Omar Bongo Ondimba of Gabon, one the longest-serving rulers in history, opened his newly-independent country’s political system to multiple party participation in the wake of destructive riots in May 1990. As a young man, he held key positions in the government of first President Léon M’ba, was elected Vice President in 1966 and became Gabon’s second president when M’ba died. Bongo served as president of the small sub-Saharan African country for 42 years, from 1967 until his own death in June 2009.
Gabon was prosperous under his rule thanks to a huge resource of oil and a small population, but the millions went to the coffers of Bongo’s family and friends rather than to improve the health conditions of the population or infrastructure of the nation. Although Gabon had one of the highest levels of GDP growth in Africa, it also had one of the highest infant mortality rates in the world under Bongo’s rule.
U.S. Ambassador to Gabon from 1989-1992 Keith L. Wauchope recalled his experiences with Omar Bongo and the riots that led to multi-party elections in an interview with Charles Stuart Kennedy in March 2002.
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“Bongo still has the money to co-opt his opponents”
Keith Wauchope, U.S. Ambassador to Gabon, 1989-1992
WAUCHOPE: What is most striking about Gabon is that it’s probably the most French-oriented former French colony in Africa. This residual French influence was really is extraordinary. The French are installed in command positions in the military, in the police, in the intelligence services… In addition, there were some 35,000 French nationals in Gabon. [Gabon gained independence from France August 17, 1960. President Bongo is seen at left with French President Jacques Chirac.]
At that time , the French population was increasing during that time rather than declining as elsewhere in Africa, and this was 30 years after independence. Historically France had a played very active role in Gabon. In the post-independence period, in 1964, there was a coup which unseated Léon M’ba. His opponents took over the presidential palace and detained M’ba. French paratroopers put him back in power citing the mutual defense treaty…
The French made it clear they weren’t going to tolerate a leader that they did not control. The French were concerned about their oil revenues from the very substantial operation of Elf, which in that country is known as Elf Gabon.
There were French–owned uranium and manganese mines as well. They also had a very active timber industry. These were very lucrative activities and they were not going to have them jeopardized by untried people that they didn’t know. M’ba was their man. The he got cancer and died in 1967.
When M’ba’s demise was inevitable the French began to groom his successor, Omar Bongo, a former sergeant in the French army. The French knew Bongo reasonably well and he was essentially anointed by the French to become the president. He’s been the president ever since and is to this day, but from my perspective, it wasn’t a bad choice. [M’ba is seen at right.]
Bongo is from the Bateke group, from the southeastern part of the country. It probably has less than one percent of the population, and the larger part of his tribe were over in the Congo Brazzaville. As a result he didn’t bring with him any of the animosities that the tribal divisions cause.
The dominant tribe, the largest single group, was the Fang, who are about 38% of the population. If the Fang controlled the government, there would have been an intense resentment by the minority tribes in the middle and southern part of the country. In many ways Bongo was an ideal candidate from that perspective.
Before my departure for Libreville I spoke with four of my predecessors about Gabon. They all said that Bongo was “the only game in town,” the power source of the whole government. They were absolutely correct.
When you visit the Presidential Palace when Bongo is in town, people are scurrying around with dossiers under their arms, everybody’s alert and active. When Bongo is out of the country or out of the city, people are literally asleep at their desks, and everything seems to come to a halt.
Bongo is a very bright, street-smart leader. He long ago learned that Gabon’s petroleum the resources, some 300,000+ barrels a day, are the primary source of his leverage on the world stage. Although Gabon is one of the smallest members of the OPEC, Bongo still has the money to co-opt his opponents.
If they get out of hand or become obstreperous, his first inclination is to try to buy them off. He will either appoint them to posts overseas or he’ll just give them a sum of money to keep them quiet. That approach had worked for many, many years.
“If the people in a police state like Romania can overthrow their ruler, why couldn’t they do the same?”
By 1989 this approach was beginning to wear a bit thin. The pressure for greater political participation, which was going on throughout Africa to a certain extent at that time, emerged in Gabon in the classic manner.
Agitation started at the university over the deteriorating campus and the students’ inability to petition the government for redress. The urge toward democratic reform was a process that, in part reflected what was happening in the USSR and in Eastern Europe. How this movement infected the Gabonese body politic was exceptional.
Bongo is something of a techno-freak. One thing that his money had bought him was a nationwide satellite television service installed by Scientific Atlanta. There was live, direct satellite television broadcast to all the nine regional capitals. They received live feeds from all over the world.
One of these feeds in the latter part of November was the overthrow of [Nicolae] Ceausescu in Romania [who ruled from 1965-1989.] You may recall that Ceausescu (seen left) was first challenged when a support rally he had organized turned against him.
He came out on the balcony and everything and raises his hand expecting the crowds’ adulation and instead of the cheers, he gets boos. He was flabbergasted, and quickly withdrew from the balcony. He immediately faced major strikes and demonstrations. He was then deposed and executed within a matter of weeks.
The Gabonese looked at these events and saw an extraordinary irony in that Ceausescu had been in power about the same period of time that Bongo had been in power, some 23 years. They thought to themselves, if the people in a police state like Romania can overthrow their ruler, why couldn’t they do the same?
By contrast to Ceausescu, Bongo was a relatively benign ruler. Why did they have to put up with a single party government? It really did inspire them to test the system. As I say, they decided that this was a time to challenge Bongo’s hold on the country.
Shortly after I arrived this issue was becoming acute. Bongo kept saying, it’s okay, we can work it out; we can accommodate all these different perspectives and points of view without having to revert to violence or street demonstrations. This approach worked for a while, then the university students defied him, and he closed the university.
The university students then went to the lycée students, the elite schools from where most of them had graduated. They persuaded those students to walk out and go on strike. They shut the lyceés down and went out into the streets. Then the kids from other secondary schools, even primary schools were out on the streets as well.
“He’d never really been challenged, certainly not by widespread street demonstrations”
The ambassador’s residence at that time, as it had been since the time since we opened our Embassy in Gabon, was located above what was called the Carrefour de Rio. It was like the peoples’ area. It had been developed first as a squatter area; now it was a commercial residential neighborhood.
The main street below our residence was the primary route out of the capital into the interior of the country. These students and local kids, unleashed from school, installed themselves on the hillside just below us. They looted first a soft drink truck, then a beer truck, which was worse. They started throwing bottles of soda and beer at passing cars and trucks which had to run a gauntlet.
From a kid’s perspective, this was the greatest possible sport. We were observing this from up above them. We could see this whole process evolve. For a high school kid you can’t imagine a more enjoyable time, especially seeing these cars weaving around below them dodging the bottles they were hurling down. Of course, they were taking a swig of beer from time to time.
Bongo was apparently stunned. He’d run a very efficient and tranquil regime for 23 years and he’d never really been challenged, certainly not by widespread street demonstrations… At first he sent the police out to restore order. The police looked at the numbers of people on the streets and realized that they could not handle this crowd, so they backed off and monitored the situation. This emboldened the rioters.
During the daylight hours, they were mostly these high school students. They started getting rougher stopping car and sometimes dragging out the drivers and beat them or chase them off. Then they’d set the cars on fire. That became a more serious proposition.
That first night was when events began to get out of control. They set fire to trucks that had been parked or that were stopped by the rioters. There were three trucks down below the residence that they set on fire. They burned all night long.
At night the rioters were no longer high school students, but rather the indigent and underclasses who wanted to take advantage of the turmoil, especially because the police were not intervening. Bongo had mobilized the gendarmes as well, but they also kept their distance.
We followed events from the residence on the hill above the crossroads and could see both the rioters and the police. Libreville is a very sophisticated town. There were mercury vapor lamps along the roads, and everything was still functioning. You could see the police massed on the far hill and all these vehicles burning below us. The rioters then started looting stores across the street from us. The first shops looted belonged to foreigners, Senegalese and Guineans. They were a small merchants and tailors.
This attack on other Africans reflected the fact that Gabon, a country that claims a population of about 1.2 million people, in reality has probably no more than 600,000 to 800,000 Gabonese and the rest are other Africans who came to Gabon for the high wages. They kept the country going. [Photo from 2009.]
Nonetheless, they were resented by the Gabonese who claimed that they took jobs away from the Gabonese, and as merchants, they became the creditors. So this unsettled time gave the Gabonese a chance to strike back against the foreign Africans.
The rioting that first night came to an end when a hardware store just down the street from us was set on fire. The fire ignited paint and turpentine, and the flames rose three stories into the air. Finally, the gendarmes and the fire department moved in before the entire neighborhood was destroyed. They brought the fire under control. It didn’t pose a real threat for our compound as we had over seven acres, plenty of buffer between ourselves and the fire.
The rioters had no animus toward the Americans. They knew that the Americans were there on the hill. I said to our household staff and the family, let’s not show too much interest in these events, just be discreet about our interest in it. I was radioing information in to the marine guard at the embassy and the security officer. Most of the activity that night was in our area. The first night wound down after the fire was extinguished.
“Who am I going to shoot, for God’s sake?”
The next morning, it seemed to quiet down, and the military were out in force patrolling the roads. I went to work, and my older boy was at the American school, and my younger boy was in daycare. My wife went downtown to do some chores.
The trouble started again in the early afternoon. It really began to get out of control, so they closed the American School. My son was brought to the embassy and my wife had already picked up the little boy and took him home. She returned downtown to bring home the older boy.
The three of us were all at the Embassy (seen right), and the rioting was spreading. We waited as long as we could, but as the Libreville is just north of the equator, the sun sets at 6:20 and it’s completely dark. The movement would be impossible.
At about 5:00 we decided we had to choose what to do. We didn’t want to spend the night at the Embassy because our younger son was home with the nanny, and we certainly didn’t want to make the trip at night…
[Our Regional Security Officer] was a former DC police officer… She said, “Well, if you have to get back there, you take the lightly armored vehicle.” The ambassador’s vehicle had bullet-proof windows. It was a big Impala with a bomb proof apparatus on the bottom.
She said, “Here take my pistol.”
I said, “What am I going to do with a pistol? Who am I going to shoot for God’s sake? I’m not going to take any pistol.”
I told her that security of the American diplomats is the responsibility of the Government of Gabon. She was to call them through her contacts and tell them that I have to return to my residence and I need whatever they consider to be an appropriate escort. Sure enough at about 5:30 the gendarmes showed up with an armored car and a van with wire covered windows. They said they’d get us back home.
Well, there were groups of rioters looking for trouble, and there were tires burning in the streets. We headed out in the direction of the residence and then we detoured. The next thing I know we’re up at the headquarters of what was known as securité mobile, the elite mobile security unit. I was surprised because I didn’t see any French advisors.
There was a Gabonese lieutenant colonel who said I should not drive to the residence in our own vehicle. Saying the vehicle will get all banged up. They persuaded me to leave the vehicle there and to drive in his vehicles that are designed for riots. At this point I was thinking that historically Gabonese had never faced a challenge to its security to this extent. If I threw my lot in with the security forces, am I not seeming to be taking sides with Bongo?
At the same time, of course, I’ve got my family with me. This was a time that the family had to come first. I did want to get back to the house. My two year old son was at home and he wouldn’t be able to understand that his mom wasn’t there. So, I grilled this colonel to be sure he knew exactly where I lived. I made him pinpoint on a map where I lived. I then asked him to tell me what was going on there. [Photo from 2015]
He said, “Well, it’s not unlike it was last night. There are rioters all over that area. They’re looting the stores and our gendarmes are drawn up on this hill on the opposite side of the road, but we will come in an adequate force if necessary, to make sure that they don’t harm you.” I figured that at least the guy knows what he’s talking about, and he did have radio communication with these vehicles.
We were put in the van with the wire over the windows following a French-made six wheeled armored car. The troops were standing in the hatches with their rifles. We went down from the hill and around what we called the beltway west of the city and exited near the residence. We came off at the interchange and at the top and you’re in the commercial area across from the residence. Everything had gone reasonably well to that point.
“When we roared ahead, I was afraid they’d run over somebody and we’d have a martyr”
There had been some burning tires along the beltway, but when we came up the ramp and it was like Dante’s Inferno. There were fires everywhere. There were buildings on fire and tires burning in the street. There were rioters by the hundreds if not thousands, and they were now looting the Lebanese stores. It was one thing to steal from the Senegalese, but the Lebanese had the real good stuff. They were smashing in the steel doors were trying to get into their stores.
As we came roaring up the exit ramp the armored car in the lead the rioters were startled and scattered immediately. But as we came out onto the street, there was a burning obstruction in the road, a combination of burning tires and junk. The armored car stopped and the driver tried to figure out how to proceed. The gendarmes had the good sense not to fire risking creating martyrs.
When the rioter realized there was only one armored car and a small van in our convoy, they quickly regained their courage and moved forward stoning our vehicles. The troops in the armored car buttoned it up, closed the hatches. The stones were hitting our vehicle and it was getting a bit dicey.
The officer in command in our vehicle radioed to the armored car, “Just push that junk out of the way, for God’s sake.” The armored car backed up and then hit the gas and banged through the barricade with us following close behind. He then charged up toward our driveway.
Our driveway ran parallel to the road and was a fairly steep incline. When we roared ahead, I was afraid they’d run over somebody, and we’d have a martyr. The Americans would then be implicated in killing some hapless rioter. When the armored car got to our gate, my guards wouldn’t let it in.
There was an obvious screw-up as our staff had been told about our plans. There was a brief brouhaha about that, while the rioters began to pull in behind us. Finally the gates opened and we rushed in. I thanked all the gendarmes when we got to the house, and they immediately turned around and headed back out. [Photo from 2009]
They plowed through the crowd without incident, but did nothing about the ongoing looting. I guess the Gabonese thought that, as for the Lebanese, you pay your money and you take your chances, and that’s the way it goes. The rioters thoroughly looted all the stores and took everything they could carry off.
This situation continued for a third day and by which time Bongo had obviously realized that he had to deal with the new reality. As I say, he is a very street-smart fellow. First he let the mob satiate itself over a period of time and work out its frustrations, all the while exhausting itself in the effort. Finally on the third day he brought in his military in unparalleled force. That opened the streets and drove the rioters into cover. He established a curfew and brought order back in the capital.