Gabon ( /ɡəˈbɒn/; French pronunciation: [ɡabɔ̃]), officially the Gabonese Republic (French: République Gabonaise) is a sovereign state 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 Atlantic Ocean's 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 1.5 million people. Its capital and largest city is Libreville.
Since its independence from France on August 17, 1960, Gabon has been ruled by 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. Gabon was also a non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council for the 2010–2011 term.
Low population density, abundant petroleum, and foreign private investment[ambiguous] have helped make Gabon one of the most prosperous countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, with the highest HDI and the third highest GDP per capita (PPP) (after Equatorial Guinea and Botswana) in the region.
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. The nation's present name originates from "Gabão", Portuguese for "cloak", which is roughly the shape of the estuary of the Komo River by Libreville. By the 18th century, a Myeni speaking kingdom known as Orungu formed in Gabon which traded heavily with Europeans. 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.
In 1910, Gabon became one of the four territories of French Equatorial Africa, a federation that survived until 1959. These territories 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. French interests were decisive in selecting the future leadership in Gabon after Independence; French logging interests poured funds into the successful election campaign of M'ba, an évolué from the coastal region.
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. The extent to which M'ba's dictatorial regime was synonymous with "French Interests" then became blatantly apparent when French paratroopers flew in within 24 hours to restore M'ba to power.
After a few days of fighting, the coup was over and the opposition imprisoned, despite widespread protests and riots. The French government was unperturbed by international condemnation of the intervention, and paratroops still remain in the Camp de Gaulle on the outskirts of Gabon's capital. 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.
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 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.
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 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 Omar Bongo's 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.
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 3 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.
Gabon is a republic with a presidential form of government under the 1961 constitution (revised in 1975, rewritten in 1991, and revised in 2003). The president is elected by universal suffrage for a 7-year term; a 2003 constitutional amendment removed presidential term limits and facilitated a presidency for life. The president can appoint and dismiss the prime minister, the cabinet, and judges of the independent Supreme Court. The president also has other strong powers, such as authority to dissolve the National Assembly, declare a state of siege, delay legislation, and conduct referenda.
The country has a bicameral legislature with a National Assembly and Senate. The National Assembly has 120 deputies who are popularly elected for a 5-year term. The Senate is composed of 102 members who are elected by municipal councils and regional assemblies and serve for 6 years. The Senate was created in the 1990–1991 constitutional re-write, although it was not brought into being until after the 1997 local elections. The President of the Senate is next in succession to the President.
In 1990 the government made major changes to Gabon's political system. A transitional constitution was drafted in May 1990 as an outgrowth of the 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 to oversee 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. Multiparty legislative elections were held in 1990–91, despite the fact that opposition parties had not been declared formally legal. In spite of this, the elections produced the first representative, multiparty National Assembly. In January 1991, the Assembly passed by unanimous vote a law governing the legalization of opposition parties.
After President Omar Bongo was re-elected in a disputed presidential 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 put forward years earlier were adopted to create the Senate and the position of vice president, as well as to extend the president's term to 7 years.
In October 2009, newly elected President Ali Bongo Ondimba began efforts to streamline the government. He eliminated 17 minister-level positions. He also abolished the vice president position and reorganized the portfolios of numerous ministries, bureaus, and directorates with the intention of reducing corruption and government bloat. In November 2009, President Bongo Ondimba announced a new vision for the modernization of Gabon, called "Gabon Emergent." This program contains three pillars: Green Gabon, Service Gabon, and Industrial Gabon. The goals of Gabon Emergent are to diversify the economy so that Gabon becomes less reliant on petroleum, to eliminate corruption, and to modernize the workforce. Under this program, exports of raw timber have been banned, a government-wide census was held, the work day has been changed to eliminate a long midday break, and a national oil company was created.
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.
In provisional results, the ruling Gabonese Democratic Party (PDG) won 84 out of 120 parliamentary seats.
Gabon has a small, professional military of about 5,000 personnel, divided into army, navy, air force, gendarmerie, and national police. Gabonese forces are oriented to the defense of the country and have not been trained for an offensive role. A 1,800-member guard provides security for the president.
Since independence, Gabon has followed a nonaligned policy, advocating dialogue in international affairs and recognizing each side of divided countries. 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. Gabon played an important leadership role in the stability of Central Africa through involvement in mediation efforts in Chad, the Central African Republic, Angola, the Republic of the Congo, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (D.R.C.), and Burundi.
In December 1999, through the mediation efforts of President Bongo, a peace accord was signed in the Republic of the Congo (Brazzaville) between the government and most leaders of an armed rebellion. President Bongo was also involved in the continuing D.R.C. peace process, and played a role in mediating the crisis in Côte d'Ivoire. Gabonese armed forces were also an integral part of the Central African Economic and Monetary Community (CEMAC) mission to the Central African Republic.
Gabon is a member of the United Nations (UN) and some of its specialized and related agencies, as well as of the World Bank; the IMF; the African Union (AU); the Central African Customs Union/Central African Economic and Monetary Community (UDEAC/CEMAC); EU/ACP association under the Lome Convention; the Communaute Financiere Africaine (CFA); the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC); the Nonaligned Movement; and the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS/CEEAC), among others. In 1995, Gabon withdrew from the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). Gabon was elected to a non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council for January 2010 through December 2011 and held the rotating presidency in March 2010.
On January 25, 2011, opposition leader André Mba Obame claimed the presidency, saying the country should be run by someone the people really wanted. He also selected 19 ministers for his government, and the entire group, along with hundreds of others, spent the night at United Nations headquarters. On January 26, the government dissolved Mba Obame's party. African Union chairman Jean Ping said that Mba Obame's action "hurts the integrity of legitimate institutions and also endangers the peace, the security and the stability of Gabon." Interior Minister Jean-François Ndongou accused Mba Obame and his supporters of treason. The UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, said that he recognized Ondimba as the only official Gabonese president.
Provinces and departments
Gabon is divided into nine provinces and further divided into 37 departments.
The provinces are:
Gabon is located on the Atlantic coast of central Africa. Located on the equator, between latitudes 3°N and 4°S, and longitudes 8° and 15°E. Gabon generally has an equatorial climate with an extensive system of rainforests covering 85% of the country. There are three distinct regions: the coastal plains (ranging between 20 to 300 km from the ocean's shore), the mountains (the Cristal Mountains to the northeast of Libreville, the Chaillu Massif in the centre, culminating at 1575 m with Mont Iboundji), 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.
Gabon's largest river is the Ogooué which is 1200 km 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 (Expedition Website).
Gabon is also noted for efforts to preserve the natural environment. In 2002, President Omar Bongo Ondimba put Gabon firmly on the map as an important future ecotourism destination by designating 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. Natural resources include: petroleum, magnesium, iron, gold, uranium, and forests.
Gabon's economy is dominated by oil. Oil revenues comprise roughly 46% of the government's budget, 43% of gross domestic product (GDP), and 81% of exports. Oil production is now 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.
Gabonese public expenditures from the years of significant oil revenues were not spent efficiently. Overspending on the Transgabonais railroad, the oil price shock of 1986, the CFA franc devaluation of 1994, and low oil prices in the late 1990s 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 are ongoing.
Gabon's oil revenues have given it a strong per capita GDP of $8,600, extremely high for the region. However the income distribution is skewed and social indicators show poor values. The richest 20% of the population receive over 90% of the income while about a third of the Gabonese population lives in poverty.
The economy is highly dependent on extraction of abundant primary materials. Prior to the discovery of oil, logging was the pillar of the Gabonese economy. Today, logging and manganese mining are the other major income generators. Recent explorations point to the presence of the world's largest unexploited iron ore deposit. For many living in the countryside without access to employment in extractive industries, remittances from family members in urban areas or subsistence activities provide income.
Many foreign and local observers have consistently lamented the lack of diversity in the Gabonese economy. Various factors have so far stymied additional industries—a small market of about 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". Further investment in 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.
Gabon has a population that is estimated at 1,545,255. Historical and environmental factors caused Gabon's population to decline between 1900 and 1940. It has one of the lowest population densities of any country in Africa, and the highest Human Development Index in Sub-Saharan Africa.
Almost all Gabonese are of Bantu origin, though Gabon has at least forty ethnic groups with diverse languages and cultures. The Fang are generally thought to be the largest, although recent census data seem to favor the Nzebi. Others include the Myene, Kota, Shira, Puru, and Kande. Ethnic boundaries are less sharply drawn in Gabon than elsewhere in Africa. There are also various Pygmy peoples: the Bongo, Kota, and Baka; the latter speak the only non-Bantu language in Gabon.
Most ethnicities are spread throughout Gabon, leading to constant contact and interaction among the groups. Intermarriage between the ethnicities is quite common, helping reduce ethnic tensions. French, the language of its former colonial ruler, is a unifying force. The Democratic Party of Gabon (PDG)'s historical dominance also has served to unite various ethnicities and local interests into a larger whole. More than 10,000 native French live in Gabon, including an estimated 2,000 dual nationals. It is estimated that 80% of the country's population can speak French, and that 30% of Libreville residents are native speakers of the language. Nationally, 32% of the Gabonese people speak the language as a mother tongue. In October 2012, just before the 14th summit of the Organisation internationale de la Francophonie, the country declared an intention to add English as a second official language, reportedly in response to an investigation by France into corruption in the African country. However, the spokesman for Ali Bongo Ondimba said: “"You know very well that once you leave the Francophonie space, if you do not speak English, you are almost handicapped. What is most interesting in the issue is the realization that French writers publish some of their materials in English, and that during international conferences, the French diplomats speak in English. If the French themselves are moving toward English, why would anyone expect the Gabonese not to?”
Major religions practiced in Gabon include Christianity (Roman Catholicism and Protestantism), Bwiti, Islam, and indigenous animistic religion. Many persons practice elements of both Christianity and traditional indigenous religious beliefs. Approximately 73 percent of the population, including noncitizens, practice at least some elements of Christianity, including the syncretistic Bwiti; 12 percent practice Islam (of whom 80 to 90 percent are foreigners); 10 percent practice traditional indigenous religious beliefs exclusively; and 5 percent practice no religion or are atheists. Gabon's literacy rate is 63.2%.
Culture and media
Gabonese music is lesser-known in comparison with regional giants like the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Cameroon. The country boasts an array of folk styles, as well as pop stars like Patience Dabany and Annie Flore Batchiellilys, a Gabonese singer and renowned live performer. Also known are guitarists like Georges Oyendze, La Rose Mbadou and Sylvain Avara, and the singer Oliver N'Goma. Imported rock and hip hop from the US and UK are popular in Gabon, as are rumba, makossa and soukous. Gabonese folk instruments include the obala, the ngombi, balafon and traditional drums.
A country with a primarily oral tradition up until the spread of literacy in the 21st century, Gabon is rich in folklore and mythology. "Raconteurs" are currently working to keep traditions alive such as the mvett among the Fangs and the ingwala among the Nzebis.
Gabon also features internationally celebrated masks, such as the n'goltang () and the relicary figures of the Kota. Each group has its own set of masks used for various reasons. They are mostly used in traditional ceremonies such as marriage, birth and funerals. Traditionalists mainly work with rare local woods and other precious materials.
Radio-Diffusion Télévision Gabonaise (RTG), which is owned and operated by the government, broadcasts in French and indigenous languages. Color television broadcasts have been introduced in major cities. In 1981, a commercial radio station, Africa No. 1, began operations. The most powerful radio station on the continent, it has participation from the French and Gabonese governments and private European media.
In 2004, the government operated two radio stations and another seven were privately owned. There were also two government television stations and four privately owned. In 2003, there were an estimated 488 radios and 308 television sets for every 1,000 people. About 11.5 of every 1,000 people were cable subscribers. Also in 2003, there were 22.4 personal computers for every 1,000 people and 26 of every 1,000 people had access to the Internet. The national press service is the Gabonese Press Agency, which publishes a daily paper, Gabon-Matin (circulation 18,000 as of 2002).
L'Union in Libreville, the government-controlled daily newspaper, had an average daily circulation of 40,000 in 2002. The weekly Gabon d'Aujourdhui, is published by the Ministry of Communications. There are about nine privately owned periodicals which are either independent or affiliated with political parties. These publish in small numbers and are often delayed by financial constraints. The constitution of Gabon provides for free speech and a free press, and the government supports these rights. Several periodicals actively criticize the government and foreign publications are widely available.
Most of the health services of Gabon are public, but there are some private institutions, of which the best known is the hospital established in 1913 in Lambaréné by Albert Schweitzer. Gabon's medical infrastructure is considered one of the best in West Africa. By 1985 there were 28 hospitals, 87 medical centers, and 312 infirmaries and dispensaries. As of 2004, there were an estimated 29 physicians per 100,000 people. Approximately 90% of the population had access to health care services.
In 2000, 70% of the population had access to safe drinking water and 21% had adequate sanitation. A comprehensive government health program treats such diseases as leprosy, sleeping sickness, malaria, filariasis, intestinal worms, and tuberculosis. Rates for immunization of children under the age of one were 97% for tuberculosis and 65% for polio. Immunization rates for DPT and measles were 37% and 56% respectively. Gabon has a domestic supply of pharmaceuticals from a large, modern factory in Libreville.
The total fertility rate has decreased from 5.8 in 1960 to 4.2 children per mother during childbearing years in 2000. Ten percent of all births were low birth weight. The maternal mortality rate was 520 per 100,000 live births as of 1998. In 2005, the infant mortality rate was 55.35 per 1,000 live births and life expectancy was 55.02 years. As of 2002, the overall mortality rate was estimated at 17.6 per 1,000 inhabitants.
The HIV/AIDS prevalence is estimated to be 5.2% of the adult population (ages 15–49). As of 2009, approximately 46,000 people were living with HIV/AIDS. There were an estimated 2,400 deaths from AIDS in 2009 – down from 3,000 deaths in 2003.
Gabon's education system is regulated by two Ministries: The Ministry of Education, which is in charge of pre-kindergarten through the last High School Grade, and the Ministry of Higher Education and Innovative Technologies, which is in charge of Universities and Higher Education and Professional Schools.
Education is compulsory for children ages 6 to 16 years under the Education Act. Most children in Gabon start their school lives by attending Nurseries or "Crèche", then Kindergarten known as "Jardins d'Enfants". At age 6, they are enrolled in Primary School, "École Primaire" which is made up of six grades. The next level is "École Secondaire", which is made up of seven grades. The planned graduation age is 19 years old. Those who graduate can apply for Universities or institutions of Higher learning, such as engineering schools or business schools.
The government has used oil revenue for school construction, paying teachers' salaries, and promoting education, including in rural areas. However, maintenance of school structures, as well as teachers' salaries, has been declining. In 2002 the gross primary enrollment rate was 132 percent, and in 2000 the net primary enrollment rate was 78 percent. Gross and net enrollment ratios are based on the number of students formally registered in primary school and therefore do not necessarily reflect actual school attendance. As of 2001, 69 percent of children who started primary school were likely to reach grade 5. Problems in the education system include poor management and planning, lack of oversight, poorly qualified teachers, and overcrowded classrooms.
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