June 16, 2009 / 2:24 PM / 10 years ago

UPDATE 1-Sarkozy, African leaders in Gabon for Bongo ceremony

* Sarkozy leads mourning for Bongo

* African leaders gather in Libreville

* Burial set for Thursday

(Adds details, crowd jeering Sarkozy)

By Linel Kwatsi

LIBREVILLE, June 16 (Reuters) - French President Nicolas Sarkozy and a dozen heads of state from around Africa gathered in Gabon on Tuesday to mark the death of President Omar Bongo after more than four decades in power.

Around 40 heads of state or their representatives paid their last respects to Bongo ahead of a military parade in honour of the veteran president, who was Africa’s longest serving leader when he died in a Spanish clinic just over a week ago. [ID:nL8571346]

Bongo’s body was due to be flown to Franceville, the main town in the southeastern province of Haut-Ogooue where he was born, for burial on Thursday.

“It is very emotional. It is a farewell ceremony so I am sad,” said Libreville resident Daniel Mba, as he waited for the parade in the oceanside capital’s Independence Square.

France’s former President Jacques Chirac and Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner joined leaders filing up to Bongo’s flag-draped coffin. Religious leaders led them in prayer.

French radio reported that Chirac was cheered but Sarkozy was booed by some in the crowd outside the presidential palace, highlighting the tight but complicated relationship Paris maintains with its former colonies.

Bongo enjoyed a very close relationship with Chirac but relations with France thawed somewhat under Sarkozy. Since Sarkozy came to power, a French magistrate has been probing the source of Bongo’s wealth in France.

“You leave a peaceful, free and fair Gabon,” Ali Ben Bongo, the late president’s son and defence minister, said in a eulogy.

Although Gabon’s oil wealth has largely failed to trickle down to benefit most Gabonese, the diminutive leader’s personality so dominated politics after he took power in 1967 that his death has left a void in the central African nation.

Senate leader Rose Francine Rogombe was sworn in as interim leader last Wednesday and the government has pledged to respect the constitution, under which fresh elections should be organised within 45 days.

But once the formal ceremonies and period of official mourning are out of the way, divisions within the ruling elite could emerge over who should succeed Bongo, despite his son’s vows on Tuesday to keep the family united.

COMPLEX TRANSITION

Analysts expect the ruling Gabonese Democratic Party (PDG), of which Rogombe is a member, to manage the transition tightly, with Ali Ben Bongo seen as a likely successor. But Ali could be challenged by his brother-in-law, Foreign Minister Paul Toungui.

Meanwhile African Union Chairman Jean Ping, a long-time Bongo ally, and Vice-President Didjob Divungi Di Ndinge have also been cited as possible successors.

“It is very complex,” Mba said, when asked about the future of his country. “I can’t say much but, the way I see things, it will get complicated in the future.”

Through Bongo’s strong bonds with various presidents in Paris and a French military base in Libreville, Gabon has epitomised the relationship France maintained with her former colonies in a policy that became known as “la Francafrique”.

Despite criticism that this has involved propping up dictators and promises from Sarkozy for a more honest relationship with the continent, analysts say France is likely to push for continuity and the protection of energy interests.

Civil society groups in Gabon have called for the formation of a transitional government, none of whose members should be allowed to stand in the elections, and for the electoral process -- which they say favoured Bongo's ruling elite over four decades -- to be reviewed. (For full Reuters Africa coverage and to have your say on the top issues, visit: af.reuters.com/ ) (Writing by Nick Tattersall; Editing by David Lewis)

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