Background Notes: Gabon

PA/PC Source: Office of Public Communication, Bureau of Public Affairs Date: Aug 30, 19918/30/91 Category: Country Data Region: Subsaharan Africa Country: Gabon Subject: Military Affairs, Cultural Exchange, Travel, History, International Organizations, Trade/Economics [TEXT] Official Name: Gabonese Republic


Area: 266,024 sq. km. (102,317 sq. mi.); about the size of Colorado. Cities: Capital--Libreville (pop. 275,000). Other cities--Port- Gentil, Franceville. Terrain: Narrow coastal plain; hilly, heavily forested interior; some savanna regions in east and south. Climate: Hot and humid all year with two rainy and two dry seasons.
Nationality: Noun and adjective--Gabonese (sing. and pl.). Population (1990 est.): 1.2 million. Annual growth rate: 2.2%. Ethnic groups: Fang (largest), Myene, Bapounou, Eschira, Bandjabi, Bateke/Obamba. Religions: Christian, Muslim, indigenous. Languages: French (official), Fang, Myene, Bateke, Bapounou/Eschira, Bandjabi. Education: Years compulsory--to age 16. Attendance--100% primary, 14% secondary/technical, 2% higher education. Literacy--70%. Health: Infant mortality rate-- 103/1,000. Life expectancy--52 yrs. Work force (120,000 salaried): Agriculture--65%. Industry and commerce--30%. Services and Government--5%.
Type: Republic. Independence: August 17, 1960. Constitution: February 21, 1961 (revised April 15, 1975; rewritten March 26, 1991). Branches: Executive--president (head of state). Legislative-- unicameral National Assembly (including prime minister, head of government. Judicial--Supreme Court. Administrative subdivisions: 9 provinces, 37 prefectures, and 9 sub-prefectures. Political parties (including number of seats in 120-member Assembly: Parti Democratique Gabonais (PDG-66), Parti Gabonais Du Progres (PGP-19), Rassemblement National Des Bucherons (RNB- 17), Morena Originel (MOR-7), Parti Socialist Gabonaise (PSG-4), Union Socialiste Gabonais (USG-3), Association Pour Le Socialism Au Gabon (APSG-2), Parti Social Democrat (PSD-1), and Union Pour La Democratie Et Le Developpement (UDD-1). Suffrage: universal, direct. Central government budget (1991 est.)--$1.8 billion. Defense (1991 est.): 2.6% of government budget. Flag: From top, blue, yellow, and green horizontal bands.
GDP (1991 est.): $5.3 billion. Annual growth rate (in current dollars, 1991 est.): 13%. Per capita income (1991 est): $4,400. Avg. inflation rate (1990): 7%. Natural resources: Petroleum (31% of GDP), manganese, uranium, wood, iron ore. Agriculture (8% of GDP): Products--cocoa, coffee, pineapples. Cultivated land--1%. Industry (4.5% of GDP): Types--petroleum related, wood processing, food and beverage processing. Trade (1989 est.): Exports--$1.8 billion: petroleum, wood, uranium, manganese. Major markets--France, US. Imports--$889 million: construction equipment, machinery, food, automobiles, manufactured goods. Major suppliers--France, Germany, Japan, US. Official exchange rate: 50 CFA (Communaute Financiere Africaine) francs=1 French franc, fixed. Fiscal year: Calendar year.
Membership in International Organizations
UN and some of its specialized and related agencies, including the World Bank; Organization of African Unity (OAU); Central African Customs Union; EC association under Lome Convention; Communaute Financiere Africaine (CFA); Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC); Nonaligned Movement; Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC).


Almost all Gabonese are of Bantu origin. Gabon has at least 40 tribal groups, with separate languages and cultures. The largest is the Fang. Other tribes include the Myene, Bandjabi, Eshira, Bapounou, Bateke/Obamba, and Okande. Tribal boundaries are less sharply drawn in Gabon than elsewhere in Africa. French, the official language, is a unifying force. More French people live in Gabon today than in colonial times. Historical and environmental factors caused Gabon's population to decline between 1900 and 1940. It is one of the less densely inhabited countries in Africa, and a labor shortage is a major obstacle to development. A government census in 1980-81 reported the population at 1.2 million, a substantial increase over previous estimates.


During the last 7 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 Como 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 Como River. The slaves named their settlement Libreville--"free town." French explorers penetrated Gabon's dense jungles between 1862-87. 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 unicameral National Assembly has 120 deputies elected for a 5-year term. The president is elected by universal suffrage, also for a 5-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 are 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 September- October 1990 (a few by-elections were held the following spring), despite the fact that opposition parties had not been declared formally legal. After a peaceful transition, the elections produced the current representative, multi-party, National Assembly. In January 1991, the Assembly passed by unanimous vote a law governing the legalization of opposition parties. 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.
Principal Government Officials
President of the Republic, Founder of the Gabonese Democratic Party--El Hadj Omar Bongo Prime Minister, Head of Government--Casimir Oye-Mba Minister of Foreign Affairs and Cooperation--Pascaline Bongo Ambassador to the United States--Alexandre Sambat Ambassador to the United Nations--Laurent Biffot 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 for new elections 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 elections 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, he 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 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 new elections are 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 includes representatives from several opposition parties on its cabinet. The RSDG drafted a provisional constitution that provides a basic bill of rights and an independent judiciary but retains the strength of 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.


Gabon has bountiful natural resources, including petroleum, manganese, uranium, iron, and wood. Because of income from exports of those products and its small population, Gabon's per capita GNP is the highest in sub-Saharan Africa. The economy also has benefited from government support of private enterprise and foreign investment. Petroleum production, estimated to be 14 million tons for 1990, is the heart of the Gabonese economy. The plunge in oil prices in 1986 hit Gabon hard: exports dropped 44%, and the economy in real terms contracted 10%. In the late 1980s, Gabon's external account deteriorated because of the fall in oil prices, a decline in crude oil exports, and the appreciation of the CFA franc against the US dollar. Gabon implemented an International Monetary Fund (IMF) structural adjustment program and rescheduled its public and private debt. Spending cuts stipulated under the 1989 IMF agreement sparked sometimes violent discontent in early 1990. In response to strikes by students and workers, Bongo rescinded 1989 special salary taxes and promised multi-party democracy. Despite damage to the economy by the 1990 strikes, Gabon's economic future is potentially bright. It is one of the few sub- Saharan African countries to have a trade surplus in recent years. Recent discoveries of new oil fields will increase oil production in the 1990s. Further, Gabon is trying to diversify its exports. Already a substantial exporter of manganese and uranium, Gabon is working to exploit its considerable iron and barite deposits and to enhance the value of timber exports from its large forests. Although Gabon exports small amounts of coffee and cocoa, it imports about 90% of its food. The country is turning increasingly to import substitution, such as a salt mining and operation and food-processing projects. The government has used oil revenue chiefly to develop transportation. The centerpiece of this program is the $3 billion TransGabon Railway, which has opened the interior rain forests to the sea, made the Port of Owendo a major export center for manganese and timber, and provided greater access to resource-rich areas in the southeast and the west once inaccessible because of poor roads. Since many Gabonese are traditional or subsistence farmers, the government's investment program is trying to encourage market-oriented agriculture. Direct assistance to agricultural projects, complemented by creation of a transport system to the interior, has aided the shift. Although Gabon enjoys a high per-capita income compared to that of most developing countries, it depends on external sources for investment capital and trained labor. Despite constraints, Gabon's natural resources promise great potential for continued growth. Gabon welcomes private foreign investors, and its investment law provides substantial concessions and guarantees.


Gabon has followed a non-aligned policy, advocating dialogue in international affairs and recognizing both parts of divided countries. Since 1973, the number of countries establishing diplomatic relations with Gabon have 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 helped mediate conflicts in countries such as Chad and Angola.


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 well-trained, well-equipped 1,800-member guard provides security to the president.


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 US assistance program in Gabon is of a Peace Corps contingent of about 100 volunteers who teach English, math, and science, 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. Foreign military sales credits have been extended to Gabon since 1981. US private capital has been attracted to Gabon since before its independence. Investment exceeds $600 million.
Principal US Officials
Ambassador--Keith L. Wauchope Deputy Chief of Mission--Stephen G. Brundage Public Affairs Officer (USIS)--Jan Hartman Political Officer--Alexander Andrews Peace Corps Director--Francis T. Hammond The US Embassy is located on the Blvd. de la Mer, B.P. 4000, Libreville, Gabon (tel: 241-762-003/004; fax: 241-745-507).


Customs: Visas are required and can be obtained from the Gabonese Embassy in Washington, DC. Yellow fever inoculations are required. Health requirements change; check latest information. Climate and clothing: Libreville is hot and humid most of the year. Wear lightweight summer clothes. Bring light sweaters for cool evenings during the June-August dry season. Health: Hospitals and private clinics are available throughout most of the country for common problems. Major cities have private doctors; several are US-trained. Residents and visitors are advised to take regular preventative medication against malaria. Avoid raw fruits and vegetables and undercooked meats. Tapwater is not always potable. Telecommunications: Local and long-distance telephone service is available 24 hours. International telephone rates are about 10 times higher than in the US. Libreville is six time zones ahead of eastern standard time. Transportation: Libreville has no public bus service. Taxis are plentiful along the major routes. Rides may be shared at a substantial saving. Air Gabon and several charters operate one of the densest domestic air networks in Africa. Most major population centers are linked by jet aircraft. An international airport at Libreville provides service to regional African points, particularly in Francophone Africa. Air Gabon and several European carriers provide frequent wide-body flights to Europe from Libreville. National Holidays: August 17, Independence Day; major Islamic and Christian holidays. Published by the United States Department of State, Bureau of Public Affairs, Office of Public Communication, Washington, DC , November 1990. Series Editor: Peter Knecht. Department of State Publication 7747. Background Notes Series -- This material is in the public domain and may be reprinted without permission; citation of this source is appreciated. For sale by the Superintendent of Documents, US Government Printing Office, Washington, DC 20402. (###)