The defining trait of Gabon’s political climate for the past 40 years has been that of stability. While the first decade of independence saw a modicum of unrest and a coup, the country has in general seen little of the turbulence that has plagued other countries in the region.
This long-term stability is due in large part to the lengthy tenure of Omar Bongo Ondimba, who for more than 20 years managed the country as a one-party state. However, since gradual political liberalisation began in the early 1990s, the country’s electoral process has seen some incremental progress, including a new multi-party system.
More recently, following the death of Omar Bongo Ondimba in 2009 and the subsequent election of his son, Ali Bongo Ondimba, Gabon’s government has increasingly focused on economic policy. It is now beginning an ambitious attempt to encourage economic diversification away from a dependence on hydrocarbons and provide a more sustainable and inclusive foundation for future growth.
RIDING THE WAVE: Gabon gained its independence from France in 1960, amid an international wave of decolonisation. Two years earlier, in 1958, Gabon had voted in favour of General Charles de Gaulle's constitution of a Franco-African community, which granted French colonies relative autonomy and fixed rules of accession for gaining independence.
The territorial assembly was rechristened the legislative assembly and, in February 1959, it chose Léon Mba, the leader of the Gabonese Democratic Bloc (Bloc Démocratique Gabonais, BDG) as the colonial territory’s prime minister. In May 1960, Gabon's legislative assembly gave Léon Mba approval to negotiate an accession to full independence and sovereignty. Negotiations took place in Paris in July 1960 and Gabon's independence was formally celebrated on August 17, 1960. (Seven other French colonies proclaimed their independence in the same month.) Léon Mba became head of state, while waiting for the assembly to finish drafting a constitution for the newly-independent state.
CONSTITUTIONAL CONVERSATIONS: Discussions between political parties about the country’s new direction quickly divided between those in favour of a parliamentary system and those in favour of a presidential and one, but ultimately a parliamentary constitution was adopted in November 1960.
Partisan tensions between the executive and the legislative branch caused the assembly to be dissolved in February 1961. A coalition between the largest parties won most of the seats in the subsequent assembly elections and paved the way for the creation of a presidential system, with Léon Mba selected as the country’s first president.
However, disagreements between the Gabonese Democratic and Social Union (Union Démocratique et Sociale Gabonaise, UDSG) and the BDG, the two largest parties in the coalition, led to the dissolution of the assembly yet again in February 1964. A hasty revision of electoral rules kept most opposition parties from the opportunity to present candidates.
The deterioration of the political situation led to a military coup on February 17, 1964, a few days before the planned date of the elections. Léon Mba was arrested along with his ministers, and Jean-Hilaire Aubame, the UDSG’s leader, was appointed prime minister by a revolutionary committee.
On February 18, 1964, French troops stationed in Libreville, with support from other units coming from Dakar and Brazzaville, moved in to help toppled the Gabonese putschists. Léon Mba was then reinstated as the country’s president.
THE NEW SYSTEM: A multi-party system was restarted and new elections were held a few months later in April 1964. A number of opposition members stood for elections, but the BDG held power, winning 31 seats. When Léon Mba died from cancer in March 1967, his vice-president, Albert Bongo, later known as Omar Bongo Ondimba, became president.
THE PDG: A year later, Bongo Ondimba abolished both the multi-party system and the BDG. In its place he created the Gabonese Democratic Party (Parti Démocratique du Gabon, PDG), which was declared to be the only legal party, under the pretence of easing social and political tensions and minimising ethnic rivalries. Although several presidential elections were held between 1968 and 1990, and collective participation in the systems was high, the elections were won by the incumbent president (who was the sole candidate) with results approaching 100% of the vote. In 1980s and early 1990s, prompted by economic problems, the regime was faced with demonstrations led by students and workers.
While Bongo Ondimba’s response was largely focused on addressing the issues of employment and job creation, the discussions also set the stage for a return of a multi-party system. A new constitutional consultation took place at a national conference, held in March 1990, which saw over 2000 delegates brought together.
April 1990 saw the instatement of a transitional government, with a revamped cabinet and non-PDG members. The multi-party system was reintroduced in May 1990 by a legislative amendment to the existing constitution. The amendment was made by the outgoing assembly, which remained dominated by the PDG. The ongoing role of the president (whose term went until 1994) was not challenged.
MULTI-PARTY ELECTIONS: The first multi-party legislative elections were in September 1990. Numerous irregularities took place during the first round. The degree of irregularities was such that the second round of elections had to be delayed until the ruling party and the opposition could create a special commission to oversee the vote.
The results of the second round were disputed as well, delaying the announcement of the final composition of the new parliament until March 1991. The PDG was finally announced to have won the majority of seats, despite a number of significant increases that were posted by the opposition.
Following this victory, the president formed a unity government, in which the PDG had the majority of ministries but which featured opposition figures. The newly elected assembly proceeded to the final revision of the constitution and a new constitutional text was promulgated on December 22, 1990. However, between May and June 1991, opposition parties boycotted the National Assembly, protesting against the non-implementation of the new constitution by Bongo Ondimba.
PICKING THE PRESIDENT: The first multi-party presidential elections were held on December 5, 1990. With 86.3% participation, Bongo Ondimba obtained 51.2% of the votes, and his closest opponent obtained 26.5%. These results provoked protests from the opposition, which attempted to form a parallel government. The government imposed a curfew in response. This was eventually lifted a few years later, after officials felt stability had returned.
Bongo Ondimba was re-elected twice more in 1998 and in 2005. However, his tenure as the longest-rule African head of state came to an end when he died on May 7, 2009. As per the rules of the country’s constitution, Rose Francine Rogombe, the president of the Senate, was named interim president. New elections were held on August 30, 2009 and Ali Bongo Ondimba, the son of the former president, ran as the candidate for his father’s party.
THE NEW PRESIDENT: He was elected with 41.73% of the vote. The closest runners-up in the field of 17 candidates included the independent Andre Mba Obame, a former PDG interior minister and longtime advisor to the elder Bongo Ondimba, with 25% of the vote, and Pierre Mamboundou, the leader of the opposition Gabonese People’s Union (Union du Peuple Gabonais, UPG), who also pulled in 25%.
This resulted not only in confusion in the aftermath of the election, with all candidates prematurely declaring victory, but also to unrest, particularly in Port-Gentil. It took over a month for the votes to be certified by the Supreme Court. Following the election of the younger Bongo Ondimba in August 2009, a number of former PDG leaders, including Obame, announced their intention to establish a new opposition party, the National Union (Union Nationale, UN). This drew a number of heavyweights from across the political spectrum, including two former prime ministers, Casimir Oyé-Mba and Jean Eyeghé Ndong.
In 2011 Obame proclaimed himself as the rightful winner of the 2009 election, forming a parallel government and establishing himself within the local office of the United Nations Development Programme. Obame’s party, the UN, was subsequently dissolved and his parliamentary immunity waived, after which he left the country for a year. Although he was charged with disturbance of the public order, Obame was never arrested. The other major contender in the 2009 election, Mamboundou, passed away in October 2011, leaving the opposition split.
However, the continued disputes over the electoral process – and specifically the implementation of biometric voting – led the opposition parties to decide to boycott the legislative elections held in December 2011, resulting in a landslide victory for the PDG, which won 114 seats out of 120. However, participation was only 34.3%.
In the aftermath of the 2011 elections, the fragmented opposition has been working to try to find a common voice, but a coalition of 22 opposition parties formed in September 2012 had already shown signs of fraying by early October, having lost two major parties. The government has rejected opposition demands for a new national conference but invited all parties – with the exception of the UN – for discussions within the National Council of Democracy, a hitherto-unused consultative body.
INTERNATIONAL COOPERATION: Gabon's foreign policy has long been distinguished by its close ties to France. The two countries share extremely cordial ties, and have done since independence, encapsulating the notion of francafrique.
Although the current President Bongo Ondimba has sought to aggressively diversify Gabon’s economic and diplomatic links elsewhere, including Asia, France is, of course, the object of regular attention from Gabon’s president. In July 2012 he was among the first African presidents to visit newly elected French President François Hollande, discussing the implementation of the cooperation agreement signed in 2010. Ties with a number of other European powers – particularly the UK – are also warm, with regular high-level visits on both sides. Bongo Ondimba met with Prime Minister David Cameron in May 2012.
However, emerging markets are playing an increasingly prominent role in Gabon’s foreign policy. While visiting Libreville earlier this year, Abdullah Gül, Turkey’s president, signed several agreements with Bongo Ondimba, including new agreements on tourism cooperation, taxation, investment promotion and protection, defence and health cooperation.
Further afield, Gabon is developing relations with South Korea, where the president recently attended a summit and series of high-level meetings with public and private sector representatives during a visit in March 2012. While there have been a few hiccups, such as a deal regarding development of the Belinga iron mine falling through, Gabon and China are also continuing to maintain their good relations.
Across the Atlantic, the government continues to enjoy generally good relations with the US, with regular bilateral visits, close economic ties and cooperation on a number of defence-related issues. In June 2011 Bongo Ondimba met with Barack Obama, the US president, in Washington, DC.
IN THE CLUBHOUSE: Gabon is part of several international and regional organisations, such as the UN, the African Union, the World Trade Organisation, the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS), the Monetary and Economic Community of Central Africa (Communauté Économique et Moné- taire de l’Afrique Centrale, CEMAC), the Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie, the African Business Law Harmonisation Organisation, the New Partnership for Africa’s Development, the Community of Sahel-Saharan States and the Organisation of the Islamic Conference.
Gabon's preferential trade agreements include ECCAS, CEMAC and the African Economic Community (under the African Union) agreements. Gabon has also started negotiations with the EU to reach an economic partnership agreement, as well as a voluntary agreement on Forest Law Enforcement, Governance and Trade certification. The country has signed the Cotonou Agreement, fixing the conditions of cooperation between African, Caribbean and Pacific states and the EU.
It also takes part in the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation and is the host country of ECCAS and of the Central Africa regional office for the UN. Gabon renewed a defence treaty with France in 2010. Gabon was on the United Nations Security Council between January 2010 and January 2012 and was granted council presidency twice; it is also applying for a seat on the UN Human Rights Council for 2013. Until January 2012, Gabon was a member of the African Union Peace and Security Council. In addition, it will assume the presidency of CEMAC in 2012-13.
OUTLOOK: Recent years have seen a gradual widening of participation in the political process in Gabon, but the country has so far nonetheless managed to adeptly sidestep any of the instability or ills that have afflicted its regional neighbours.
President Bongo Ondimba’s administration has begun implementing a number of initiatives to help provide for more inclusive and sustainable economic growth, which are likely to continue throughout the medium term and which may also serve to broaden political dialogue. Stability is important, but the country could benefit from some increased engagement between civil society and the opposition.
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