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Longest-serving leader is dead

GABON President Omar Bongo, the world's longest-serving leader, has died of cardiac arrest in a Spanish hospital at age 73.

Doctors at the Quiron Clinic in Barcelona announced Bongo's death yesterday afternoon.

Gabon has decreed 30 days of mourning, Prime Minister Jean Eyeghe Ndong said.

Bongo had been in office since 1967, harking back to the days when "Big Men" came to power in Africa and never let go.

He had been in power for so long that most of Gabon's 1.5 million people have only known him as president.

Bongo had kept a tight grip on the controls of the former French colony.

Parliament - dominated by his supporters - removed presidential term limits from the constitution in 2003.

Bongo became the longest-ruling head of state, not counting the monarchs of Britain and Thailand, after Fidel Castro stepped aside in Cuba last year.

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.

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 no one really knew how much he was worth.

Born Albert Bernard Bongo, the youngest of 12 children on December 30, 1935, Bongo served as a lieutenant in the French Air Force, then Climbed quickly through civil service.

Gabon is the fifth-biggest oil exporter in sub-Saharan Africa, and Bongo built a vast system of patronage, doling out largesse in part through salaries and benefits that come with Cabinet posts.


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