Who is Ali Bongo, president of Gabon?

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Gabon’s President Ali Bongo is a man of many faces.

To some, he is a spoilt, playboy prince who sees ruling the oil-rich Gabon as his birthright; a one-time funk singer who stepped into his father’s shoes to continue his family’s 50-year rule.

To others, he is a reformer – a man who, they would argue, was voted into power democratically by the masses.

But his recent ill health has pushed tensions to the surface in this country of just more than two million people. On 7 January, a group of soldiers tried – and apparently failed – to take control.

Among their stated reasons was an attempt to “restore democracy” following the 2016 election, which Mr Bongo narrowly won amid accusations of fraud and acts of violence.

Gabon’s outsider

Ali Bongo was born Alain Bernard Bongo in neighbouring Congo-Brazzaville in February 1959.

But even his birth was controversial. Rumours, which he has always denied, have persisted for years that he was adopted from the Nigerian south-east at the time of the Biafran war.

The young Alain Bernard was still in primary school when his father Omar Bongo took control of Gabon in 1967. Already, however, the groundwork was being laid for criticisms which would haunt him later in life.

“He wasn’t born in the presidential palace, but almost. He was about eight when his father became president,” François Gaulme, a French historian and author on Gabonese politics, told the Leakblast Reporters.

“The fact that he went to the best schools in Libreville and didn’t learn local languages was something he would get criticized for later on.”

At the age of nine, Ali Bongo was sent to a private school in the upmarket Paris suburb of Neuilly, and later, to the Sorbonne where he studied law. This international upbringing led many in Gabon to view him as an outsider.

Alain Bernard became Ali and his father Omar in 1973, after converting to Islam – the only members of their family to do so.

The decision was widely seen a way to attract investment from Muslim countries. But the elder Bongo, who was previously an animist and not baptised in the Christian faith, also evoked spiritual reasons for his conversion.

Funk music and freemasonry

It was never all about politics for the young Ali Bongo, however. He showed an early passion for football and music – something inherited from his mother, the Gabonese singer Patience Dabany.

A reputation for being a playboy during his youth was cemented with the release of his 1977 album A Brand New Man, produced by funk legend James Brown’s manager, Charles Bobbit.

“Let me be your darling, Your everything, ’til the end of time,” Bongo crooned on the title track:

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