Just about two weeks ago, former African Union Commission chairman Jean Ping, from Gabon, was in the news after a lengthy period of lying low following his loss of the AU position to incumbent chairperson Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma in 2012.
So what was the great deal this time around? Well, nothing much, except that the former AU supremo was speaking at a conference organised by Gabon’s opposition supporters. During the occasion, Ping went out of his way to announce to all and sundry that he had severed ties with the current regime in Libreville. “It’s very clear that I have nothing to do with the current authorities,” Mr Ping reportedly said when he spoke in Libreville, the first time he went public since the end of his AU term, which ran from 2008 to 2012.
In the meantime, it has been rumoured that Ping’s joining the Gabonese opposition was a sign that he was angling for the presidency come the next presidential elections in 2016, a suggestion he has so far not denied.
That regime, alas, is currently headed by none other than President Ali Bongo Ondimba, rumoured to be Ping’s brother-in-law following persistent reports that Ping married the eldest daughter of the late President Omar Bongo, with whom he has two children. He later married an Ivorian and is now a father of eight.
Before landing the top AU job in 2008, Ping was a high-level world-class diplomat who was viewed as very close to the senior Bongo, his alleged father-in-law who was reputedly the world’s longest serving non-monarch ruler.
As a result of that closeness, Ping was a top politician in Gabon and held a series of ministerial portfolios, including information, foreign affairs and mines, before finally becoming deputy prime minister in 2007.
The son of an immigrant Chinese trader who married a Gabonese woman, Ping’s Asian ancestry has earned him the nickname “Mao”, and he was instrumental in cementing ties between Africa and his ancestral China. At ease in English and French, he is very well educated and has a doctorate in economics from France’s prestigious Sorbonne University, and for some years was an international civil servant for the Paris-based Unesco.
Not surprisingly, his kinship ties with the late Omar Bongo were widely viewed as the key that opened doors for him to bulldoze his way to the highest echelons of Gabonese, African and even global politics.
After his erstwhile father-in-law’s death, it was rumoured that Ping harboured ambitions to rise to the Gabonese presidency, pitting him against his own brother-in-law, whose current regime he is now distancing himself from.
Kinship factors are a stark aspect of the power game in Francophone African politics though, and often transcend borders, so that rulers in the Francophone countries are more or less an expansive — if often rather amorphous — family. Ever striving to establish new links between their countries, some Francophone presidents have taken dynasty building to new heights.
The late Omar Bongo, for instance, had a close relationship with Denis Sassou-Nguesso, the president of the neighbouring Republic of Congo. The wily Sassou-Nguesso had in fact given him his daughter, Edith Lucie Bongo, to become his second wife. Married to the senior Bongo on August 4, 1990, the event was viewed as “an example of cooperation between the two countries.”
Not a lowly village damsel by any standards, Édith Bongo was a medical doctor by education, specialised as a paediatrician, and was known for her focus on fighting the spread of HIV/Aids.
While serving as the First Lady of Gabon between August 4, 1990 and March 14, 2009, she helped create a forum for African first ladies to fight the Aids pandemic, and also founded associations for vulnerable children and people with disabilities.
When she died on March 14, 2009, just four days after her 45th birthday, the nature of the illness that had claimed her life was not disclosed, despite the fact that she had earlier been hospitalised in Rabat, Morocco.
A nationally televised state funeral was however held for her in Libreville, and her remains were taken to Edu, her father’s home village in northern Congo for a traditional burial ceremony.