Almost all Gabonese are of Bantu origin. Gabon has at least 40 ethnic groups, with separate languages and cultures. The largest is the Fang. Other ethnic groups include the Myene, Bandjabi, Eshira, Bapounou, Bateke/Obamba, and Okande. Ethnic group boundaries are less sharply drawn in Gabon than elsewhere in Africa. French, the official language, is a unifying force. More than 10,000 French people live in Gabon, and France predominates foreign cultural and commercial influences. Historical and environmental factors caused Gabon's population to decline between 1900 and 1940. It is one of the least-densely inhabited countries in Africa, and a labor shortage is a major obstacle to development and a draw for foreign workers. The population is generally accepted to be just over 1 million but remains in dispute.
During the last seven centuries, Bantu ethnic groups arrived in the area from several directions to escape enemies or find new land. Little is known of tribal life before European contact, but tribal art suggests rich cultural heritages. Gabon's first European visitors were Portuguese traders who arrived in the 15th century and named the country after the Portuguese word "gabao," a coat with sleeve and hood resembling the shape of the Komo River estuary. The coast became a center of the slave trade. Dutch, British, and French traders came in the 16th century. France assumed the status of protector by signing treaties with Gabonese coastal chiefs in 1839 and 1841. American missionaries from New England established a mission at Baraka (now Libreville) in 1842. In 1849, the French captured a slave ship and released the passengers at the mouth of the Komo River. The slaves named their settlement Libreville-"free town." French explorers penetrated Gabon's dense jungles between 1862 and 1887. The most famous, Savorgnan de Brazza, used Gabonese bearers and guides in his search for the headwaters of the Congo River. France occupied Gabon in 1885 but did not administer it until 1903. In 1910, Gabon became one of the four territories of French Equatorial Africa, a federation that survived until 1959. The territories became independent in 1960 as the Central African Republic, Chad, Congo (Brazzaville), and Gabon.
Under the 1961 constitution (revised in 1975 and rewritten in 1991), Gabon became a republic with a presidential form of government. The National Assembly has 120 deputies elected for a 5-year term. The president is elected by universal suffrage, for a 7-year term. The president appoints the prime minister, the cabinet, and judges of the independent Supreme Court. The government in 1990 made major changes in the political system. A transitional constitution was drafted in May as an outgrowth of a national political conference in March-April and later revised by a constitutional committee. Among its provisions were a Western-style bill of rights; creation of a National Council of Democracy, which oversees the guarantee of those rights; a governmental advisory board on economic and social issues; and an independent judiciary. After approval by the National Assembly, the PDG Central Committee, and the president, the Assembly unanimously adopted the constitution in March 1991. Multi-party legislative elections were held in 1990-91, despite the fact that opposition parties had not been declared formally legal.
After a peaceful transition, the elections produced the first representative, multi-party, National Assembly. In January 1991, the Assembly passed by unanimous vote a law governing the legalization of opposition parties. The president was re-elected in a disputed election in 1993 with 51% of votes cast. Social and political disturbances led to the 1994 Paris Conference and Accords, which provided a framework for the next elections. Local and legislative elections were delayed until 1996-97. In 1997 constitutional amendments were adopted to create an appointed Senate, the position of vice president, and to extend the president's term to 7 years. Facing a divided opposition, President Bongo was re-elected in December 1998, with 66% of the votes cast. Although the main opposition parties claimed the elections had been manipulated, there was none of the civil disturbance that followed the 1993 election. The president retains strong powers, such as authority to dissolve the National Assembly, declare a state of siege, delay legislation, conduct referenda, and appoint and dismiss the prime minister and cabinet members. For administrative purposes, Gabon is divided into 9 provinces, which are further divided into 36 prefectures and 8 separate subprefectures. The president appoints the provincial governors, the prefects, and the subprefects.
President of the Republic, Founder of the Gabonese Democratic Party-- El Hadj Omar Bongo
Vice President---Didjob Divungi Di Ndinge
Prime Minister, Head of Government--Jean Francois Ntoutoume-Emane
Minister of Foreign Affairs and Cooperation--Jean Ping
Ambassador to the United States--Paul Boundoukou-Latha
Ambassador to the United Nations--Denis Dangue-Rewaka
Gabon maintains an embassy in the United States at 2034 - 20th Street NW, Washington, DC 20009 (tel. 202-797-1000).
At the time of Gabon's independence in 1960, two principal political parties existed: the Bloc Democratique Gabonais (BDG), led by Leon M'Ba, and the Union Democratique et Sociale Gabonaise (UDSG), led by J.H. Aubame. In the first post-independence election, held under a parliamentary system, neither party was able to win a majority. The BDG obtained support from three of the four independent legislative deputies, and M'Ba was named prime minister. Soon after concluding that Gabon had an insufficient number of people for a two-party system, the two party leaders agreed on a single list of candidates. In the February 1961 election, held under the new presidential system, M'Ba became president and Aubame foreign minister.
This one-party system appeared to work until February 1963, when the larger BDG element forced the UDSG members to choose between a merger of the parties or resignation. The UDSG cabinet ministers resigned, and M'Ba called an election for February 1964 and a reduced number of National Assembly deputies (from 67 to 47). The UDSG failed to muster a list of candidates able to meet the requirements of the electoral decrees. When the BDG appeared likely to win the election by default, the Gabonese military toppled M'Ba in a bloodless coup on February 18, 1964. French troops re-established his government the next day. Elections were held in April with many opposition participants. BDG-supported candidates won 31 seats and the opposition 16. Late in 1966, the constitution was revised to provide for automatic succession of the vice president should the president die in office. In March 1967, Leon M'Ba and Omar Bongo (then Albert Bongo) were elected president and vice president. M'Ba died later that year, and Omar Bongo became president.
In March 1968, Bongo declared Gabon a one-party state by dissolving the BDG and establishing a new party--the Parti Democratique Gabonais. He invited all Gabonese, regardless of previous political affiliation, to participate. Bongo was elected president in February 1975 and re-elected in December 1979 and November 1986 to 7-year terms. In April 1975, the office of vice president was abolished and replaced by the office of prime minister, who has no right to automatic succession. Under the 1991 constitution, in the event of the president's death, the prime minister, the National Assembly president, and the defense minister share power until a new election is held. Using the PDG as a tool to submerge the regional and tribal rivalries that have divided Gabonese politics in the past, Bongo sought to forge a single national movement in support of the government's development policies.
Opposition to the PDG continued, however, and in September 1990, two coup attempts were uncovered and aborted. Economic discontent and a desire for political liberalization provoked violent demonstrations and strikes by students and workers in early 1990. 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 conference approved sweeping political reforms, including creation of a national senate, decentralization of the budgetary process, freedom of assembly and press, and cancellation of the exit visa requirement. In an attempt to guide the political system's transformation to multi-party 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 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.
Despite further anti-government demonstrations after the untimely death of an opposition leader, the first multi-party National Assembly elections in almost 30 years took place in September-October 1990, with the PDG garnering a large majority. Following President Bongo's re-election in December 1993 with 51% of the vote, opposition candidates refused to validate the election results. Serious civil disturbances 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 in which several opposition figures were included in a government of national unity. This arrangement soon broke down, 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. President Bongo coasted to an easy re-election in December 1998 with 66% of the vote against a divided opposition. While Bongo's major opponents rejected the outcome as fraudulent, international observers characterized the result as representative even if the election suffered from serious administrative problems. There was no serious civil disorder or protests following the election in contrast to the 1993 election.
Gabon's economy is dominated by oil. Oil revenues have comprised 60% of the Government of Gabon budget, 40% of GDP, and 80% of exports. Oil production is now declining from its apogee of 370,000 barrels per day in 1997. The 1998 fall-off in oil prices had a negative impact on government revenues and the economy. Little thought or plans have been made for an after-oil scenario. Gabon public expenditures from the years of significant oil revenues have not been spent efficiently. Overspending on the Transgabonais railroad, the oil price shock of 1986, and the franc CFA devaluation of 1994 have caused debt problems. Gabon has earned a poor reputation with the Paris Club and the IMF for poor management of its debt and revenues. IMF missions (related to the now lapsed EFF program) have criticized the government for over-spending 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.
Gabon's oil revenues have given it a strong per capita GDP of more than $4,000, extremely high for the region. On the other hand, a skewed income distribution and poor social indicators are evident. The economy is highly dependent on extraction of abundant primary materials. After oil, timber and manganese mining are the other major sectors. Foreign and Gabonese observers have consistently lamented the lack of transformation of primary materials in the Gabonese economy. Various factors have so far stymied more diversification (small market of 1 million people, dependence on French imports, inability to capitalize on regional markets, lack of entrepreneurial zeal among the Gabonese, and the fairly regular stream of oil "rent"). The small processing and service sectors are largely dominated by just a few prominent local investors. At World Bank and IMF insistence, the government has embarked on a program of privatization of its state-owned companies and administrative reform, including reducing public sector employment and salary growth. The government has been slipping on its targets.
Gabon has followed a nonaligned policy, advocating dialogue in international affairs and recognizing both parts of divided countries. Since 1973, the number of countries establishing diplomatic relations with Gabon has doubled. In inter-African affairs, Gabon espouses development by evolution rather than revolution and favors regulated free enterprise as the system most likely to promote rapid economic growth. Concerned about stability in Central Africa and the potential for intervention, Gabon has been directly involved with mediation efforts in Chad, Central African Republic, Congo/Brazzaville, Angola, and former Zaire. In December 1999, through the mediation efforts of President Bongo, a peace accord was signed in Congo/Brazzaville between the government and most leaders of an armed rebellion. President Bongo has remained involved in the continuing Congolese peace process. Gabon has been a strong proponent of regional stability, and Gabonese armed forces played an important role in the UN Peacekeeping Mission to the Central African Republic (MINURCA).
Gabon is a member of the UN and some of its specialized and related agencies, including the World Bank; Organization of African Unity (OAU); Central African Customs Union (UDEAC/CEMAC); EC association under Lome Convention; Communaute Financiere Africaine (CFA); Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC); Nonaligned Movement; withdrew from the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC).
Relations between the United States and Gabon are excellent. In 1987, President Bongo made an official visit to Washington, DC. The United States imports a considerable percentage of Gabonese crude oil and manganese and exports heavy construction equipment, aircraft, and machinery to Gabon. The major U.S. assistance program in Gabon is a Peace Corps contingent of about 80 volunteers who teach math and science, promote health programs and agro-fish-forestry projects, and build rural schools. Through a modest International Military Education and Training program, the United States provides military training to members of the Gabonese armed forces each year. U.S. private capital has been attracted to Gabon since before its independence.
Ambassador--James V. Ledesma
Deputy Chief of Mission--Thomas F. Daughton
Adminstrative Officer--Nathan Bluhm
Economic/Commercial Officer--John J. Hillmeyer
Political/Consular Officer--Mary M. Knudson
Peace Corps Director--Jan Wessel
The U.S. Embassy is located on the Blvd. de la Mer, B.P. 4000, Libreville, Gabon (tel: 241-762-003/004; fax: 241- 745-507).