Gabon is located on the Gulf of Guinea, surrounded by low- and lower-middle income countries, but the country’s sizable oil resources and limited population have positioned it as one of six upper-middle income countries in sub-Saharan Africa.
With just 1.63m people, Gabon is the second-smallest of the six-country Central African Economic and Monetary Community (Communauté Économique et Monétaire de l’Afrique Centrale, CEMAC) in terms of population, after Equatorial Guinea, yet Gabon has the second-largest economy in the sub-region. GDP at purchasing power parity reached $29.38bn in 2012, behind Cameroon ($55.35bn), but ahead of oil-rich Equatorial Guinea ($27.6bn). Despite the benefits the country has reaped from oil, Gabon is no longer a rentier economy. Oil production has declined steadily from a peak of 370,000 barrels per day (bpd) in 1997 to roughly 245,000 bpd as existing fields mature. While investment in new exploration is picking up, the country’s oil reserves are plateauing. Under the development strategy adopted in 2009, Emerging Gabon (Plan Stratégique Gabon Emergent, PSGE), the government aims to reduce its reliance on hydrocarbons and establish a diversified economy by 2025.
The development of Gabon’s non-hydrocarbons economy will require considerable levels of foreign direct investment (FDI) and technical partnerships. However, in this regard, Gabon benefits from a legacy of political stability that has allowed it to overcome many challenges. There has been little political turnover in Gabon’s history, with only three presidents serving since independence in 1960, but the country has enjoyed relative political and social stability compared to its neighbours.
Despite its small population, Gabon has rich cultural and ethnic diversity. The Bantu people, a term which refers to a language group rather than a unique ethnicity, made the first major migration wave to present-day Gabon. The country now includes over 40 ethnic groups, the majority of which share Bantu linguistic origins; the eight primary ethnic groups are the Fang, Nzabi-Duma, Mbede-Teke, Shira-Punu, Kota-Kele, Myene, Okande-Tsogho and the Pygmies, who were the first inhabitants of the country. The government and administration has in recent decades traditionally been carefully staffed by people who come from various ethnic groups.
The official language, French, is the main language of education and business, although English is slowly becoming more commonly spoken in business circles. In addition, more than 60 local languages and dialects are spoken, including Fang, Myene, Nzebi, Sira and Bapounou/Eschira.
Demographics & Unemployment
The population is fairly young: 62.4% are under the age of 25, and of these, 42% are under the age of 15. Gabon has an urbanisation rate of 86%, with the capital, Libreville, and the economic hub of Port-Gentil accounting for 700,000 and 100,000 inhabitants, respectively. Other key population centres include Franceville, Lambaréné and Oyem. The government has sought to encourage decentralisation, going so far as to rotating ministerial meetings through different provinces and encouraging the establishment of professional and higher education institutions in provincial capitals; however, the rural exodus is likely to continue given the limited work opportunities in the sparsely populated interior.
Unemployment has remained stubbornly high at 20.4% in 2013 and up to35% for youth under the age of 24, exacerbated by a disconnect between the education system and the demands of the local economy. Industry-specific professional and vocational schools have opened in recent years, although work remains to be done to bridge this gap.
Gabon’s population of 1.63m also includes roughly 10,000 French nationals and 150,000 foreign residents from elsewhere in Europe and Africa. Although CEMAC countries are working, in theory, to adopt a free circulation agreement in the sub-region, Gabon maintains strict border control to contain irregular immigration. Labour restrictions require 90% of all employees to be Gabonese, in an effort to reduce unemployment and ensure that FDI is directed to the development of the economy. Influential trade unions, most notably the National Organisation of Petroleum Employees (Organisation Nationale des Employés du Pétrole, ONEP), regularly petition the government to enforce foreign worker restrictions.
Geography & Climate
Gabon covers a total surface of 267,667 sq km straddling the Equator, broken up into nine provinces, 36 prefectures and eight sub-prefectures. It shares 2551 km of land borders with the Republic of the Congo to the south and east, and Cameroon and Equatorial Guinea to the north. Its coastline stretches 885 km along the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Guinea – a key maritime trade zone that, while traditionally calm, has seen an uptick in piracy in the last two years (see Politics overview).
Gabon has a tropical equatorial climate that is characterised by high temperatures, humidity and heavy precipitation. The main rainy season lasts from February to May, followed by a shorter rainy season from mid-September to mid-December. Annual rainfall averaged around 1800 mm in the last decade.
Temperatures typically vary between 18 and 36 degrees Celsius, and tend to peak in January. However, there remains little seasonal variation on the coastal plain, where temperatures typically remain between 26 and 30 degrees year-round.
Gabon is located in the heart of the Congo River Basin, and 85% of its total territory (22m ha) is covered by rainforest. Its forests, some of the best preserved in the world, are home to a rich variety of wildlife including gorillas, chimpanzees and one of the largest populations of forest elephants. The terrain varies from a narrow coastal plain to a hilly interior and savannah in much of the east and south. The highest point, Mont Iboundji, reaches just 1575m above sea level. Rivers continue to maintain their critical importance to passenger and merchandise transport, as they are often used to float timber and other heavy goods from the interior to ports in Owendo and Port-Gentil. The largest river, the Ogooué, stretches some 1200 km, and the government is working with international donors to rehabilitate the river banks, improve signage and drag river floors in order to increase its transport capacity.
Further to this, Gabon also relies heavily on hydroelectric power, and rivers also provide an estimated 164 cu km of water resources. Hydroelectric plants accounted for over 40% of the total 415,000 KWh of installed generating capacity in 2010, and three major dam projects are expected to boost this by another 140 MW by 2020.
Gabon’s economy has largely developed on the back of its hydrocarbons oil and gas resources. According to estimates from the US Energy Information Administration, Gabon held 2bn barrels of proven oil reserves at year-end 2012, the fifth-largest in sub-Saharan Africa after Nigeria, Angola, Sudan and South Sudan, and Uganda. Efforts to encourage new investment and offshore exploration may yet yield results, but in the meantime, the government is working to develop other industries, including forestry and mining.
Gabon’s forests are replete with many varieties of tropical wood, an estimated population of 30,000 African forest elephants, various ape species, hippopotamuses and African forest buffaloes. However, as part of the government’s diversification efforts, these areas may come under partial threat due to the promotion of palm and rubber plantations, as well as efforts to produce coffee, cocoa and bananas.
Like many African countries, Gabon is working to ensure that a larger percentage of natural resource wealth is channelled into the national economy. Sector regulation is being revised to ensure a larger role for the state, and national operators have been established in the hydrocarbons and mining sectors. Local processing requirements – such as for the logging and timber industry – are gradually being introduced in order to boost export value and create more local employment opportunities.
The country’s natural resource wealth has not translated into high living standards. According to a February 2014 speech by President Ali Bongo Ondimba, 30% of the population lives in poverty, and 60% of departments fail to meet national standards for access to basic social services. The government launched a Social Pact in February, which will reorient public funds to social programmes in an effort to reduce income disparity, create revenue-generating activities, and ensure universal access to health care, lodging and education.
Gabon ranked 106 out of 180 countries in a 2013 Transparency International survey on corruption and suffers from capital flight at the highest levels. Accordingly, the government has taken various steps in recent years with the objective of improving the state of transparency and good governance within the country. The president, who referred to corruption as a “cancer” that “has to be stopped”, embarked on a drive to raise public awareness of the problems wrought by corruption, going so far as to sponsor demonstrations as part of International Anti-Corruption Day and supporting training seminars and advertising campaigns.
Initiatives supported by the World Bank and the IMF have led to increased efficiency in the public service. The government has worked to rationalise its bureaucracy by conducting an audit in 2010 that resulted in the elimination of thousands of phantom jobs. Recruitment policies have also been improved, and during the Cabinet shuffle in February 2012, several ministries were consolidated. In addition, the World Bank is working with the national government to implement reforms that will promote more efficient spending and management. Efforts to upgrade hospital infrastructure and to implement a new universal public health care scheme aim to address the primary health obstacles. While malaria, tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS continue to represent the bulk of the disease burden, non-communicable diseases are gaining ground as lifestyles change, creating a need for specialised services to treat cancer, diabetes and heart disease.
Education in Gabon is compulsory between the ages of 6 and 16. The system has been modelled on the French system, with primary education lasting for six years. Secondary education follows a seven-year programme starting at age 12.
The vast bulk of Gabon’s educational sector is made up of public institutions which are open to all Gabonese citizens free of charge. However, attendance among eligible age groups is only 60%. The literacy rate is estimated to be hovering around 63%.
At primary levels, public and private schools have comparable student populations. There are a total of 128 secondary schools, with 43 clustered around Libreville. Tertiary education is provided by primarily publicly run universities, research centres and more specialised écoles nationales. Omar Bongo University is the country’s largest public university and offers programmes in faculties of law, letters, sciences, engineering, environment, administration and management. There are a number of private institutions including the Université Polytechnique de Kougouleu and the Académie Franco-Américaine de Management. The Ministry of Education oversees the standards for public and private education.
Gabon has nearly universal primary enrolment and particularly high literacy levels for the sub-region (88% adults, 98% youth in 2009), which is an attractive factor for foreign businesses. However, the mismatch between degree programmes and labour market demand must be improved before unemployment levels can rise. A number of challenges remain, but the state has placed social programmes at the top of the agenda in hopes of making a discernible impact ahead of the 2016 presidential elections.
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