http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/af919ffa-548b-11de-a58d-00144feabdc0.html Death of astute Gabon leader ends era By Matthew Green in Lagos Published: June 9 2009 03:00 | Last updated: June 9 2009 03:00 Omar Bongo, Africa's longest-serving ruler, one of its wealthiest men and a linchpin of French interests on the continent, has died in a Spanish hospital aged 73. Ending 24 hours of confusion over the fate of the president of Gabon, Jean Eyeghe Ndong, prime minister, confirmed the news last night. Mr Bongo's death marks the end of an era in Francophone Africa, where he was a central figure in a shadowy web of political, commercial and intelligence networks dubbed " Francafrique ". Run by pliant leaders protected by contingents of French troops, the network allowed France to exert huge influence in its former colonies in central and West Africa in the decades after independence and ensure preferential access for its companies. Harnessing Gabon's oil income to project a degree of diplomatic clout remarkable for his sparsely populated homeland, Mr Bongo cultivated an extraordinary degree of influence within the French political establishment. He also courted Chinese and Arab allies. A former air force officer and senior civil servant, he rose rapidly through the ranks after independence to become one of the continent's youngest heads of state in November 1967, when President Leon Mba, independence leader, died. Accumulating a huge store of personal wealth, he survived his fellow 1960s "big men" of African politics with his ability to access the French and even Washington establishment intact. Relations with France, however, were under strain, and in May a French magistrate ruled an anti-corruption investigation could proceed into whether Mr Bongo and the leaders of Equatorial Guinea and the Republic of Congo had embezzled public funds to buy luxury homes and cars. The three leaders denied wrongdoing. An indictment against Mr Bongo seen by the FT listed 39 properties, mostly in Paris' chic 16th arrondissement , nine cars, and 70 bank accounts.