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Gabon's Omar Bongo Enters 41st Year in Power

Africa's longest ruling leader, Gabon President Omar Bongo, is entering his 41st year in power. His critics say he has done little to improve the Central African country's economy, despite oil riches. Jade Heilmann has more from our West, Central Africa bureau in Dakar.

Omar Bongo, then known as Albert Bernard Bongo, was sworn in as president of Gabon on December 2, 1967, several days after his predecessor Leon Mba died. He changed his name in the 1970s after he converted to Islam.

To celebrate his 40 years in power, the 71-year-old Mr. Bongo attended a military parade, complete with a Mirage F-1 air show in his honor.

Posters put up around the capital boasted his presidency as being characterized by the four pillars of peace, unity, stability and progress; but some critics feel terms such as corruption and rigged elections were missing from the list.

One such critic is Marc Ona, president of the Gabonese environmental non-profit organization Brain Forest. Ona believes Bongo's ability to keep the peace has been his only merit.

He says the Gabon economy is a catastrophe, that the road and education systems are deteriorating, and that, for having managed a country with a small population for 40 years, the outlook is anything but positive. Oil and resource-rich Gabon has a population of less than 1.5 million.

Africa analyst Kissy Agyeman of the London-based research group Global Insight explains President Bongo has often used oil profits for political purposes.

"[President] Bongo has managed to maintain the peace in the country particularly because he has kept those who would be opponents and brought them into the presidential fold, he is known to sweet talk opponents with offers of money and so forth, and because of the immense wealth that Gabon has, he has been able to deliver. On the ground in Gabon, I do believe people are keen for change, but at the same time it has not got that level of activism that perhaps some other countries in the region may have because the population is quite small," Agyeman said.

Gabon's oil output has been on the decline since the mid-1990s, and some economists estimate there will be no more oil to exploit in 30 years time. Many Gabonese say their president has not built enough infrastructure during the oil boom.

Although President Bongo built a railroad cross-country which has eased access to other natural resources, and designated 13 national parks which has aided tourism, many say too much money was spent creating government positions, or strengthening political ties with the former colonial power France.

Mr. Bongo acknowledged these issues in a televised speech Saturday night, but deferred blame to his administration, rather than to himself. He said the country's infrastructure was degraded, but said that was because of corruption, nepotism and what he called outrageous politicizing at the highest levels of government.

Outright opposition to Mr. Bongo has been mostly muted during his time in power.

Allegations of a rigged election triggered brief but violent demonstrations in 1993. Allegations of cheating tainted other election victories by Mr. Bongo and the ruling party, but without the same level of outcry.

When asked to comment about possible successors to the president, analyst Agyeman thought Bongo's son, the minister of defense, has a good chance.

"There is a lot of talk about [Mr.] Bongo's son, Ali, who he is grooming, probably to succeed him," she said. "He looks like he is probably going to be the man to succeed [President] Bongo as things stand in the moment.

But that may not happen anytime soon. Mr. Bongo has already stated he will be running again in the scheduled 2012 presidential election. An amendment made to the constitution in 2003 allows him to run for the presidency indefinitely.