Omar Bongo Ondimba was president of Gabon for 41 years and by the time of his death in 2009 he had fathered as many as 50 children. In this crowded field, he was succeeded by the French-educated Ali Bongo, one of seven “official sons” and a jazz-funk musician.

Ali, 64, who was elected president just months after his father’s death, only this week became the latest African head of state to be ousted in a coup. Thousands flooded the streets of the seaside capital Libreville to celebrate the apparent demise of the Bongo dynasty.

“The army decided to turn a new page,” said Brice Oligui Nguema, a longtime Bongos confidant and the head of the presidential guard who led the coup. Nguema, Ali’s cousin, said the president, who suffered a stroke in 2018, was incapable of running the country and that the election he was supposed to win was opaque after internet shutdowns and delays in counting votes.

Ali, whose real name is Alain Bernard, has spent 14 years in the presidency trying to shake off the perception that Gabon, a forested country of 2.4 million people, is little more than a family slush fund.

Ali was eight years old when his father became president in 1967, and the boy was sent to be educated in the wealthy Paris suburb of Neuilly. Fluent in French and English, but not Gabonese, he graduated in law from the Sorbonne University.

Jacques Chirac and Gabonese President Omar Bongo tour Libreville in an official Rolls-Royce during the two-day visit of the French President to Gabon in July 1996
Inside the car, from left: then-French President Jacques Chirac and then-Gabonian leader Omar Bongo. Both works were exhibited during Chirac’s visit to Gabon in July 1996 © AFP via Getty Images

“In life, children are influenced by what their parents do,” he told the Financial Times in a 2012 interview, dismissing the notion that he shouldn’t follow his father’s footsteps. “How many doctors’ sons became doctors? How many lawyers’ sons became lawyers?” he asked.

However, Omar Bongo, who was born into a farming family in the Batque region of Gabon, was not a doctor or a lawyer. After his improbable ascent to the presidency, he lived like a king and renamed the town of his birth, Lewai, to Bongoville.

As his country became rich on oil, producing some 230,000 barrels a day, he spent vast sums on mansions, cars and, allegedly, women.

Miss Peru Ivette Santa Maria, 22, described how she flew to Libreville and was proposed by the leader of Gabon, then 67. “He pushed a button and some sliding doors opened to reveal a large bed,” she told The Associated Press.

Bongo Sr. amassed a large fortune in France. A 2007 French police report said the Bongo family owned 39 properties in France, including some exclusive addresses. Prized possessions include a luxury Parisian estate on the Rue Université, acquired from the aristocratic Pozzo di Borgo family, and a collection of luxury cars including Ferraris and Mercedes.

Old Bongo was the embodiment of the continuing close relationship between African leaders and France, which came to be known as the ” Fafei. The two countries are so close that even after independence in 1960, three headings still stuck to mailboxes in Libreville: Gabon, France and Foreign.

On April 30, 2016, Gabonese President Ali Bongo set fire to a pile of ivory in Nairobi National Park.
In April 2016, Ali Bongo set fire to an ivory pile in Nairobi National Park, Kenya. A staunch conservationist, he staked his reputation on protecting the vast numbers of gorillas and elephants that inhabit Gabon’s vast forests © Carl De Souza/AFP/Getty Images

Omar, who has allegedly financed the presidential campaigns of French politicians such as Jacques Chirac and Nicolas Sarkozy, said of the symbiotic relationship: “Gabon without France is like a car without a driver. France without Gabon is like a car without fuel.”

After his father’s death, Ali became more timid and serious, trying to reshape the country’s image. He joined the Commonwealth last year in an attempt to widen Gabon’s ties. A staunch conservationist, he has staked his reputation on protecting the vast numbers of gorillas and elephants that inhabit the vast forests that cover about 90 percent of the country.

In 2010, he banned the export of unprocessed logs and encouraged investment in processing wood into furniture and finished products. As oil reserves start to dry up, he’s trying to turn the country into a “green superpower,” one that could earn billions in carbon credits.

Gabon is one of the few countries that absorbs more carbon than it emits. Last month, it negotiated a $500 million debt-for-nature swap, arranged by Bank of America, freeing up $163 million for ocean conservation.

Still, Bongo Jr. remained close to celebrities such as Britain’s King Charles III, with whom he shared an interest in conservation, and the likes of footballer Lionel Messi and the late singer Michael Jackson Closely, he entertained them in Libreville. He often played jazz piano for visiting dignitaries.

Ali Bongo shakes hands with soccer player Lionel Messi at the construction site of the new stadium in Port Gentil, Gabon
Ali Bongo (right) hangs out with celebrities including footballer Lionel Messi (left) © Gérauds Wilfried Obangome/Reuters

Mark Pursey, chief executive of BTP Advisers, who advised Bongo on his recent election strategy, said the president had already changed the perception of Gabon somewhat. “You go to newsstands in Gabon and you see opposition papers. This is not a Stalinist country,” he said. “In his father’s day, that was simply not allowed.”

Percy said Bongo was polling well personally, though his government’s performance had been criticized, particularly its ability to turn the country’s vast (albeit declining) oil wealth into infrastructure, jobs and opportunity.

Bongo’s environmental policies have worked better abroad than at home, he said. Domestically, farmers blame elephants for destroying their crops, and there are concerns that protecting forests is incompatible with development.

Percy said Bongo liked to come across as a reluctant president. “Ali is very shy and humble. He would be happy to be a musician,” he said.

Transition leader Nguema told Le Monde this week that Bongo, currently under house arrest, would finally get his wish. “He’s retired with all his rights,” he said. “He was an ordinary Gabonese like everyone else.”

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