LIBREVILLE, Gabon — Hundreds of thousands of people lined the streets of Gabon’s capital Tuesday to say farewell to late President Omar Bongo, whose flag-draped coffin was paraded through the heart of a nation he was accused of pillaging during four decades of rule.
The state funeral of 73-year-old Bongo began inside the marble halls of the presidential palace, a towering edifice he spent an estimated $800 million to build. The red carpet leading to his casket was strewn with white rose petals – flown in from France.
Nearly two dozen African heads of state, including several of the continent’s strongmen who themselves have ruled for decades, lined up to pay their respects.
Also on hand were Nicolas Sarkozy and Jacques Chirac – the current and former French presidents and the only Western heads of state to attend. Their presence, critics say, is evidence of France’s tacit backing of Bongo’s 41-year rule.
The pair arrived in a stretch limousine and were quickly escorted inside the palace as a group of people outside yelled, “No to France!”
Sarkozy and Chirac later approached the coffin together and stood before it with their eyes lowered. They laid down a wreath of roses. Then, each signed a condolence book.
Relations between Gabon and its former colonial master cooled after a French court two years ago launched an investigation into the late leader’s massive real estate holdings in France, which include at least 37 apartments in Paris alone.
Although Gabon produces billions of dollars in oil every year, one-third of its people live in poverty. Bongo was accused of using his country’s riches to fund not only an extravagant lifestyle, but also the campaigns of past French politicians.
“He made his country and his oil industry available as a source of offshore slush funds,” said political analyst Nicholas Shaxson, the author of a book on Africa’s oil states. “These were used by all the French political parties – from the left to the right – for secret party financing, and as a source of bribes in support of French commercial bids all over the world.”
By the time he died, Bongo had been in power longer than any leader in Africa. Last year, when Cuba’s Fidel Castro resigned after a 49-year-rule, that record made Bongo the world’s longest serving president.
Bongo checked into a Barcelona clinic specializing in treating cancer last month, according to officials there. The government continued to insist that he was well, holding a news conference to say he was fine just hours before his death June 8.
His body was flown back Thursday, and thousands of people lined up over the course of five days to pay their respects, some sleeping outside the gates of the presidential palace.
On Tuesday, Bongo’s casket was placed on the bed of a military truck and driven down Libreville’s main, sea-facing boulevard to the airport. It was then flown to his native province for burial on Thursday.
Women in colorful head dresses lined the highway and waved flags that said “Merci, Papa” – Thank you, Father.
Billboards carried messages of loss: “Father, watch over your children,” said one. “Great comrade, Gabon is forever grateful to you.”
Also on hand to pay their last respects: Chad’s President Idriss Deby, whose army is accused of using child soldiers. He bowed his head before the coffin. Paul Biya, who has ruled neighboring Cameroon for 26 years, placed a wreath of flowers at the foot of the coffin, as did Burkina Faso’s Blaise Compaore, in power for 22 years.
Unlike other strongmen, Bongo succeeded in holding on to power without resorting to widespread violence or torture. Instead, critics say he won opponents over with envelopes of cash.
Most people in Gabon have known no other president and view him as a kind of king – reacting with a shrug to reports of his wealth.
“There is enough misery in Gabon that the little people are too busy worrying about where their next piece of bread will come from to spend too much time thinking about the president’s apartments in Paris,” local pastor Jean Jacques Ndong said.
While many Gabonese are unwilling to criticize Bongo, some also said they would no longer accept unchecked rule.
“Never again will we give 40 years to a single person,” Jean Louis Itsika said. “The next person will get seven years. If he does a good job, maybe we’ll give him another seven. If not, then we’ll show him the door.”