Steady goes it: Political and social stability provide a strong basis for growth

Gabon’s position as one of the most politically stable countries in Central Africa provides it a solid base for economic growth. Like many sub-Saharan countries, Gabon still faces challenges related to transparency and efficient governance but successive presidential transitions have been relatively smooth. The ruling Gabonese Democratic Party ( Parti Démocratique Gabonais, PDG) continues to eke out electoral victories, but the adoption of a biometric voter registry in 2013 has helped to ensure more competitive polls.

A Brief History

The Portuguese were the first colonial powers to arrive in Gabon in the late 1400s and gave the region its name, gabão, the Portuguese word for a coat worn by sailors, which the Komo estuary reportedly resembled. The Portuguese were followed by the Dutch and finally the French in the early 1500s, all of whom maintained trading bases along the Atlantic coast. The area was recognised as a French protectorate following the signature of agreements with other coastal trading outposts around the middle of the 19th century, namely from 1839 to 1841. Following several successful forays to explore the country’s interior and its resources, Gabon was incorporated into the French colonial empire in 1886, where it would remain until independence in August 1960.

Gabon and the Congo were originally one territory. The present-day border took shape in 1904, and the Congolese capital was later established in Brazzaville. Under the colonial period, the region primarily served as a maritime trade base, a source of raw timber exports and, following the construction of the Congo-Océan railway, a key mining zone.

Independence

As the colonial era came to a close, the constitution was drafted in 1958 and Gabon was declared an independent republic; under its first prime minister, Léon Mba, Gabon initially sought to strengthen ties with France by becoming a dé partement. However, the measure failed to pass and Gabon gained full independence in August 1960. Mba transitioned from colonial leadership to become the country’s first president. The country’s birth as a sovereign state quickly led to discussions about political options. The national debate focused mainly on its constituent laws and the system of government that should be implemented, with political parties split with regards to whether to implement a presidential or parliamentary system. The latter part of 1960 saw several Cabinet reshuffles, resignations and political disputes, until another election was held in February 1961, resulting in a presidential system with Mba as president. Upon his death in 1967, President Mba was succeeded by his vice president and former Cabinet director, Omar Bongo Ondimba.

In 1968, Omar Bongo Ondimba created the PDG, which would then rule for the next two decades. From the 1960s to the 1990s, the economy largely developed on the back of natural resource exports, namely oil, minerals and timber. At peak production in the early 1990s, Gabon was the third-largest oil producer in sub-Saharan Africa, which funded the expansion of a large public administration. However, the growth of the oil sector limited expansion elsewhere, leaving the state as the primary employer and revenues reliant on commodity exports, which in turn impacted Gabon’s economic performance in the 1980s as global oil prices dropped.

Political Reform

Decades of being run under a closed political system, combined with a struggling economy, caused public discontent to grow in the late 1980s. In the face of popular unrest, Omar Bongo Ondimba raised public salaries and implemented a series of reforms, including the creation of an upper house of parliament (Senate), financial decentralisation, the abolition of exit visas, and looser restrictions on freedom of assembly and the press. These changes were incorporated into the revised constitution of 1991, which also included a bill of rights and increased the freedom of the judiciary, all the while leaving broad powers in the office of the president.

The country’s first multi-party legislative elections in 30 years were held in September 1990, when the PDG maintained a large majority. In the quarter-century since then, opposition parties have engaged haltingly in the political process, but failed to gain a significant foothold in the legislature.

Omar Bongo Ondimba eventually served for 42 years, making him the longest-serving African president upon his death in May 2009. His successor, Ali Bongo Ondimba, was elected president in August 2009 with 42% of the vote, defeating independent candidate André Mba Obame and Pierre Mamboundou of the Union Gabonaise du Peuple (UPG), with 25% each. The results were contested but, on the whole, the presidential transition was relatively peaceful. Shortly after these developments, the government launched a new economic development strategy focused on industry, services and the environment, Plan Stratégique Gabon Émergent (PSGE), which shapes government policies today.

Current System

The executive branch is headed by the president, who acts as head of state and serves seven-year terms. The vice-presidency was eliminated in 1975 in favour of a prime minister, who acts as head of government. The president retains significant powers, including the ability to dissolve the National Assembly and to appoint and dismiss the prime minister and Cabinet ministers. Term limits were abolished in 2003.

Judicial authority rests with the Constitutional Court, which presides over several other bodies including the Council of State, which manages administrative issues, the Court of Accounts, which handles public finances, and the Court of Cassation, the main civil, commercial and criminal court.

At present, the bicameral legislature is composed of both a 91-seat Senate and a 120-seat National Assembly. Assembly representatives are elected by universal adult suffrage to five-year terms. The most recent assembly elections in December 2011 were widely boycotted by opposition parties on claims of voter fraud; as a result, the PDG now controls 118 of the 120 seats with its minority coalition partners. Senators are elected to six-year terms by municipal and regional council members, with the next election scheduled for 2015.

Election Season

The latest round of municipal and regional elections were held in December 2013. Gabon introduced the first digital biometric voter register in 2013, including a database of voter information and helps to protect against fraud. The PDG largely retained its hold on power, winning 1517 of the total 2404 council seats, according to the National Democratic Observatory (Observatoire National de la Démocratie, OND). The PDG was victorious in Libreville with 61 of 151 seats, although another 48 went to independent candidates, and 41 seats went to the Centre des Libéraux Réformateurs (CLR). Greater participation thanks to the biometric register bodes well for a lively political sphere in the future. Parties are now shaping up for the presidential and legislative elections in 2016.

Political Parties

The PDG is still by far the largest political party in Gabon and benefits from significant support throughout the country, but the remaining political parties remain highly fragmented. The largest single opposition group, the National Union (Union Nationale), formed in 2009 following the disputed presidential elections and included former prime ministers Jean Eyéghé Ndong and Casimir Oyé Mba. However, the party was dissolved in 2011 when its leader, André Mba Obame, declared himself the winner of presidential elections on national television. Former members have subsequently often run in polls as independents.

An umbrella group of some 26 opposition parties, the Union of Forces for Change (Union des Forces du Changement) was established in September 2012 following a national opposition conference. However, internal divisions soon prompted the group to splinter, with one group, including 14 former parties, gaining recognition by the interior ministry as the official UFC, in April 2013, while the other remaining 12 parties formed the Union of Forces for Alteration (Union des Forces pour l’Alternance).

Labour Advocacy

Gabon has a vibrant trade union movement – one of the most dynamic on the continent alongside South Africa. Several labour unions went on strike in the first quarter of 2014 to protest reforms to public sector compensation. Although Gabon does not have a particularly strong civil society fabric, labour unions wield significant negotiating power. For example, a series of strikes by the two main Customs unions that took place between February and May slowed import processing at the main port of Owendo, and ONEP has disrupted oil production in the past. However, their efforts have helped yield material gains for members in terms of both compensation and employment.

Social Pact

The government has outlined a new strategy focused on social issues, known as the “Social Pact”, ahead of the 2016 elections, reflected in the makeup of the new Cabinet. Following the December local elections and a protracted public education crisis in late 2013, President Ali Bongo Ondimba named a new prime minister in January. Daniel Ona Ondo served as the rector of the main public university, Université Omar Bongo, before entering government in the 1990s, which may help to improve communication with teachers’ unions.

The prime minister named a new 32-member government on January 28, 2014. Although some key ministries such as oil, industry and mines, investment promotion and foreign affairs remain in the same hands, the new Cabinet includes several new faces. The new government has been charged with implementing the new “Social Pact”, introduced by the president in a February speech.

The new Social Pact has shifted the government’s focus to social issues and accordingly aims to create more revenue-generating activities, reduce income inequality and ensure universal access to basic services. While annual GDP growth rose to 5-6% in the last four years, up from 2% in 2008, this has not yet translated to securing a better standard of living for low-income populations.

An estimated 30% of the population are considered economically vulnerable, and unemployment has risen to at least 20.4% overall and to over 30% for youth. Some improvement has been made on social indicators in recent years, but the government is aiming to tackle a number of additional obstacles in the health and education sectors.

Governance Reform

Several other key reforms are currently being implemented. For example, a number of para-public agencies have been created to manage public assets and infrastructure on behalf of the state. For example, the National Public Works Agency (Agence Nationale des Grands Travaux, ANGT) was created to execute all public building contracts, the National Digital Infrastructure Company (Société de Patrimoine des Infrastructures Numériques, SPIN) to oversee the maintenance of fibre-optic networks and other infrastructure, as well as state-owned companies in the oil and mining sectors, through Gabon Oil Company and Gabon Mining (Société Equatoriale des Mines), respectively. While it further complicates Gabon’s unwieldy bureaucracy in the short-term, the goal is to separate policy-making from implementation. The para-public agencies will engage with private partners and concessionaires, attribute public contracts, and hopefully increase the efficiency of asset management.

The state is also working to rationalise public spending and increase transparency in public finances although that has caused complications in the short term as efforts to review public accounts, combined with budgetary restructuring needed to meet the Social Pact priorities, have resulted in payment delays in late 2013 and early 2014. Gabon revised down the 2014 budget by 11.4% in June.

In February 2014, the government eliminated the Fonds Communs, a quarterly salary supplement for public sector employees which gave particular focus to financial institutions. It was replaced by a new bonus system, the Prime d’Incitation à la

This is slated to distribute resources more equitably among 30,000 public servants, a policy that would be in line with the government’s fiscal and social goals. However, the exact structure and distribution of the PIP have yet to be finalised, and these changes have prompted protests and strikes from a number of public sector unions.

The Gabonese government has a number of challenges to confront, including persistent social and economic inequality, as well as budgetary pressure. However, the country’s political stability and its resource wealth have prepared it well to handle and surpass challenges such as these in the long term.

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