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Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Having a laugh with Omar Bongo

French President Jacques Chirac and Omar Bongo touring Libreville in a official Rolls Royce in 1996
 Africa without France is like a car without a driver. But France without Africa is like a car without petrol 
Omar Bongo
 

Having a laugh with Omar Bongo

Omar Bongo in 1978 (left), in 2003 French President Jacques Chirac welcomes Omar Bongo to a meeting (centre), Omar Bongo in 2003 (right)

African commentator and National Public Radio correspondent Ofeibea Quist-Arcton remembers her encounters with Omar Bongo, who died on Monday after serving as Gabon's leader for 42 years:

There are two things that come to mind when I remember President Omar Bongo.

The first is that I could swear I once saw Bongo in Cuban heels - and I am convinced he wore built-up shoes to give himself a little extra height.

 Bongo would publicly cut people down to size - including other heads of state or former presidents - without a second thought 

He was shorter than me - and, believe me, Ofeibea Quist-Arcton is no giant.

Secondly, Omar Bongo had a wicked sense of humour. He really did.

I was not one of the journalists in Bongo's francophone circle, but he shared jokes with all and sundry and sounded very pleased with his punch-lines and stories.

I have been wracking my brain to recall our first encounter.

Was it at an African summit, somewhere on the continent, when we waited hours to interview him?

Or was it while covering a return to multiparty elections in Gabon in 1993, killing time in a marble-tiled waiting room somewhere in Libreville?

Gabon, incidentally, was the only African country I have visited where the candidates - presidential and other - appeared to campaign in four-wheel drive vehicles, hardly stopping to get down and talk to prospective voters.

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