Straddling the equator along Central Africa’s western coast, Gabon is a former French colony of 1.5m people with a territory covered up to 85% by equatorial rainforest. Following the colonial period (1886-1960), the country’s first president, Léon Mba, ruled Gabon until his death in 1967. He was followed into office by Omar Bongo Ondimba, who occupied the post until 2009. Later that year, Omar Bongo Ondimba’s son, Ali Bongo Ondimba, won the presidential elections organised in the wake of his father’s death. Since then, the president has begun implementing a series of economic reforms aimed at transforming Gabon into an emerging economy with added-value industry and services.
Gabon has abundant natural resources; yet, after 40 years of oil production, the economy remains heavily reliant on this crucial commodity. As sub-Saharan Africa’s fourth-largest oil producer, the extraction of this resource has maintained the country’s GDP per capita at well above the sub-Saharan average, though declining oil production underscores the imperative for economic diversification, as oil accounted for just over 50% of the country’s GDP in 2011.
HISTORY: As the first Europeans to arrive in Gabon, in 1472, the Portuguese ascribed the name gabâo – meaning a sailor’s coat, inspired from the shape of the Komo estuary – to this stretch of African coast. The Portuguese captured their first slaves in the early 16th century, and this trade gradually developed alongside that of ivory and ebony. Towards the end of the century, the Dutch supplanted the Portuguese, though throughout this period Europeans did not seek to colonise the area, preferring instead to build protective outposts in order to pursue trade, mainly of slaves. The trans-Atlantic slave trade remained prevalent in the area up until the middle of the 19th century; indeed, Libreville was founded in 1849 by a group of slaves who had escaped from a captured Brazilian slave ship.
It was at this point when France began to more fully occupy Gabon. A bilateral treaty was signed in 1839 and several successive forays by French explorers into the interior, resulted in its 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 this latter entity 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 de-colonise, Gabon first sought to integrate itself more closely with France by becoming a département. As a result of the government’s refusal, full independence came for Gabon in 1960. Following his stint as the leader of colonial Gabon, Léon Mba was elected the independent republic’s first president in 1960. He occupied this post until he tried to establish single-party rule, which resulted in a coup d’etat knocking him out of power for much of 1964, before reclaiming the office with French military support later the same year. Following his death in 1967, his cabinet director and vice-president, Omar Bongo Ondimba – then known as Albert Bernard Bongo – was elected as president. He promptly consolidated power under single party rule, before converting to Islam and having Gabon join the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries, of which it was a member from 1975 to 1994. Under his presidency, 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, addled by poor budgetary management.
POLITICAL SITUATION: From 1968 to 1990, the Gabonese political landscape was a one-party system, firmly controlled by the Gabonese Democratic Party (Parti Démocratique du Gabon, PDG). In early 1990, 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 limited political reforms were implemented, including the creation of a senate, the removal of certain visa requirements, budget decentralisation and formalising the freedom of the press and of association. The first multi-party legislative elections for almost 30 years were also held in 1990. Upon his death in June 2009, Omar Bongo Ondimba was the longest-serving head of state in the world, having ruled Gabon for 42 years.
Although Gabon has benefitted from political stability since independence, the results of the 2009 presidential election were followed by civil unrest and were rejected outright by the unsuccessful candidates; indeed, elections since the establishment of multi-party politics in 1990 have been dominated by the PDG. This is in part due to the fragmented nature and the ideological dissonance of the opposition, whose ranks currently contain members of the old guard from the previous president’s era who have been set aside to make way for a new generation of PDG politicians. In 2010 a new opposition party, the National Union, was created and subsequently declared its leader as president, which led to its dissolution in 2011. The most recent elections were those held for the National Assembly in December 2011, which were won overwhelmingly by the PDG – largely due to the opposition’s boycott. The next presidential election is set for 2016, while senate elections will be held in 2015 and local elections in 2013.
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 presidency 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 enjoys near-total dominance of 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 1.5m inhabitants, Gabon’s population is heavily urbanised, with well over a third of Gabonese living in the capital alone. The country’s 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 then in larger numbers by the Bantu people. There are now eight principal ethnic groups in the country: the Fang, the Kota-Kele, the Mbede-Teke, the Pygmies, the Myene, the Nzabi-Duma, the Okande-Tsogho and the Shira-Punu.
LANGUAGE: French is the most widely spoken language and the lingua franca for business and politics. In addition, more than 60 local tongues are spoken, including Fang, Myene, Nzebi and Bapounou/Eschira.
GEOGRAPHY & CLIMATE: Covering 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 Congo to the south and east. Some 85% of its 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 runs parallel to the coast, and savannah-covered plateaus make up 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 through the end of May, and a dry, cloudy season lasting from June to August.
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 near Lambaréné, and diamonds. The country exhibits an astonishing level of biodiversity in its flora and fauna: its forests are replete with varieties of tropical wood and it has an estimated population of 30,000 African forest elephants, various ape species, hippopotamuses and African forest buffalos. Thanks to its climate, it is also home to palm and rubber plantations, along with lands for growing coffee, cocoa and banana.