Who is Gabon’s Ali Bongo?
The 59-year-old son of former President Omar Bongo has made few public appearances since suffering a stroke in October.
President Ali Bongo has been an ever present figure in Gabonese lives since he took power in 2009 following the death of his father, Omar Bongo, who ruled the oil-rich nation for 42 years.
But since October, Bongo has been away from the capital, Libreville, after suffering a stroke while attending a summit in Saudi Arabia.
Born in the Congolese city of Brazzaville in 1959 to a mother aged 15 at the time, the small but stocky Bongo spent his early years fighting speculation that he was not Gabonese.
He was born before his parents were officially married.
After a short stint serenading audiences, Bongo – who was known by his initials ABO, Ali B or less flatteringly, “Monsieur Fils” (Mr Son) – gave up a career in music to emerge a “new man”, changing his name from Alain to Ali, after converting to Islam like his father.
Massive oil wealth
Omar Bongo, the father who ruled for more than four decades virtually unobstructed, amassed a huge fortune, derived largely from Gabon‘s sizeable oil wealth.
A central pillar in “Centrafrique”, a controversial strategy through which former colonial power France bound itself to its former dominions through cronyism, Bongo senior liked to claim that Ali and his elder sister Pascaline worked for him on the basis of their talent, and not nepotism.
As a young man, Bongo worked as his father’s faithful lieutenant, travelling the world and building up extensive contacts in the United States and the Arab world at the time of the second oil boom.
In 1989, he was appointed foreign minister at just 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 as the head of the defence ministry. There, he remained until shortly before the start of the election campaign caused by the death of his father in 2009.
His lavish spending, especially on luxury cars, also raised eyebrows in a country where oil wealth contrasts with widespread poverty.
The handover to Bongo junior was not a surprise, given the years of grooming and his own ambitions, despite some opposition in the ruling Gabonese Democratic Party (PDG), and the shadow of corruption left by his father.
In 2016, he was narrowly re-elected for a second term by a few thousand votes, beating out opposition challenger Jean Ping after a campaign marred by bloody clashes and allegations of voter fraud.
Pitching to a country that had been run for decades by his family, Bongo tried the difficult task of posing as an agent of change – packing each speech with words such as “renewal” and “innovation”.
He unveiled a string of projects, including diversifying the economy, opening up markets to Asian investors, trimming the state sector, building a giant marina in the heart of Libreville.
Bongo turfed out a string of long-standing officials and replaced them with a younger generation – “he wanted to chase away his father’s ghost and exercise control”, a diplomatic observer said.
But to his detractors, Bongo was stiff and lacked the charm and communication skills of his father.
He attended some of Brazzaville’s top schools and went on to study law in France, the former colonial power, but did not learn any of Gabon’s local languages – a major disadvantage.
In 1978, Bongo married Sylvia, a Franco-Gabonese with whom he has four children.