Monday, June 15, 2009

Life on three continents: Of Ahmadinejad, Peter Costello and Omar Bongo

I was determined to write about Gabon today. After all, the West African nation has installed a female president Rose Francine Rogombé as an interim replacement for Africa’s longest serving dictator Omar Bongo Ondimba. And I will write about Rogombé and Bongo later in this article. However, a couple of other matters in Iran and Australia have grabbed my more immediate attention.

The biggest news worldwide is the continuing fall-out from the Iran election. Mousavi supporters are continuing a violent protest against what they say was a rigged election. Yet while the uniformity of the results does look suspicious, the wide margin suggests that Ahmadinejad probably did win. As the BBC’s John Simpson said “This was not, of course, the result the West was hoping for.” Of course. But the West needs to come to some rapprochement with Ahmadinejad (and his boss the Ayatollah Khamenei) if they are to end Iran’s international isolation. As Simpson said, Obama and the EU will “surely prefer President Ahmadinejad, with his reputation tarnished” than support the riots that have crippled the streets of Tehran since the result was announced.

The communication of those riots also became the news of the day. The revolution may not be televised but it could very well be Twittered. Ahmadinejad claimed that Western media are behind the protests against him but the fact is that CNN simply weren’t interested. It was Twitter where the action was both in #CNNFail US and opposition Iran. After being silent for several hours, defeated leader Mir Hussein Mousavi’s twitterstream announced on Sunday morning “Dear Iranian People, Mousavi has not left you alone, he has been put under house arrest by Ministry of Intelligence.” It was confusingly later updated to say the BBC confirmed that Mousavi is NOT under house arrest. As of today the man is free and is on the way to a protest where he is asking his followers for calm.

Back in the more rarefied atmosphere of Australian federal politics, one man did exhibit a Zen-like calm today. Peter Costello finally hung up his Overshadow and walked off the Canberra stage today with his decision to retire from politics. The actual end date for the meddlesome member for Higgins is not immediate; it will be effective next election. But the news means that Malcolm Turnbull will now probably lead the Liberals to the next two elections. Former Treasurer Costello was relaxed and joking as he spoke at Parliament House today. When he said his announcement would be welcomed by “both sides of the dispatch box”, everyone laughed knowingly. It was funny because it was an obvious truth and one that could not be admitted beforehand by Costello, the Liberals or indeed, by Labor.

While I paused to consider what that breathtaking insouciance says about the Australian polity, I cast my eyes back to Gabon. Situated on Africa’s west coast between Cameroon and Congo Republic, Gabon doesn’t get much press in the west. Nothing much happens in this small country of 1.5 million. It had known only one leader for 41 years. Omar Bongo was Africa’s longest serving head of state but died of cancer in Spain last week aged 73.

No one was terribly upset by his death. The Kenyan Standard called the diminutive Bongo “a pint-sized dinosaur who stifled Gabon”. He stole millions from his country in offshore oil revenues. called him “a notorious looter-for-life” who spent $800 million on his palace while the capital Libreville did without a major hospital. But Bongo got away with his crimes because he was protected by former colonial power France. Nicolas Sarkozy will be one of ten heads of state to attend his funeral on Thursday.

Meanwhile Rose Francine Rogombé was sworn in overnight as Gabon’s interim president. The 66 year old Rogombé is Gabon’s first female president. Rogombé is a member of the Gabonese Democratic Party (PDG) founded by Bongo, was speaker of Gabon’s senate and is a human rights lawyer. She has been given all an elected president’s powers apart from authority to dissolve parliament or to hold referendums. Rogombé will be a breath of fresh air for a nation that has been used to Bongo's absolute power for almost half a century. The downside is that Rogombé doesn't have much time to make an impression. She will be ineligible to contest the presidential poll for a permanent replacement constitutionally due in the next two months.

The longer-term prognosis is not good. The favourite for the election is Bongo’s son and Gabon's Defence Minister Ali Ben Bongo. The 50 year old was parachuted into the role in 1999 as a move to pre-empt coups against the dictator while grooming the son to succeed. Ben Bongo is of the same corrupt cut as his father and enjoys conspicuous spending. In 2003 executives of French oil company Elf paid the pair $16.7 million in bribes to allow them pillage the nation’s oil wealth. Meanwhile, his wife Inge has been busy buying a $25 million mansion in LA’s most exclusive neighbourhood Malibu. But watch out for Ali Ben to resuscitate the party motto that only a Bongo can unify the country’s ethnic groups.

With Omar Bongo’s death, the mantle for the longest serving dictator in Africa now passes on to the estimable Muamar Gaddafy. The Colonel launched his Libyan revolution on 1 September 1969 meaning he is almost 40 years in power. He is currently being feted in Italy by Silvio Berluscone who will probably appreciate Gaddafy’s request to meet 1,000 prominent Italian women on the trip. And new president Gabonese Rogombé would be impressed by his all female bodyguard. Yet the man himself is as inscrutable as ever. "There is no difference between men and women on a human level," he exclaimed. "God made men and women, we must respect the differences between the sexes."

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