Gabon

Introduction:

Gabon, officially the Gabonese Republic, is a country on the west coast of Central Africa. Located on the equator, Gabon is bordered by Equatorial Guinea to the northwest, Cameroon to the north, the Republic of the Congo on the east and south, and the Gulf of Guinea to the west. It has an area of nearly 270,000 square kilometres (100,000 sq mi) and its population is estimated at 2.1 million people. Its capital and largest city is Libreville.

Gabon on the Globe

Since its independence from France in 1960, the sovereign state of Gabon has had three presidents. In the early 1990s, Gabon introduced a multi-party system and a new democratic constitution that allowed for a more transparent electoral process and reformed many governmental institutions.

Abundant petroleum and foreign private investment have helped make Gabon one of the most prosperous countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, with the 7th highest HDI and the fourth highest GDP per capita (PPP) (after Mauritius, Equatorial Guinea and Seychelles) in the region. GDP grew by more than 6% per year from 2010 to 2012. However, because of inequality in income distribution, a significant proportion of the population remains poor.

History:

The earliest inhabitants of the area were Pygmy peoples. They were largely replaced and absorbed by Bantu tribes as they migrated.

In the 15th century, the first Europeans arrived. By the 18th century, a Myeni speaking kingdom known as Orungu formed in Gabon.

On February 10, 1722, Bartholomew Roberts, a Welsh pirate known as Black Bart, died at sea off Cape Lopez. He raided ships off the Americas and West Africa from 1719 to 1722.

French explorer Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza led his first mission to the Gabon-Congo area in 1875. He founded the town of Franceville, and was later colonial governor. Several Bantu groups lived in the area that is now Gabon when France officially occupied it in 1885.

Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza

In 1910, Gabon became one of the four territories of French Equatorial Africa, a federation that survived until 1959. In World War II, the Allies invaded Gabon in order to overthrow the pro-Vichy France colonial administration. The territories of French Equatorial Africa became independent on August 17, 1960. The first president of Gabon, elected in 1961, was Léon M’ba, with Omar Bongo Ondimba as his vice president.

Battle of Gabon

After M’ba’s accession to power, the press was suppressed, political demonstrations banned, freedom of expression curtailed, other political parties gradually excluded from power, and the Constitution changed along French lines to vest power in the Presidency, a post that M’ba assumed himself. However, when M’ba dissolved the National Assembly in January 1964 to institute one-party rule, an army coup sought to oust him from power and restore parliamentary democracy. French paratroopers flew in within 24 hours to restore M’ba to power.

Léon M’ba

After a few days of fighting, the coup ended and the opposition was imprisoned, despite widespread protests and riots. French soldiers still remain in the Camp de Gaulle on the outskirts of Gabon’s capital to this day. When M’Ba died in 1967, Bongo replaced him as president.

In March 1968, Bongo declared Gabon a one-party state by dissolving the BDG and establishing a new party—the Parti Democratique Gabonais (PDG). He invited all Gabonese, regardless of previous political affiliation, to participate. Bongo sought to forge a single national movement in support of the government’s development policies, using the PDG as a tool to submerge the regional and tribal rivalries that had divided Gabonese politics in the past. Bongo was elected President in February 1975; in April 1975, the position of vice president was abolished and replaced by the position of prime minister, who had no right to automatic succession. Bongo was re-elected President in both December 1979 and November 1986 to 7-year terms.

In early 1990 economic discontent and a desire for political liberalization provoked violent demonstrations and strikes by students and workers. In response to grievances by workers, Bongo negotiated with them on a sector-by-sector basis, making significant wage concessions. In addition, he promised to open up the PDG and to organize a national political conference in March–April 1990 to discuss Gabon’s future political system. The PDG and 74 political organizations attended the conference. Participants essentially divided into two loose coalitions, the ruling PDG and its allies, and the United Front of Opposition Associations and Parties, consisting of the breakaway Morena Fundamental and the Gabonese Progress Party.

The April 1990 conference approved sweeping political reforms, including creation of a national Senate, decentralization of the budgetary process, freedom of assembly and press, and cancellation of an exit visa requirement. In an attempt to guide the political system’s transformation to multiparty democracy, Bongo resigned as PDG chairman and created a transitional government headed by a new Prime Minister, Casimir Oye-Mba. The Gabonese Social Democratic Grouping (RSDG), as the resulting government was called, was smaller than the previous government and included representatives from several opposition parties in its cabinet. The RSDG drafted a provisional constitution in May 1990 that provided a basic bill of rights and an independent judiciary but retained strong executive powers for the president. After further review by a constitutional committee and the National Assembly, this document came into force in March 1991.

Opposition to the PDG continued after the April 1990 conference, however, and in September 1990, two coup d’état attempts were uncovered and aborted. Despite anti-government demonstrations after the untimely death of an opposition leader, the first multiparty National Assembly elections in almost 30 years took place in September–October 1990, with the PDG garnering a large majority.

Omar Bongo Ondimba

Following President Omar Bongo’s re-election in December 1993 with 51% of the vote, opposition candidates refused to validate the election results. Serious civil disturbances and violent repression led to an agreement between the government and opposition factions to work toward a political settlement. These talks led to the Paris Accords in November 1994, under which several opposition figures were included in a government of national unity. This arrangement soon broke down, however, and the 1996 and 1997 legislative and municipal elections provided the background for renewed partisan politics. The PDG won a landslide victory in the legislative election, but several major cities, including Libreville, elected opposition mayors during the 1997 local election.

Facing a divided opposition, President Omar Bongo coasted to easy re-election in December 1998, with large majorities of the vote. While Bongo’s major opponents rejected the outcome as fraudulent, some international observers characterized the results as representative despite many perceived irregularities, and there were none of the civil disturbances that followed the 1993 election. Peaceful though flawed legislative elections held in 2001–2002, which were boycotted by a number of smaller opposition parties and were widely criticized for their administrative weaknesses, produced a National Assembly almost completely dominated by the PDG and allied independents. In November 2005 President Omar Bongo was elected for his sixth term. He won re-election easily, but opponents claim that the balloting process was marred by irregularities. There were some instances of violence following the announcement of his win, but Gabon generally remained peaceful.

National Assembly elections were held again in December 2006. Several seats contested because of voting irregularities were overturned by the Constitutional Court, but the subsequent run-off elections in early 2007 again yielded a PDG-controlled National Assembly.

On June 8, 2009, President Omar Bongo died of cardiac arrest at a Spanish hospital in Barcelona, ushering in a new era in Gabonese politics. In accordance with the amended constitution, Rose Francine Rogombé, the President of the Senate, became Interim President on June 10, 2009. The first contested elections in Gabon’s history that did not include Omar Bongo as a candidate were held on August 30, 2009 with 18 candidates for president. The lead-up to the elections saw some isolated protests, but no significant disturbances. Omar Bongo’s son, ruling party leader Ali Bongo Ondimba, was formally declared the winner after a 3-week review by the Constitutional Court; his inauguration took place on October 16, 2009.

Ali Bongo Ondimba

The court’s review had been prompted by claims of fraud by the many opposition candidates, with the initial announcement of election results sparking unprecedented violent protests in Port-Gentil, the country’s second-largest city and a long-time bastion of opposition to PDG rule. The citizens of Port-Gentil took to the streets, and numerous shops and residences were burned, including the French Consulate and a local prison. Officially, only four deaths occurred during the riots, but opposition and local leaders claim many more. Gendarmes and the military were deployed to Port-Gentil to support the beleaguered police, and a curfew was in effect for more than three months.

A partial legislative by-election was held in June 2010. A newly created coalition of parties, the Union Nationale (UN), participated for the first time. The UN is composed largely of PDG defectors who left the party after Omar Bongo’s death. Of the five hotly contested seats, the PDG won three and the UN won two; both sides claimed victory.

In January 2019, there was an attempted coup d’état led by soldiers against the President Ali Bongo; the coup ultimately failed.

Geography:

Gabon is located on the Atlantic coast of central Africa on the equator. Gabon generally has an equatorial climate with an extensive system of rainforests, with 89.3% of its land area forested.

There are three distinct regions: the coastal plains (ranging between 20 and 300 km [10 and 190 mi] from the ocean’s shore), the mountains (the Cristal Mountains to the northeast of Libreville, the Chaillu Massif in the centre), and the savanna in the east. The coastal plains form a large section of the World Wildlife Fund’s Atlantic Equatorial coastal forests ecoregion and contain patches of Central African mangroves especially on the Muni River estuary on the border with Equatorial Guinea.

Topographic Map of Gabon

Gabon is notable for the Oklo reactor zones, the only known natural nuclear fission reactor on Earth which was active two billion years ago. The site was discovered during uranium mining in the 1970s to supply the French nuclear power industry.

Gabon’s largest river is the Ogooué which is 1,200 kilometres (750 mi) long. Gabon has three karst areas where there are hundreds of caves located in the dolomite and limestone rocks. Some of the caves include Grotte du Lastoursville, Grotte du Lebamba, Grotte du Bongolo, and Grotte du Kessipougou. Many caves have not been explored yet. A National Geographic Expedition visited the caves in the summer of 2008 to document them.

Gabon is also noted for efforts to preserve the natural environment. In 2002, President Omar Bongo Ondimba designated roughly 10% of the nation’s territory to be part of its national park system (with 13 parks in total), one of the largest proportions of nature parkland in the world. The National Agency for National Parks manages Gabon’s national park system.

Protected Areas in Gabon

Natural resources include petroleum, magnesium, iron, gold, uranium, and forests.

Economy:

Gabon’s economy is dominated by oil. Oil revenues constitute roughly 46% of the government’s budget, 43% of the gross domestic product (GDP), and 81% of exports. Oil production is currently declining rapidly from its high point of 370,000 barrels per day in 1997. Some estimates suggest that Gabonese oil will be expended by 2025. In spite of the decreasing oil revenues, planning is only now beginning for an after-oil scenario. The Grondin Oil Field was discovered in 50 m (160 ft) water depths 40 km (25 mi) offshore, in 1971.

Gabon Exports

Gabonese public expenditures from the years of significant oil revenues were not spent efficiently. Overspending on the Trans-Gabon Railway, the CFA franc devaluation of 1994, and periods of low oil prices caused serious debt problems that still plague the country.

Gabon earned a poor reputation with the Paris Club and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) over the management of its debt and revenues. Successive IMF missions have criticized the government for overspending on off-budget items (in good years and bad), over-borrowing from the Central Bank, and slipping on the schedule for privatization and administrative reform. However, in September 2005 Gabon successfully concluded a 15-month Stand-By Arrangement with the IMF. Another 3-year Stand-By Arrangement with the IMF was approved in May 2007. Because of the financial crisis and social developments surrounding the death of President Omar Bongo and the elections, Gabon was unable to meet its economic goals under the Stand-By Arrangement in 2009. Negotiations with the IMF were ongoing.

Gabon’s oil revenues have given it a per capita GDP of $8,600, unusually high for the region. However, a skewed income distribution and poor social indicators are evident. The richest 20% of the population earn over 90% of the income while about a third of the Gabonese population lives in poverty.

The economy is highly dependent on extraction, but primary materials are abundant. Before the discovery of oil, logging was the pillar of the Gabonese economy. Today, logging and manganese mining are the next-most-important income generators. Recent explorations suggest the presence of the world’s largest unexploited iron ore deposit. For many who live in rural areas without access to employment opportunity in extractive industries, remittances from family members in urban areas or subsistence activities provide income.

Manganese Mine in Gabon

Further investment in the agricultural or tourism sectors is complicated by poor infrastructure. The small processing and service sectors that do exist are largely dominated by a few prominent local investors.

At World Bank and IMF insistence, the government embarked in the 1990s on a program of privatization of its state-owned companies and administrative reform, including reducing public sector employment and salary growth, but progress has been slow. The new government has voiced a commitment to work toward an economic transformation of the country but faces significant challenges to realize this goal.

Transportation:

Modes of transport in Gabon include rail, road, water, and air. The one rail link, the Trans-Gabon Railway, connects the port of Owendo with the inland town of Franceville. Most but not all of the country is connected to the road network, much of which is unpaved, and which centers on seven “national routes” identified as N1 to N7. The largest seaports are Port-Gentil and the newer Owendo, and 1,600 km of inland waterways are navigable. There are three international airports, eight other paved airports, and over 40 with unpaved runways.

Until the 1970s, Gabon had no railroads. A 936 km railroad construction program, the Trans-Gabon Railway, began in October 1974. In its first stage, completed in 1983, the project linked the port of Owendo with the interior city of Booué (332 km). The second stage, completed in December 1986, linked Booué with Franceville (357 km) via Moanda, thus facilitating exports of manganese from the southeast and forestry exploitation in the same region. A proposed third stage would continue the line from Booué to Belinga in the northeast, where there are iron ore deposits.

Rail Service in Gabon

As of 2004, Gabon State Railways totalled 814 km of standard-gauge track.

New rail line from Belinga will go 450 km all the way to the coast, rather than to be a branch off an existing line.

Main roads connect virtually all major communities, but maintenance work is difficult because of heavy rainfall. In 2002, the road network comprised 8,454 km, of which 838 km were paved, including 30 km of expressways. A north–south road runs the length of the country, from Bitam to Ndendé. This main north–south link continues into Cameroon in the north and the Congo in the south. An east–west road connects Libreville and Mékambo. Farther south, another road runs from Mayumba to Lastoursville and Franceville. In 1995 there were about 23,000 automobiles and 10,000 commercial vehicles in use.

The busiest ports are Port-Gentil, the center for exports of petroleum products and imports of mining equipment, and Owendo, a new port that opened in 1974 on the Ogooué estuary, 10 km north of Libreville. Owendo’s capacity, initially 300,000 tons, reached 1.5 million tons in 1979, when the port was enlarged to include timber-handling facilities. The smaller port at Mayumba also handles timber, and a deepwater port is planned for the city.

Gabon has 1,600 km of perennially navigable waterways, including 310 km on the Ogooué River.

Libreville Airport Terminal

Gabon had an estimated 56 airports in 2004, but only 11 of which had paved runways as of 2005. There are three international airports: Libreville, Port-Gentil, and Franceville. Numerous airlines provide international flights. Nouvelle Air Affaires Gabon handles scheduled domestic service. In 2003, about 386,000 passengers were carried on scheduled domestic and international airline flights.

Flag of Gabon:

The flag of Gabon (French: drapeau du Gabon) is a tricolour consisting of three horizontal green, yellow and blue bands. Adopted in 1960 to replace the previous colonial flag containing the French Tricolour at the canton, it has been the flag of the Gabonese Republic since the country gained independence that year. The design of the present flag entailed the removal the Tricolour and the widening of the yellow stripe at the center.

Flag of Gabon

The French gained control of modern-day Gabon in 1839, when a local chief surrendered the sovereignty of his land to them. The Berlin Conference of 1885 solidified France’s claim to the territory through diplomatic recognition, and it later became part of French Equatorial Africa in 1910. Under French colonial rule over Gabon, the authorities forbade the colony from utilizing its own distinctive colonial flag. This was because they were worried that this could increase nationalistic sentiment and lead to calls for independence. However, with the rise of the decolonization movement in Africa, the French were obliged to grant limited autonomy to Gabon as a self-governing republic within the French Community. This was granted in 1958 after a referendum was held supporting the proposal.

Gabon – considered “one of the more progressive” of French colonies – swiftly formulated a design for a new flag, which was officially adopted a year later in 1959. It featured a horizontal tricolour identical to the current flag, but with the yellow stripe at the center narrower than the green and blue bands surrounding it. The French Tricolour was situated at the canton of the flag, making Gabon the only French autonomous republic to feature this “symbolic link” with France.

On August 9, 1960 – just over a week before Gabon became an independent country on August 17 – the flag was slightly modified. The change entailed removing the Tricolour at the canton and enlarging the yellow stripe at the center, thus giving it equal width with the two other bands.

The colours and symbols of the flag carry cultural, political, and regional meanings. The yellow alludes to the Equator – which cuts across the country – and also symbolizes the sun. The green epitomizes the natural resources of Gabon, as well as its “extensive forested area” that the Gabonese people are economically dependent on in the form of lumber. The blue represents the sea, specifically the South Atlantic Ocean along which the country has an “extensive coast”.

The proportions of Gabon’s flag are 3:4. This uncommon flag ratio, which is enshrined by Gabonese law, is shared by the flags of only three other countries – Democratic Republic of the Congo (some sources state that the proportions are 2:3), Papua New Guinea and San Marino. Furthermore, the country’s flag does not utilize the green, yellow and red colors of the Pan-Africanist movement, in contrast to its neighboring countries. Unlike other former French colonies in Africa, the flag consists of a horizontal tricolour, rather than a vertical one modeled after the flag of France.

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