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Commentary: Was that a dinosaur who just died?

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 16, 2009 - My apologies to the Gabonese people if I offend: Their president, Omar Bongo, age 73 and in office for at least 41 years, died on June 8 of a heart attack, and I presume to ask if a dinosaur had died. Yet dinosaur he was, ruling his country since 1967, the dean of long-term dictators in Africa, a title that now passes to our best north African friend, Moammar Khadafy, age 67, the ruler of Libya since he led a coup d'etat in 1969.

I should add that the line behind Khadafy is sizable, including Eduardo Dos Santos of Angola (age 66 and 30 years in office); Denis Sassou-Nguesso of Congo/Brazzaville (30 years, now 66); Teodoro Obiang Nguema of Equatorial Guinea (30 years, now 67); Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe (29 years, now 85); Hosni Mubarak of Egypt (27 years, now 76); Paul Biya of Cameroon (27 years, now 76); Yoweri Museveni of Uganda (23 years, now 65) and King Mswati III of Swaziland (24 years, but still young at 41).

To be sure, these are not dinosaurs meekly waiting in line to be extinguished; they are very much alive and hanging on for dear life, limb, fortune and office, all fabulously wealthy (the term "kleptocrat" - thief in office - was coined to describe them) from the spoils of office, a gift that obviously keeps giving. Bongo may well have been one of the wealthiest men in the world.

The late Mobutu Sese Seko, who ruled Zaire (now Democratic Congo) for 31.5 years, was estimated to have amassed more than $5 billion during his lifetime. Bongo, and now his family, have real estate holdings, bank deposits and other wealth said by the French authorities (who are investigating his hoard to see if they can find corrupt transactions) to be worth at least $6 billion to $8 billion.

What made Bongo and makes Khadafy and the other long-term kleptocrats into dinosaurs is not their age (all except Mswati are close to involuntary retirement), but that predators such as Bongo are no longer tolerated by an increasing number of Africans who are painfully beginning to see that dictatorship - be it by one man, a coterie of autocrats, a bundle of kleptocrats or a military junta - will not give them the better life they crave.

Democratic governance -- all too often flawed, challenged, subject to human error -- is still better than the diktat of even so allegedly benevolent a ruler as Omar Bongo. Gabon has 1.4 million people and sells oil to the world. It is very rich, but that wealth has gone mostly to Bongo's family. friends, cronies and institutional clients, including a procession of French businessmen, politicians and presidents upon whom Bongo lavished sumptuous gifts and contributions.

Bongo, only 5'3" tall but capable of giant cruelties, ran Gabon as a family enterprise. One had only to visit Gabon's capital, Libreville, and any taxi driver (most have been from Cameroon, since foreigners do much of Gabon's heavy lifting) could point out the palaces, estates, offices and public buildings owned by the president, his wives, his brothers, his son, his daughters and other miscellaneous members of the family.

Suffice it to note that the general standard of living of most Gabonese is quite low, hardly commensurate with the petrodollar profits that flow daily into the Bongo coffers. And it should be added that about half of those living in Gabon are from neighboring countries, subject to the vagaries of Gabonese law and the capricious, all-too-frequent mass expulsion orders that chase hundreds from the country.

The political dinosaurs will try to hang on as long as possible, but their time will come. My African friends like to repeat an old political axiom: "Presidents-for-life usually serve out their terms," adding, "one way or another." And indeed, all too often, the dinosaurs, young or old, do not die of natural causes, but are removed violently, to face either death, or disgrace, or exile, or now, legal wrath. That's how Mobutu (Zaire) was removed, as well as Charles Taylor (Liberia), Moussa Traore (Mali), and Hissene Habre (Chad) and so on.

There are better ways to change regimes and remove dinosaurs from their hunting grounds; the current governments of Mali, Senegal, South Africa, Mozambique, Liberia, Botswana, Mauritius, Namibia, Kenya, Zambia, Malawi, Benin and Nigeria have all found those ways, and -- however much they stumble along the democratic path -- they've been able to protect their people from the dinosaurs and remain accountable to their citizens.

Goodbye, Omar Bongo, and please forgive me if I don't mourn your passing!

Victor T. Le Vine is a professor emeritus of political science at Washington University in St. Louis and a lifelong student of African affairs.