by DAVID AXE
Omar Bongo, the 73-year-old president of Gabon, in West Africa, died of natural causes on June 8, after 42 years in office. He was the world’s longest-serving, elected head of state, as well as one of its wealthiest — having carefully tailored the nation’s laws to both keep himself in office and fatten his many foreign bank accounts.
Bongo left behind a country so accustomed to his rule that his death sparked a nationwide security clamp-down . . . as well as a furious scramble, by his scores of close relatives, to pilfer Bongo’s stashes of cash and to position themselves as potential successors. The Gabonese constitution requires an election within 90 days of the president’s death. It’s not clear, yet, who might run — or even if the election will take place at all, let alone on time.
The president’s death came just two months after a major, U.S. Navy mission to two Gabonese cities, involving around 500 sailors (pictured), doctors, diplomats and scientists. The so-called “Africa Partnership Station,” anchored by the amphibious ship USS Nashville, delivered millions of dollars worth of medical, scientific, economic and training assistance. As the Pentagon’s premier, annual “smart-power” initiative, Africa Partnership Station aimed to help stabilize all of West Africa, by building international alliances — and by better integrating Gabon, and its neighbors, into the global economy. Africa Partnership Station also visited Gabon in 2008.
Despite the best U.S. intentions, such missions ironically risk encouraging countries’ isolation — a dilemma underscored by Bongo’s death. “Smart” Pentagon missions, with their rich gifts of military, humanitarian and economic aid, are meant to give developing countries a sustainable “hand up.” But corrupt regimes often see that assistance as a handout. After Nashville‘s visit, Bongo’s Gabon remained as deeply corrupt, frighteningly inefficient and impoverished, as before. The uncertainty gripping the country in the wake of Bongo’s passing highlights how little progress it has made, despite decades of sustained, foreign aid.
(Photo: David Axe)