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Gabonese President Omar Bongo Dead


Gabonese President Omar Bongo is dead. Gabon's prime minister said Africa's longest-serving leader died in a Spanish clinic.

Albert Bernard Bongo was born in December of 1935 near the border with the Republic of Congo.

He graduated from Brazzaville's technical college with a diploma in commerce and worked at the colonial Post and Telecommunications bureau before military training. He was an Air Force captain who served in Brazzaville, Bangui, and what is now the Chadian capital, Ndjamena.

At independence in 1960, Mr. Bongo worked at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and directed the Presidential Cabinet for Information and Tourism.

President Leon M'ba put him in charge of national defense before appointing him vice president in 1966. When President M'ba died one year later, Mr. Bongo became one of Africa's youngest heads of state at the age of 31.

Throughout his career, President Bongo sought to mediate regional conflict including violence in the Central African Republic, Burundi, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Gabon was the second African nation to recognize the independence of Nigerian separatists in the breakaway republic of Biafra.

Following talks with French President Charles DeGaulle in 1968, President Bongo told reporters that he was shocked and indignant at newspaper accounts that Gabon and France were helping arm the rebellion. He said flights from Libreville to Biafra were purely humanitarian.

Most histories of that conflict indicate France and Gabon, along with Portugal and Ivory Coast, did supply weapons to Biafra before the rebellion was put down by Nigeria's army.

Mr. Bongo converted to Islam in 1973 and changed his first name to Omar.

Gabon joined OPEC in 1975 with oil revenues fueling steady economic growth, accounting for 80 percent of export income and giving Gabonese one of the highest per-capita incomes in sub-Saharan Africa. But that wealth has been shared unevenly, with the United Nations estimating that as much as 70 percent of the population lives below the poverty line.

President Bongo resisted calls for political reform in the early 1980's. But a series of strikes and arrests connected to an alleged coup attempt ultimately led him to agree to a multi-party government of national unity in 1990.

He won re-election in 1993 and in 1998 in polls rejected by political opponents alleging vote fraud.

The corruption trial of a former chairman of the French oil producer Elf implicated President Bongo in a bribery scandal, a charge he denied in a 1996 interview with French television.

President Bongo said the corruption trial was an entirely French affair and involved neither himself nor Gabon.

He was one of three African leaders investigated by a French judge for embezzling public funds. The anti-corruption group Transparency International said more than 30 Bongo family properties in Paris and Nice worth nearly $200 million could not have been purchased on his state salary alone.

President Bongo denied wrongdoing. His French bank accounts were frozen in February.

Following his wife's death in March, President Bongo suspended his activities for the first time since taking power in 1967 and checked into a clinic in Barcelona to recover from what his government called "intense emotional shock."

Gabonese President Omar Bongo, dead at the age of 73.
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