Strength through stability: Despite a small population, the country boasts impressive diversity


Located in central Africa on the Gulf of Guinea, Gabon is a mid-sized country with a relatively small population of 1.6m people. Following a colonial period (1886-1960), when it was ruled by France, the country’s considerable hydrocarbons and mineral wealth has allowed it to enjoy economic development and stability, particularly compared to many of its neighbours. Much of this development took place under the rule of President Omar Bongo Ondimba, who attained the top position in 1967 following the death of Gabon’s first president, Léon Mba.

After ruling for 42 years – making him the longest-serving ruler on the continent – President Ondimba passed away and his son, Ali Bongo Ondimba, was elected president in 2009. Under the new leader Gabon has embarked on structural reforms, with efforts to diversify the economy and reduce the dependence on hydrocarbons production.

HISTORY: The name Gabon derives from the Portuguese word gabâo – meaning a sailor’s coat, inspired by the shape of the Komo estuary – which was attributed to the country following Portuguese exploration of the area in 1472.

Towards the end of the century the Dutch supplanted the Portuguese, although throughout this period the Europeans did not seek to colonise the area, preferring instead to build protective outposts in order to pursue trade – mainly that of slaves, with the trans-Atlantic slave trade remaining prevalent until the middle of the 19th century.

Between 1839 and 1841, France and coastal chiefs signed bilateral treaties officially establishing France as the regional protector. Several successive forays by French explorers into the interior resulted in Gabon’s integration into the French colonial empire in 1886. The contours of Gabon’s borders took shape progressively in the wake of territorial disputes with neighbouring German-ruled Cameroon and a merger with the French Congo, which saw the capital of the latter moved from Libreville to Brazzaville in 1910. The colonial economy was focused on extracting forestry resources, until the construction of the Congo-Océan railway from 1921 to 1934 paved the way for significant mining activity.

INDEPENDENCE: In 1958, as post-war France began making broad moves to decolonise, Gabon first sought to integrate itself more closely with France by becoming a département. As a result of the government’s refusal to allow this, full independence came in 1960. Following a stint as the leader of colonial Gabon, Léon Mba was elected as the independent republic’s first president in 1960.

Following his death in 1967, President Mba’s cabinet director and vice-president, Omar Bongo Ondimba – then known as Albert Bernard Bongo – was elected as president. He consolidated power under single-party rule and had Gabon join the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries, of which it was a member between 1975 and 1994. Under his presidency the country’s economic development was based primarily on oil, mining and forestry activities, and the Transgabonais railway was put into service in 1978, linking Libreville’s coastal port at Owendo with Franceville in the interior.

By the 1980s oil prices began to drop with global demand, provoking a crisis that kept Gabon mired in weak economic performance, a situation that was exacerbated by poor budgetary management.

POLITICAL SITUATION: From 1968 to 1990 the political landscape was a one-party system under the Gabonese Democratic Party (Parti Démocratique du Gabon, PDG). In 1990 the country’s political stability was shaken by student and labour strikes, along with violent demonstrations, that broke out in response to the difficult economic situation and the desire for political liberalisation.

As a result, some political reforms were implemented, including the creation of an upper house of parliament (the Senate), the removal of certain visa requirements, budget decentralisation, and the formalisation of freedom of the press and freedom of association. The first multi-party legislative elections for almost 30 years were also held in 1990.

Gabon has benefitted from political stability since it gained independence – a rarity in Central Africa – although the results of the 2009 presidential election, which was brought about by the unexpected passing of former President Omar Bongo Ondimba and which resulted in the election of PDG candidate Ali Bongo Ondimba, were heavily disputed.

Gabon has a number of political parties, although the most prominent opposition grouping of recent times was the National Union, which was formed only in 2009 but dissolved in 2012 following accusations of unconstitutional activity.

The most recent elections were those held for the National Assembly in December 2011, which were won by the PDG – in part due to the opposition’s boycott. The next presidential election is scheduled for 2016, while Senate elections will be held in 2015 and local elections in November 2013 – with the local elections also set to be the first time biometrics will be used during an election.

POLITICAL SYSTEM: The executive branch is composed of a president, who also acts as the head of state, along with the head of government, the prime minister. Presidential terms are for seven years, and 2003 saw the end of presidential term limits. The president has the power to dissolve the National Assembly and to appoint or dismiss every member of the Cabinet, including the prime minister.

The bicameral parliament, composed of the National Assembly and the Senate, exercises legislative power. The PDG currently dominates the assembly, following its victory in the 2011 elections. Ultimate judicial authority rests with the Constitutional Court, which presides over a number of judicial entities, such as the Council of State, which handles administrative issues; the Court of Accounts, which monitors public finances; and the Court of Cassation, which is responsible for civil, commercial and criminal cases. The country has been organised into nine provinces, 36 prefectures and eight sub-prefectures.

POPULATION: With an estimated 1.6m inhabitants, Gabon has an extremely low population density. The country’s population is heavily urbanised, with 87% of its people living in cities and well over one-third of Gabonese living in the capital.

The two largest cities are Libreville and Port-Gentil, with some 700,000 and 100,000 inhabitants, respectively; other population centres include Franceville, Lambaréné and Oyem.

Up until the 19th century, Gabon was gradually populated by successive waves of immigration, first by Pygmies, and subsequently in larger numbers by various Bantu peoples. There are now eight principal ethnic groups in the country: the Fang, the KotaKele, the Mbede-Teke, the Pygmies, the Myene, the Nzabi-Duma, the Okande-Tsogho and the Shira-Punu. The country has a relatively young population, with more than 50% of its people under the age of 19.

LANGUAGE: French is the official language of Gabon. In addition, more than 60 local tongues are spoken, including Fang, Myene, Nzebi, Sira and Bapounou/Eschira.

GEOGRAPHY & CLIMATE: Covering an area of 267,667 sq km, Gabon is located on the equator, at the heart of the world’s second-largest rainforest. To the west, the coastline runs along the Gulf of Guinea, which gradually gives way to the Atlantic. The country shares borders with Cameroon to the north, Equatorial Guinea to the north and north-west, and the Republic of the Congo to the south and east.

Some 85% of Gabon’s territory is covered by equatorial rainforest, and its landscape includes a coastal plain in the west, which has forests, wetlands, mangroves and savannah. A series of forested mountain ranges in the interior run parallel to the coast, and savannah-covered plateaus exist in the east. The longest river is the Ogooué, at 1200 km, and the country’s highest point is Mount Bengoué, at 1070 metres. The climate is warm and humid, with a rainy season running from September until the end of May, and a dry, cloudy season lasting from June to August. The hottest month of the year is January.

NATURAL RESOURCES: Gabon has an abundance of natural resources and is the fourth-largest oil producer in sub-Saharan Africa, at around 250,000 barrels per day. Gabon is also Africa’s second-largest manganese producer and contains significant iron ore deposits (particularly in the Belinga field in the country’s north-east) along with uranium, gold, rare earth minerals and diamonds.

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.

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