The way forward: Aiming to leverage influence across the continent

 

Long viewed as a bastion of stability in the region of Central Africa, Gabon has been able to leverage its comparative steadfastness into diplomatic clout throughout sub-Saharan Africa. After gaining independence in 1960 the country surpassed an initial decade of occasional political tension to secure a generally peaceful state. This has allowed Gabon to underwrite significant socioeconomic development, in stark contrast with a region where unrest and disorder have sometimes plagued ambitious plans for economic growth and social progress.

LIBERALISATION: To a large extent, Gabon’s long period of stability is the result of Omar Bongo Ondimba’s presidency, which ultimately fostered a oneparty system that oversaw the governing of the country for several decades. The process of gradual political liberalisation adopted by authorities during the 1990s eventually saw the establishment of a multiparty system, which in turn paved the way for the increased electoral activity the country now sees.

The country has clearly benefitted from its vast natural richness, including timber, oil, minerals and cash crops, but ensuring the sustainable management of these and helping reduce the state’s dependency on their production has become a key priority for the government and for the current president, Ali Bongo Ondimba, who was elected in 2009 in an election following the death of Omar Bongo Ondimba. The country is also trying to bolster economic inclusion through strengthening the education sector, as well as various other social arenas.

THE INDEPENDENCE WALK: The wave of African decolonisation reached Gabon in 1960, when the country gained its independence from France. The country had been managed by the European colonial power since 1910 as part of French Equatorial Africa. The country’s push for independence began two years before, in 1958, when Gabon voted for the establishment of the Communauté Française, or French Community, the plan designed by Charles De Gaulle to allow French colonies in Africa to chose between immediate independence and a longer, drawn-out process of self-determination, which allowed for a modicum of autonomy and established a roadmap for independence.

In 1959 a legislative assembly was created from the previous colonial territorial assembly. The leader of the Gabonese Democratic Bloc (Bloc Dé mocratique Gabonais, BDG), Gabriel Léon Mba, was then chosen as the country’s first prime minister. A year later, it was Mba himself who was chosen to negotiate full independence from France; in the country’s first independent elections he was voted president, whilst the legislative assembly worked to finish drafting a constitution for the new state.

TALKING ABOUT A CONSTITUTION: 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.

A few years later, in 1963 strained relations between the two biggest parties in the governing coalition, the BDG and the Gabonese Democratic and Social Union (Union Democratique et Sociale Gabonaise, UDSG), led to a second dissolution of the national assembly. As the political situation deteriorated, several opposition candidates were barred from elections scheduled to be held in February 1964, leading a group of military officers to stage a coup on February 17, 1964, just days before the vote was set to take place. Mba and his ministers were duly arrested and replaced by UDSG leader JeanHilaire Aubame. However, this was short-lived as on February 18, French units in Brazzaville and Dakar were sent to Libreville to intervene and Mba was reinstated as president of Gabon.

THE BIRTH OF A NEW PARTY: With the reinstatement of a multiparty system, previously planned elections took place as scheduled in April 1964, although the opposition was severely crippled following the coup. Mba’s BDG retained power, winning 31 seats in the assembly. Three years later, in November 1967, Mba passed away and was replaced by Vice-President Omar Bongo Ondimba.

A year later President Bongo Ondimba dissolved the multiparty system due to rising political tensions. Abolishing all political parties, including his own BDG, he formed the Gabonese Democratic Party (Parti Démocratique Gabonais, PDG), and declared it the only legal political force.

The country’s dependence on commodities also led to increasing political pressure at the time when a drop in international prices hit state revenues. By the 1980s and early 1990s, economic problems plagued the country, and many students and labour unions took the streets in protest. A revamped cabinet that included non-party personalities allowed for the establishment of a transitional government in 1990. Consequently, a constitutional amendment sponsored by the PDG-majority assembly allowed for the reinstatement of a multiparty system, while preserving many presidential powers.

PARTY POLITICS: September 1990 saw multiparty elections for the National Assembly. The first round of the ballot was contested, prompting a second round to be postponed while the ruling party and the opposition negotiated the establishment of a special electoral commission to supervise the vote. The PDG won the majority, but the opposition was able to secure significant advances in its parliamentary representation. Omar Bongo Ondimba opted to form a unity government, which included several of the opposition faction’s members. A revision of the country’s constitution was one of the first steps taken by the newly elected national assembly and a final draft was approved in early 1991.

DISPUTED LEADERSHIP: Omar Bongo Ondimba won the first presidential elections to be held under the multiparty system in 1993 with a little over 51% of the vote. He won two more elections in 1998 and 2005, but his role as the president of Gabon ended with his death on May 7, 2009. Following constitutional procedures, the president of the Senate, Rose Francine Rogombé, took over the role of interim president. New elections were held the same year on August 30. Ali Bongo Ondimba, the son of the late president, ran as the chosen candidate for the PDG, securing the election with the 42% of the vote.

While several candidates disputed the presidency of Bongo Ondimba, most garnered only a fraction of the vote. Independent candidates André Mba Obame, former interior minister and advisor to former President Omar Bongo Ondimba, and Pierre Mamboundou, who led the Gabonese People’s Union, won 25% of the ballot each. The votes were certified by the Constitutional Court, confirming Ali Bongo Ondimba’s win. The results sparked some controversy and a variety of responses, including the formation of a new opposition party, the National Union, which drew to its ranks a number of prominent figures, including former prime ministers Jean Eyeghé Ndong and Casimir Oyé-Mba.

The continuation of disagreements over the election and the electoral process in general led several opposition parties to cancel their participation in the December 2011 legislative elections. The boycott resulted in a victory for the PDG, although only around 34% of registered voters cast ballots. The ruling party won 114 seats out of a possible 120.

However, in the wake of the 2011 elections some 22 new political parties were formed. The increased activity by opposition politicians eventually prompted more dialogue and an overhaul the country’s electoral framework, with all parties invited to participate in discussions within the National Council for Democracy, a consultative body.

INTERNATIONAL PARTNERSHIPS: Over the years Gabon has participated in a number of international and regional groupings, including the UN, the African Union (AU), the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS), the Economic Community of Central African States (Communauté Économique et Monétaire de l’Afrique Centrale, CEMAC), the World Trade Organisation, the Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie, the Community of Sahel-Saharan States, the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, the Organisation for the Harmonisation of Business Law in Africa and the New Partnership for Africa’s Development.

The country has also sought enhanced economic cooperation through the establishment of a series of deals. The country’s preferential trade agreements include partners such as CEMAC, ECCAS and the African Economic Community, which is managed under the auspices of the AU. Ongoing negotiations with the EU are also been enhanced with the goal of eventually establishing an economic partnership agreement. Gabon is also aiming to establish a voluntary accord that will help guide its forestry resources exploration, called the Forest Law Enforcement, Governance and Trade Action Plan. It is an EU-led agreement that seeks to protect the sustainability of forests in Central Africa. Libreville is also a signatory to the Cotonou Agreement, which establishes the conditions for cooperation between African, Pacific and Caribbean states and the EU.

OLD FRIENDS: Gabon has maintained a close relationship with France throughout its history. The two nations have maintained cordial ties for several decades, with leaders from both countries regularly visiting each other. Between 2009 and 2012 French exports to Gabon rose from €498m to €769m, 72% of which have been manufactured equipment and other industrial products, according to figures from the UN Conference on Trade and Development.

During the same period, Gabonese exports to France have seen a decrease, from €234m to €172m, with the 80% of exports into the former colonial master being oil, wood and manganese. The French presence in the Gabonese economy is strong, with 120 or so companies from the EU nation present in the country, accounting for about half of Gabon’s exports to the global market.

Lately, Gabon has also been gearing to expand its foreign relations. Opening commercial and political ties with countries in Asia, North Africa, the Middle East and the Americas, Libreville is trying to create synergies with other nations, in order to fully implement its ambitious strategy of economic diversification. Recent presidential trips to China, Singapore, the US, Australia, Qatar, Dubai and Turkey have shown the country is after a new place in the world order.

This international openness has been especially geared towards emerging economies with strong growth rates. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan travelled to Libreville in January 2013 and the two countries were able to sign several commercial and investment agreements with the intent to double trade between Ankara and Libreville, currently at €38m, before 2015.

The King of Morocco, Mohammed VI, visited Libreville in March 2013 and signed several cooperation agreements between the two countries that span a range of issues, such as IT, health care, regional security and environmental protection. Gabon’s closeness with Morocco is also evolving politically. During the 21st AU summit held in Addis Ababa in late May 2013, Gabonese representatives were against a proposal to include the Western Sahara issue on the agenda, underlining its support for Morocco’s autonomy plan for the disputed territory.

BRANCHING OUT: Recent trips have taken President Ali Bongo Ondimba across several countries as Asian economies are taking more interest in Gabon’s economic development, with China and South Korea recently in the forefront. China specifically has strengthened its economic presence in the country over the past two decades, part of an ongoing effort by Beijing to expand Chinese business interests throughout the African continent.

Chinese firms have been increasing their presence in Gabon’s extractive industries, including mining and logging. Infrastructural development have been aided by several Chinese companies in recent decades, including the building of several hospitals in Libreville, a 35,000-seat football stadium that was used to host the Africa Cup of Nations in 2012 and several road connections.

China is also building and partly financing the CFA200bn (€300m) Poubara hydroelectric dam, in the south-east of the country, which was completed in the summer of 2013 and is expected to come on-line before the end of the year. The dam will add electricity to the national grid, as well as power a ferromanganese plant in Moanda. Gabon still enjoys cordial relations with the US, with successive bilateral visits and a growing economic cooperation that has seen the number of American business interests in the country increase over the years.

OUTLOOK: Over the past few years, President Ali Bongo Ondimba has been able to initiate a process of gradual political reform. The government has been tentatively increasing social participation in the country’s political system. Despite some tensions, Gabon has been able to avoid some of the more serious social and institutional volatility that has affected its other neighbours on the continent.

The continued and steady improvements in the nation’s political participation mechanisms, coupled with the increased enlargement of economic opportunities, will help to secure the gains made in previous years. State authorities have also emphasised the need to diversify the economy away from oil exploration. If this policy can be successfully implemented, it will lead to increased employment opportunities and reduced exposure to external shocks.

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