Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Death of a Despot: Adieu Monsieur Bongo

So, Monsieur le President Omar Bongo du Gabon had the good grace to retire from life this week. Officially he died a day or two ago but a good webtrawl suggests otherwise. With every death in the old guard of African leaders, another piece of the golden independence era in African modern history gets lost. Despot or Political Saint, every one of them mattered in the way they shaped the political culture of their country...

...but what I really want to talk about is the loss of said golden independence era. Actually, the loss of style and consequence. When I was a kid, I spent a few years living across the river from Kinshasa. In Brazzaville, Francophilia was a way of life but there was also a very vibrant Afrocentric culture of style and opulence being driven by the courts of the local despots. Mobutu Sese Seko, Dennis Sassou Nguesso, Omar Bongo etc...these were men whose wives wore the very best Parisian shoes with the very best Kitenge couture, whose musical tastes made the careers of the greats like Franco and Madilu, whose personal foibles gave rise to very interesting fashions in some cases (leopard print accessories, anyone?). In a nutshell: awesome political culture/fashion history stuff.

Evidently that brief period of francophonie has had an interesting influence on my politics. Still, out of the manure of corruption, brutality and state failure grew these roses of modern African culture in music and fashion. The old guard didn't just pay lip service to Afrocentrism- they lived it. Back here in Paradise, we've had a slightly different trajectory which has delivered us now to a place where our Dear Leaders dress like bankers or bums depending on the crowd they are addressing.

If there is a hell, no doubt Mr. Bongo will have joined his dear wife and other cronies there. And Madilu and Franco, reunited at last, will serenade him down the red carpet.


  1. Alas, not-so-poor Bongo...I knew him mostly as a trivia question (longest ruling despot in Africa, I believe?)

    Okay, fine, I guess some of them contributed something (my gums are now bleeding), but still...

  2. Heh. Isn't that the thing about history? The most craptastic leaders often also engineer the most interesting cultural flourishings. It doesn't bear scrutiny...


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