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Gabon’s Bongo finds new pep on the campaign trail

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Incumbent  Gabonese President Ali Bongo Ondimba / AFP PHOTO / MARCO LONGARI

Incumbent Gabonese President Ali Bongo Ondimba / AFP PHOTO / MARCO LONGARI

Ali Bongo of Gabon, who is running for a second seven-year term in Saturday’s presidential election, has spent more than half his 57 years cruising the corridors of power.

Known variously by his initials ABO, Ali B and less flatteringly as “Monsieur Fils” for succeeding his father who ruled Gabon for 40 years, the usually reticent Bongo has emerged as a man on fire during the campaign.

“We used to criticise him for being in his own bubble, but he seems to have emerged from it,” said one senior civil servant.

Some have suggested the transformation is due to extensive coaching by his large team of advisors.

In recent weeks the people of Gabon have seen a new side to their president — one who is relaxed and cracks jokes.

– Getting on down –
He has drawn on his teenage dabblings in pop music having made an album called “A Brand New Man” that was produced by James Brown’s longtime personal manager Charles Bobbit.

He even went head-to-head with rappers hired to spice-up the campaign.

But there have been limits to the president’s new-found flamboyance: he has refused to take part in a televised debate with his only credible rival in the presidential election, former African Union Commission chairman Jean Ping.

President Bongo was born Alain Bernard Bongo on February 9, 1959 in the Congolese city of Brazzaville, which at the time was still part of France’s rapidly shrinking colonial empire.

Bongo has strenuously denied his detractors’ allegations that he was actually born in Nigeria, and therefore ineligible to run for president.

His father, who came to power in 1967 on the death of Gabon’s first post-independence leader, was serving at the time in the French armed forces, and his mother, Patience Dabany, was a singer.

His mother, who had been first lady of Gabon for almost 20 years, was by then divorced from Omar Bongo, and pursuing a musical career in the United States.

The young Bongo attended some of Brazzaville’s top schools and went on to study law in France.

But his prestigious education did not extend to learning any of his country’s local languages, a lapse that many have held against him.

From a young age, Bongo worked as a close aide to his father, travelling the world and building up extensive contacts in the Arab world and in the United States.

– From Alain to Ali –
Like his father, Bongo junior converted to Islam and took an Arabic first name in the 1970s, at a time when Arab oil-producing nations were flexing their economic muscle.

In August 1989, he was appointed foreign minister at the tender age of 30, but had to step down two years later when a new constitution stipulated that cabinet members had to be at least 35.

He was back in government by 1999, at the head of the defence ministry, where he remained until shortly before the start of the election campaign caused by the death of his father.

Stocky and curly-haired, Ali Bongo is one of two of the late president’s children who have occupied key posts — his elder sister Pascaline served as her father’s chief-of-staff from 1994 until his death.

Omar Bongo liked to claim that the two children who worked for him were only there because of their talent, and not due to nepotism.

Well before Omar Bongo’s drawn-out illness and death, it became clear that his son had his eye on the presidency, despite some opposition in the ruling Gabonese Democratic Party (PDG) and the shadow of corruption left by his father who was under investigation in France over the ownership of luxury properties.


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