Africa’s longest-serving leader, Gabon’s Omar Bongo, died in a Spanish hospital earlier this week. I was immediately intrigued and thought it would be a good topic for this week’s history podcast. What does it take to rule a country like Gabon for more than four decades? Bongo is described as charismatic but also ruthless. He’s praised for Gabon’s stability even as he’s accused of vast corruption. Big questions remain about how the Gabonese president was able to amass his wealth and in fact French authorities had begun an investigation of his assets there. He’s also been accused of funding the campaigns of various French political figures including former French president Jacques Chirac. To find out more I turned to the political scientist James F. Barnes. He’s the author of Gabon: Beyond the Colonial Legacy and co-editor of Culture, Politics and Ecology in the Gabonese Rainforest. Jim is a a professor at Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina. He says Gabon’s people respected Bongo but that his legacy is a country with a weak civil society and a big divide between rich and poor. What strikes Barnes most is what a skilled politician Bongo was, how well he navigated a variety of friendships and alliances with powerful people, especially in France. Barnes says the influence of the French in Gabon is extraordinary.
It’s the thing that stands out in the minds of people who spend any time there–the extent to which Gabon and France are historically inseparable. The interactions that create the situation that we’re now dealing with, post-Bongo, those situations are due largely to a structure of power and influence involving many Gabonese but also involving key French historical personalities in the 19th and 20th centuries. The Gabonese in many occasions almost identify themselves as French.
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