a French Court for corruption confident that he has covered his tracks well, while Biya has the moral fortitude to pursue his potential challengers with the pretext of fighting corruption.

Bongo was also more "responsible" than  Biya as he chose to die once and for all. Biya  kept Cameroonians in a prolonged suspense when some five years back  his death was announced. He was later to provoke those wishing his death by promising them another 20 or more years. Santa CPDM barons, led by Zaccheus Forjindam later  confirmed  him as "President Longstay"(Courtesy Francis Nyamnjoh’s "Married But Available") by wishing him an additional  25 years in power.

However much we may deride Bongo,  the fact that his country has been at peace  since his death, him on a politically higher platform than Lansane Konte of Guinea and Houphuet Boigny of  Ivory Coast. Eternal repose for his Presidential soul.

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