Gabon's president dies after 42 years in power

LIBREVILLE, Gabon – Omar Bongo, the world's longest-serving president whose 42-year rule of Gabon was a throwback to an era when Africa was ruled by "Big Men," died Monday. He was 73.

The government responded to Bongo's death at a hospital in Spain by closing Gabon's international airport and the nation's land and sea borders. Security forces took up positions in front of government buildings and electrical installations in Libreville, the capital.

People rushed home after the news was announced, causing traffic jams. Some residents could be seen hurrying out with empty bags, apparently to stock up on food in advance of possible store closures.

Since the head of state had checked into the Spanish hospital last month, Gabonese officials had aggressively denied that he was ill, insisting he had gone to Spain to observe "a period of mourning" following the death of his wife. They initially denied he was in the hospital at all, then later said he had been admitted to the clinic, but only for a checkup.

Just hours before announcing Bongo's death, Gabonese Prime Minister Jean Eyeghe Ndong held a news conference at the Quiron Clinic in Barcelona to say the president was "alive and well."

Plans for a state funeral were under way and will soon be announced, Communications Minister Laure Gondjout told The Associated Press by telephone late Monday. She stressed the country's constitution "will be followed."

The constitution calls for the head of the Senate to assume power and for presidential elections within 90 days. There has been widespread speculation that one of Bongo's sons would try to seize power upon his father's death, as happened in nearby Togo.

Bongo, who was believed to be one of the world's wealthiest leaders, became the longest-ruling head of government — a category that does not include the monarchs of Britain and Thailand — when Cuba's Fidel Castro handed power to his brother last year.

Bongo had kept a tight grip on power in the oil-rich former French colony since he became president in 1967, and his ruling party has dominated the country's parliament for decades. Opposition parties were only allowed in 1990, amid a wave of pro-democracy protests.

Elections since then have been marred by allegations of rigging and unrest. In 2003, parliament — dominated by his supporters — removed presidential term limits from the constitution.

While most Gabonese genuinely feared Bongo and there was little opposition, many accepted his rule because he had kept his country remarkably peaceful and governed without the sustained brutality characteristic of many dictators.

Bongo, meanwhile, amassed a fortune that made him one of the world's richest men, according to Freedom House, a private Washington-based democracy watchdog organization, although nobody really knows how much he was worth.

Earlier this year, a French judge decided to investigate Bongo and two other African leaders over accusations of money laundering and other alleged crimes linked to their wealth in France.

The probe followed a complaint by Transparency International France, an association that tracks corruption. French media have reported that Bongo's family owns abundant real estate in France — at one time owning more properties in Paris than any other foreign leader.

Born Albert Bernard Bongo on Dec. 30, 1935, the youngest of 12 children, Bongo served as a lieutenant in the French Air Force, then climbed quickly through the civil service, eventually becoming vice president. He assumed the presidency Dec. 2, 1967, after the death of Leon M'Ba, the country's only other head of state since independence from France in 1960.

Bongo set up a one-party state. Six years later, he converted to Islam and took the name Omar.

His presidential security staff numbered 1,500, according to the U.S. State Department, while the entire military numbers just 10,000 troops.

Callimachi reported from Dakar, Senegal. Associated Press writers Todd Pitman in Dakar, and Daniel Woolls in Madrid, contributed to this report.

after giving birth at the Vancouver Aquarium. AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Darryl Dyck