A Darling of the West, He Wore Out His Welcome at Home

As the all-powerful ruler of oil-rich Gabon, Ali Bongo Ondimba had two passions, music and forests, that forged powerful ties across the world.

An accomplished musician, Mr. Bongo recorded a disco-funk album and lured James Brown and Michael Jackson to Gabon. As president, he built a music studio at his seaside palace and played improv jazz to foreign diplomats at state dinners.

More recently, Mr. Bongo allied with Western scientists and conservationists, entranced by both the paradisiacal beauty of Gabon, an Arizona-sized country covered in lush rainforest and teeming with wildlife, and by his commitment to protecting it.

But to his own people, Mr. Bongo, 64, embodied a family dynasty, founded by his father, which had dominated Gabon for 56 years — until this week, when it came crashing down.

Military officers seized power on Wednesday, hours after election officials declared Mr. Bongo the winner of a disputed election last weekend. Few saw it coming, not least the president. When his own guards came for him, Mr. Bongo seemed genuinely bewildered.

“I don’t know what’s going on,” Mr. Bongo, speaking from his home, said in a video that was authenticated and circulated by some of his many Western advisers. “I’m calling on you to make noise.”

It was the latest in a blaze of military takeovers of African countries, toppling weak governments. (“Déjà coup,” said one analyst from Sudan, which had its own coup in 2021.) But while other takeovers were prompted by violent upheaval, in peaceful Gabon it was something else: A sign that the Bongo rule, which held fast for a half-century, had run its course.

There was no sign of Mr. Bongo on Thursday, a day after his plaintive cry for help. The coup leader Gen. Brice Oligui Nguema — a cousin of Mr. Bongo — announced he would be sworn in as “transitional president” next Monday.

Other African leaders, fearing they might be next, took precautions. In neighboring Cameroon, President Paul Biya — in office for 40 years and, at age 90, the world’s oldest serving leader — announced a sudden reshuffle of his country’s military leadership. So, too, did Rwanda, which like Gabon has for decades been ruled by one man.

As Mr. Bongo’s fate hung in the balance, reactions differed. Foreign conservationists expressed worries about what comes next for a country that worked so hard to to preserve its pristine forests and seas. Just last month, Gabon negotiated a landmark $500 million debt refinancing deal that freed $163 million for marine protection.

“A power vacuum could lead to a free-for-all where poaching, illegal logging and deforestation increase,” said Simon Lewis, a professor of global change science at University College London, who has advised Gabon on climate policy. “The prospect of the Gabonese people gaining major income from their forests could evaporate.”

In Libreville, Gabon’s crowded seaside capital, the verdict was more mixed. “I am free!” cried Alaphine, a young woman in a crowd of coup of supporters who declined to give a surname. But Christopher Ngondjet, a 25-year-old law student, said he felt torn.

He welcomed a change from the Bongos, he said, but worried about military rule. “The president did a lot of good things, especially with the environment,” he said. “I don’t know if the generals will have the same interest.”

In many ways, Gabon has more in common with some Persian Gulf states than with its African neighbors. It has a tiny population of 2.3 million people, huge oil wealth and a country that is sparsely inhabited; 88 percent of the land is forest and roads are few.

As oil prices soared in the last quarter of the 20th century, the Bongo family reigned like an undeclared monarchy. President Omar Bongo took power in 1967 and became a close ally of France, Gabon’s former colonial ruler. By most estimates, he fathered at least 53 children with different women, a means of cementing political alliances.

After Omar Bongo died in 2009, the torch passed to Ali, one of his seven “official” sons, who won the presidential election that year.

The Bongos loved the baubles of super wealth — the Bentleys, the Parisian villas, the vacations on the Côte d’Azur. Ali Bongo frequently rode around Libreville in a Rolls-Royce and socialized with King Mohammed of Morocco, an old friend who has a private palace in Gabon.

French investigators accused Mr. Bongo and his family of corruption. But what distinguished their country from nearby oil-rich kleptocracies, like Equatorial Guinea, was that some wealth also flowed down.

Education and health care levels are significantly higher in Gabon than elsewhere in the region. Gifted students are sent to France on government scholarships. Its timber industry provides 30,000 jobs, largely thanks to Mr. Bongo’s insistence that value be added in Gabon, not abroad.

With its orderly markets and palm-lined corniche, Libreville lacks the constant chaos of neighboring capitals. The U.S. Agency for International Development classifies Gabon as a middle-income country.

Certainly, poverty is rife: a report by McKinsey in 2013 estimated that 30 percent of Gabonese lived on $140 a month. Yet even in the poorest parts of Libreville living conditions are better than in much of the region.

Mr. Bongo’s kitchen cabinet is filled with Western advisers who stroll through government offices and in one case was appointed a minister: Lee White, a British-born scientist, who since 2019 has been minister of water, forests, the sea and environment.

About 15 years ago, Mr. Bongo began focusing on the country’s forests — home to western lowland gorillas, forest elephants, chimps and mandrills, and part of the Congo Basin, one of the world’s most important carbon sinks.

Omar Bongo, created 13 national parks covering 10 percent of Gabon’s landmass, and Ali Bongo continued that passion. He flew by helicopter to his private reserve, where he kept lions, tigers, cheetahs, cougars and leopards.

He became a regular at international climate conferences, and courted powerful, wealthy allies. Last year King Charles, who has praised Mr. Bongo’s policies, welcomed him to Buckingham Palace. On a visit to Gabon, Jeff Bezos, the Amazon founder, pledged $35 million for forest preservation.

Mr. Bongo’s advocacy was partly driven by self-interest. It burnished his foreign image and opened doors to a potential fortune in carbon credits — billions of dollars that Mr. Bongo has urged the West to pay Gabon to help preserve its rainforests.

But foreign officials who met Mr. Bongo said his soft-spoken, genteel manner could vanish as he enthused about nature. In a 2016 interview with the Times, Mr. Bongo reminisced about growing up with a pet Siberian tiger and gushed over his current pets in the presidential reserve. “There are so many,” he said, ticking off the names of some of his lions, Goliath and Greta, and a cheetah called Sahara.

But Mr. Bongo’s system began to show cracks. After the financial crash of 2008, a fall in oil prices hit Gabon hard. As the economy slumped, inequality grew more pronounced.

The fleets of Mercedes and Rolls-Royce cars that rolled through the small streets of the capital, parking at fancy seafood restaurants or outside the president’s palace, began to jar more than usual.

In forest communities, farmers complained that growing numbers of hungry elephants — a direct result of Mr. Bongo’s anti-poaching efforts — were eating their crops. Despite oil revenues, they complained, passable roads barely existed outside the capital. “Let the elephants vote for him,” was a slogan of critics during the 2016 election.

In that vote, Mr. Bongo bared his knuckles to stay in power. In his strongholds, voter turnout was an improbable 99 percent. Security forces encircled the opposition party headquarters and at least one person was killed.

Daniel Mengara, founder of the exiled opposition group Bongo Must Go, said oil revenues did help Gabon’s people, but the Bongos skimmed off too much. “We deserve better than what we’ve got and what we’ve got is misery,” he said.

In 2019 Mr. Bongo suffered a stroke and disappeared for 10 months, re-emerging with a cane. His relationship with France faltered: He welcomed Chinese and other investment, and last year Gabon joined the British Commonwealth.

Since 2020, a series of coups has shaken West Africa: first in Mali, then Burkina Faso, Guinea, Sudan and, last month, Niger. Despite threats and sanctions from African and Western powers, none was reversed.

President Bola Tinubu of Nigeria warned of a “contagion of autocracy,” with emboldened soldiers in other countries deciding they should take over, too.

Few imagined Mr. Bongo was in immediate danger. But then he pushed ahead with a contentious election, and the coup makers, led by his own cousin, brought contagion to his door.

Declan Walsh reported from Nairobi, Kenya, and Dionne Searcey from New York. Yann Leyimangoye contributed reporting from Libreville, Gabon.

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