Gabriel Léon M'ba (UMM-bah) (9 February 1902 – 28 November 1967) was the first Prime Minister (1959–1961) and President (1961–1967) of Gabon. A member of the Fang ethnic group, M'ba was born into a relatively privileged village family. After studying at a seminary, he held a number of small jobs before entering the colonial administration as a customs agent. His political activism in favor of black people worried the French administration, and as a punishment for his activities, he was issued a prison sentence after committing a minor crime that normally would have resulted in a small fine. In 1924, the administration gave M'ba a second chance and selected to head the canton in Estuaire Province. After being accused of complicity with regards to the murder of a woman near Libreville, he was sentenced in 1931 to three years in prison and 10 years in exile. While in exile in Oubangui-Chari, he published works documenting tribal customary law of the Fang people. He was employed by local administrators, and received praise from his superiors for his work. He remained a persona non grata to Gabon until the French colonial administration finally allowed M'ba to return his native country in 1946.
In 1946, he began his political ascent, being appointed prime minister on 21 May 1957. He served as this until 21 February 1961. In 1958, he directed an initiative to include Gabon in the Franco-African community further than before. He became president upon independence from France on 17 August 1960. Political nemesis Jean-Hilaire Aubame briefly assumed the office of president by way of a coup d'état in February 1964, but order was restored days later when the French intervened. M'ba was reelected in March 1967, but died of cancer in November of that year and was succeeded by his vice president, Albert-Bernard Bongo (now Omar Bongo).
A member of the Fang ethnic tribe, M'ba was born on 9 February 1902 in Libreville, Gabon. His father, a small business manager and village chief, once worked as the hairdresser to Franco-Italian explorer Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza. His mother, Louise Bendome, was a seamstress. Both were educated and were among the first "evolved couples" in Libreville. M'ba's brother also played an important role in the colonial hierarchy; he was Gabon's first Roman Catholic priest.
In 1909, M'ba joined a seminary to receive his primary education. From 1920, he was employed as a store manager, a lumberjack and trader before entering the French colonial administration as a customs agent. Despite his good job performance, M'ba's "activism in favor of the black man", particularly for the Fangs, worried his superiors. In September 1922, M'ba wrote to Edmond Cadier, Lieutenant-Governor of Gabon:
His remarks upset authorities, and he suffered the consequences in December 1922, when he was sentenced to prison after having committed a minor crime of providing a colleague with falsified documents.
M'ba did not have an idealist vision of his job; he saw it as a way to become wealthy. With his colleague Ambamamy, he forced labour on the residents of the canton for his personal use, to cover his large expenditures. The colonial administration was aware of the embezzlement, but they chose to overlook it. However, beginning in 1929, the colonial administration started to investigate his activities after they intercepted one of his letters to a Kouyaté, secretary for the Ligue des droits de l'homme, who was accused of being an ally of the Comintern. Despite this suspected Communist alliance, the French authorities did not oppose M'ba's appointment as head chief of the Estuaire Province by his colleagues.
In those years, M'ba, a member of the Ligue, distanced himself from Roman Catholicism, but did not break completely with his faith. He instead became a follower of the Bwiti religious sect, which Fangs were particularly receptive to. He believed this would help revitalise a society which was damagaged by the colonial administration. In 1931, the sect was accused of murdering a woman whose remains were discovered outside a market in Libreville. Accused of complicity, even though his involvement in the crime was not proven, M'ba was removed from power and sentenced to three years in prison and ten years of exile. Officially this was for embezzlement of tax revenues and his abusive treatment of the local labour force.
While exiled in the French territory of Oubangui-Chari, first in the towns of Bambari and then Bria, he continued to exert influence among Fangs via correspondence with his compatriots in Libreville. Worried by the situation, Governor-General Antonetti ordered in 1934, at the end of his prison sentence, that M'ba be placed under surveillance.
During his years in exile, he wrote about the customary rights of the Fang people in the "Essai de droit coutumier pahouin" (Essay of Pahouin customary rights) and published it in Bulletin de la société des recherches congolaises in 1938. This work quickly became the main reference on Fang tribal customary law. By 1939, the native ex-chief remained a persona non grata to Gabon, as stated in the letter from the head of the Estuarie Department, Assier de Pompignan:
In spite of being in exile, M'ba was employed by local administrators. Placed in secondary offices and having no proper power, he was an accomplished and valuable employee. Thanks to praiseworthy reports from his superiors, he was once again seen as a reliable indigenous element on which the colonial administration could rely on. In 1942, a sentence reduction was granted to him. Following his release, he became a civil servant in Brazzaville, where his prestige increased.
In 1946, M'ba returned to Gabon, where he was greeted exultantly by his friends. He was not reinstated as chef de canton; instead, he obtained an important position as store manager for the English trading house John Holt Plc. That same year, he founded the Comité Mixte Gabonais (Gabonese Mixed Committee; CMG), a political party close to the African Democratic Rally (RDA), an inter-African party led by Félix Houphouët-Boigny. The party's main objective was to obtain autonomy for its member states and oppose the Senegalese leader Léopold Sédar Senghor's idea of federalism. Playing on his past as a former exile, and through the network of Bwiti followers, M'ba managed to rally support from the Fang and Myènè peoples. His goal was to win indigenous administrative and judicial posts.
Based on his success in Libreville, M'ba aspired, at one point, to become the head of the region, an idea which many notable Fangs supported during the Pahouin congress at Mitzic in February 1947. However, the colonial authorities refused to give him the position. Due to his relations with the RDA, which was linked to the French Communist Party, M'Ba was seen as a communist and propagandist in the colony; for the authorities, these suspicions had been confirmed when M'ba was involved in the 1949 RDA congress in Abidjan.
In 1951, the CMG decided to break its ties with the Communists, siding with the moderate position favored by Houphouët-Boigny while he did the same. At the same time M'ba, while maintaining his "rebellious" image to the electorate, became close with the French administration. However, the administration was already supporting his main opponent, Congressman Jean-Hilaire Aubame, who was M'ba's protégé and his half-brother's foster son. In the legislative elections of 17 June 1951, Aubame was easily re-elected, as M'ba only received 3,257 votes, just 11% of the electorate. In the territorial elections of March 1952, Aubame's l’Union démocratique et sociale gabonaise (UDSG; Gabonese Social and Democratic Union) won 14 of the 24 contested seats, against two for the CMG; however, the CMG received 57% of the votes cast in Libreville.
Initially rejected by the Territorial Assembly, M'ba allied himself with French representatives in the assembly. However, using his charismatic traits and his reputation as a "man of the people", he managed to win a seat there in 1952.
He left the CMG to join the Gabonese Democratic Bloc (BDG) led by Paul Gondjout in 1954, whom M'ba intended to overthrow. Gondjout, the secretary of the BDG, appointed M'ba secretary-general and formed a long term alliance against Aubame. In the legislative elections of 2 January 1956, M'ba received 36% of the votes versus 47% for Aubame. Though not elected, M'ba became the leader of the indigenous territory, and some of the UDSG began to ally themselves with him.
In the municipal elections of 1956, M'ba received support from the French logging industry, especially Roland Bru, and was elected mayor of Libreville with 65.5% of the vote. On 23 November he was appointed the first mayor of the capital. This has been cited as the BDG's first significant victory over the UDSG. In the French practie of holding multiple posts known as cumul des positions, M'ba served as both mayor and deputy.
In the territorial elections of March 1957, his reputation as a "forester's man" worked against him; the BDG finished second again, winning 16 of the 40 contested seats, against 18 for the UDSG. Bru and other French foresters bribed several UDSG deputies to switch their political party to the BDG. M'ba's party won 21 seats against 19 for Aubame's party after a recount. However, in the absence of an absolute majority, both parties were obliged to submit on 21 May 1957, a list of individuals that both agreed were suitable for election into the government. That same day, M'ba was appointed vice president of the government council under the French governor. Soon, divisions grew within the government, and Aubame resigned from his position and filed a motion of censure against the government. The motion was rejected by a 21–19 vote. With M'ba's victory, many elected UDSG members joined the parliamentary majority, giving the party a majority with 29 of the 40 legislative seats. Well installed in the government, he slowly began to reinforce his power.
After voting in favor of the Franco-African Community, similar to the British Commonwealth, in the constitutional referendum of 28 September 1958, Gabon became pseudo-polically independent. French journalist Pierre Péan asserted that M'ba secretly tried to prevent Gabonese independence; instead, he lobbied for it to become an overseas territory of France. In December 1958, the Assembly voted to establish the legislature, and then promulgate the constitution of the Republic of Gabon on 19 February 1959. On 27 February, M'ba was appointed Prime Minister. After M'ba openly declared for the departmentalization of Gabon in November 1959, Jacques Foccart, Charles de Gaulle's spin-doctor for African policy, told him that this solution was unthinkable. M'ba then decided to adopt a new flag by affixing the design of the national tree, the Angouma, over the French flag. Again, Foccart, as a loyal Frenchman, refused.
From July 1958, a third political force tried to establish itself in Gabon: the Parti d'Union Nationale Gabonais (PUNGA), led by René-Paul Sousatte and Jean-Jacques Boucavel, created attempting to unite the southern Gabonese against the established BDG and UDSG. It was also supported by former UDSG members, "radical" students, and trade unionists. Though it voted against the constitutional referendum, PUNGA organised several events geared toward gaining independence and the holding of more parliamentary elections, which were also supported by the UDSG. In March 1960, after independence had already been obtained, M'ba cracked down on PUNGA, claiming its goal had already been reached. He filed an arrest warrant for Sousatte for conspiring against him and searched the houses of UDSG members, who he accused of complicity. Intimidated, three deputies of the UDSG joined the majority.
M'ba aspired to establish a democratic regime, which, in his view, was necessary for the development and attraction of investments in Gabon. He attempted to reconcile the imperatives of democracy and the necessity for a strong and coherent government. Yet in practice, the regime showed a fundamental weakness in attaining M'ba's goal in which he, who had by this time become known as "the old man", or "the boss", would have a high degree of authority. A cult of personality developed steadily around M'ba; songs were sung in his praise and stamps and loincloths were printed with his effigy. His photograph was displayed in stores and hotels across Gabon, in government buildings hung next to that of de Gaulle. In November 1960, a crisis broke out within the majority party. After deciding to reshuffle the cabinet without consulting Parliament, the president of the National Assembly, Paul Gondjout, a previous ally of M'ba's, filed a motion of censure. Gondjout supposedly hoped to benefit from a balance of power modified to his own advantage, and specifically sought the establishment of a strong parliament and a prime minister with executive power. M'ba, who did not share these ideas, reacted repressively. On 16 November, under the pretext of a conspiracy, he declared a state of emergency, ordering the internment of eight BDG opponents and the dissolution of the National Assembly the day after. Electors were asked to vote again on 12 February 1961. Gondjout was sentenced to two years in prison. Sousatte, who also opposed the constitution, was also sentenced to the same amount of jail time. Upon their releases, M'ba appointed Gondjout president of the economic council and Sousatte Minister of Agriculture, both mostly symbolic posts.
On 21 February 1961, a new constitution was unanimously adopted, providing for a "hyperpresidential" regime. M'ba now had full exutive powers: he could appoint ministers whose functions and responsibilities were decided by him; he could dissolve the National Assembly by choice or prolong its term beyond the normal five years; he could declare a state of emergency when he believed the need arised, though for this amendment he would have to consult the people via a referendum. This was, in fact, very similar to the constitution adopted in favor of Fulbert Youlou at roughly the same time. A report from the French secret service summarized the situation as follows:
The new constitution and the National Union (a political union they founded) suspended the quarrels between M'ba and Aubame from 1961 to 1963. Despite this, political unrest grew within the population, and many students held demonstrations on the frequent dissolutions of the National Assembly and the general political attitude in the country. The president did not hesitate to enforce the law himself; with a chicotte, he whipped citizens who did not show respect for him, including passersby who "forgot" to salute him. In addition, in February 1961, he decreed the internment of approximately 20 people for these demonstrations.
On 9 February 1963, the President pardoned those arrested during the political crisis of November 1960. On 19 February, he broke his ties with Aubame; all UDSG representatives were dismissed, with the exception of M'ba supporter Francis Meye. The President explained, "[t]he National Assembly does not have to be built, it already exists."
In an attempt to oust Aubame from his legislative seat, M'ba appointed him President of the Supreme Court on 25 February. Thereafter, M'ba claimed that Aubame had resigned from the National Assembly, citing incompatibility with parliamentary functions. Aubame resolved the problem by resigning from his post on the Supreme Court, complicating matters for M'ba. Faced with reports of tension between the government and the National Assembly, even though 70% of it were BDG members, the Gabonese president dissolved the legislature on 21 January 1964 as an "economy measure". He called for new elections to reduce the number of seats there from 67 to 47, fueling opposition. The opposition announced their refusal to participate in future elections that they did not consider fair.
From the night of 17 February to the early morning of 18 February 1964, 150 Gabonese military personnel, headed by Lieutenant Jacques Mombo and Valére Essone, arrested President of the National Assembly Louis Bigmann, French commanders Claude Haulin and Major Royer, On Radio Libreville, the military announced to the Gabonese people that a coup d'état had taken place, and that they required technical assistance and told the French not interfere in this matter. M'ba was instructed to broadcast a speech acknowledging his defeat. "The D-Day is here, the injustices are beyond measure, these people are patient, but their patience has limits", he said. "It came to a boil."
During these events, no gunshots were fired. The people did not react strongly, which according to the military, was a sign of approval. A provisional government was formed, and the presidency was offered to Aubame. The government was composed of civilian politicians from both the UDSG and BDG, such as Paul Gondjout. The plotters were content to ensure security for civilians. The small Gabonese army did not intervene in the coup; comprised mostly of French officers, they remained in their barracks.
The povisional government gave instructions to transfer M'ba to Njolé, Aubame's electoral stronghold. However, due to heavy rain, the deposed president was sent to Lambaréné, north of Libreville. The new head of government quickly contacted French ambassador Paul Cousseran, to assure him that the property of foreign nationals was protected and to ask him to prevent any French military intervention.
But in Paris, de Gaulle decided otherwise. M'ba was one of the most loyal allies to France in Africa. While visiting France in 1961, M'ba said: "All Gabonese have two fatherlands: France and Gabon. Moreover, under his regime, Europeans enjoyed particularly friendly treatment. The French authorities therefore decided, in accordance with signed Franco-Gabon agreements, to restore the legitimate government. Intervention could not commence without a formal request to the Head of State of Gabon. Since M'ba was otherwise occupied, the French contacted the Vice President of Gabon, Paul Marie Yembit, who had not been arrested. However, he remained unaccounted for; therefore, they decided to compose a predated letter that Yembit would later sign, confirming their intervention. Less than 24 hours later, French troops stationed in Dakar and Brazzaville landed in Libreville and restored M'ba back into power. Over the course of the operation, one French soldier was killed, while 15 to 25 died on the Gabonese side.
Despite these events, legislative elections, which were planned before the coup, were held in April 1964. The major opposition parties were deprived of their leaders, who were prevented from participating in the elections due to their involvement in the coup. The UDSG disappeared from the political scene, and the opposition consisted of parties that lacked national focus and maintained only regional or pro-democracy platforms. The opposition still won 46% of the votes and 16 of 47 seats, while the BDG received 54% of the vote and 31 seats in the assembly.
His French friends constantly surrounded him, protecting or providing him with counsel. A presidential guard was created by Bob Maloubier, a former French secret agent, and co-financed by French oil groups. The oil groups, active in the country since 1957, had strengthened their interests in 1962 after the discovery of offshore oil deposits. Gabon quickly became a major oil supplier for France. They carried such influence in Gabon that following the February 1964 coup, the decision to seek military intervention was taken by the CEO of Union Générale des Pétroles (UGP; now known as Elf Aquitaine), Pierre Guillaumat, Foccart, and other French businessmen and leaders. Later on, another UGP executive, Guy Ponsaillé, was appointed as political adviser to the president and became M'ba's representative in discussions with French companies. However, the Gabonese president was afraid of internal strife or assassaination, so he remained secluded inside his heavily defended presidential palace. Ponsaillé helped M'ba obtain support from political moderates and accompanied him in his visits around the country in order to restore his reputation among the Gabonese people.
French ambassador Cousseran and American ambassador Charles F. Darlington, suspected of sympathizing with Aubame, left shortly after the coup. The new French ambassador François Simon de Quirielle, a "traditional diplomat", was determined not to interfere in the internal affairs of Gabon. After a few months of misunderstandings with de Quirielle, M'ba contacted Foccart to tell him that he could no longer work with the Ambassador. Foccart recounted the events in his memoirs, Foccart Speaks:
As a result of this incident, Foccart appointed a "colonialist", Maurice Delauney, as the new French Ambassador to Gabon.
From 1965, the French began looking for a successor for M'ba, who was aging and sick. They found the perfect candidate in Albert Bernard Bongo, a young leader in the President's cabinet. Bongo was personally "tested" by General de Gaulle in 1965, during a visit to the Élysée Palace. Confirmed as M'ba's successor, Bongo was appointed on 24 September 1965 as Presidential Representative and placed in charge of defence and coordination.
In August 1966, M'ba was admitted to the Hopital Charles Bernard, a hospital in Paris. Despite his inability to govern, the president clung to his power. Only after a long insistence by Foccart did M'ba agree to appoint Bongo as Vice President in replacement of Yembit, announcing his decision through a radio and television message recorded in his room on 14 November 1966. A constitutional reform in February 1967 legitimized Bongo as M'ba's successor. The preparations for the succession were finalized by the early legislative and presidential elections held on 19 March 1967. Since no one dared to stand on the opposition ticket, M'ba was reelected with 99.9% of the vote, while the BDG won all seats in the Assembly.
On 28 November 1967, just days after he took his presidential oath at the Gabonese embassy, M'ba died from cancer in Paris, where he had been hospitalized since August of that year. He is survived by his wife, Louise Bendome M'ba, and 11 children. The day after M'ba's death, Bongo constitutionally succeeded him as President of Gabon. Gabon's main airport, the Leon M'ba International Airport, was later named for him.
Forty years after his death, the Léon M'ba Memorial was built in Libreville to honor his memory. President Bongo laid the cornerstone for the Memorial on 9 February 2007, and it was inaugurated by Bongo on 27 November 2007. In February 2008, it was opened to the public. In addition to serving as a mausoleum for M'ba, the Memorial is a cultural center.
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