U.S. Department of State
Background Notes, Gabon, April 1996
Bureau of African Affairs
Prepared and released by the Bureau of African Affairs,
Office of Central African Affairs
Official Name: Gabonese Republic
Area: 266,024 sq. km. (102,317 sq. mi.); about the size of Colorado.
Cities: Capital--Libreville (pop. 400,000). Other cities--Port Gentil,
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 (1993 est.): 1,015,000, of which 200,000 are resident
Annual growth rate: 2.5%.
Ethnic groups: Fang (largest), Myene, Bapounou, Eschira, Bandjabi.
Education: Years compulsory--to age 16. Attendance--89% primary,
50% secondary/technical, 4-5% higher education. Literacy--69.6%.
Health: Infant mortality rate--60/1,000. Life expectancy--52 yrs.
Work force--600,000 (120,000 salaried): Agriculture--75%. Industry
and commerce--10%. Services and Government--15%.
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);
Senate to be formed following next National Assembly elections,
expected in 1996. Judicial--Supreme Court.
Administrative subdivisions: 9 provinces, 37 prefectures, and 9
Political Parties (including number of seats in the 120-seat National
Assembly, 1990-1996): Parti Democratique Gabonais (PDG-66), Parti
Gabonais Du Progres (PGP-19), Rassemblement National Des
Bucherons (RNB-17), Morena Originel (MOR-7), Parti Socialist
Gabonais (PSG-4), Union Socialiste Gabonaise (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 (1996 est.): $1.6535 billion.
Defense (1996 est.): 5.7% of government budget.
National holidays: August 17, Independence Day; major Islamic and
Flag: From top, blue, yellow, and green horizontal bands.
GDP (1994 est.): $4.5 billion.
Annual growth rate (in current dollars, 1994 est.): -28.3%.
Per capita income (1994): $4,500.
Avg. inflation rate (1994 est.): 35%.
Natural resources: Petroleum (60% of GDP), manganese, uranium, iron
Agriculture (2% of GDP): Products--cocoa, coffee, pineapples.
Industry (8% of GDP): Types--petroleum related, wood processing,
food and beverage processing.
Trade (1994 est.): Exports--$2.4 billion: petroleum, wood, uranium,
manganese. Major markets--France, US. Imports--$701 million:
construction equipment, machinery, food, automobiles, manufactured
goods. Major suppliers--France, Japan, US, Germany.
Official exchange rate: 50 CFA 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 and IMF; Organization of African Unity (OAU); Central
African Customs Union; EU Association under Lome Convention;
Central African Economic and Monetary Union' Organization of the
Islamic Conference (OIC); Nonaligned Movement; Organization of
Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC); ECOSOC.
Gabon straddles the Equator along 880 kilometers (550 mi.) of the west
coast of Africa. Most of the country is covered with dense, equatorial
rain forest. The Ogooue River is navigable from Ndjole to the Atlantic,
and its watershed covers almost the entire country. Port Gentil, at the
mouth of the Ogooue, is the center of the plywood and petroleum
Little rain occurs from June to September, but the humidity is high. It
rains occasionally in December and January; however, during the
remaining months, rainfall is heavy, averaging more than 254
centimeters (100 in.) annually in Libreville.
Almost all Gabonese are of Bantu origin. There are at least 40 tribal
groups with separate languages and cultures. The largest is the Fang.
Others include the Myene, Bandjabi, Eshira, Bapounou,
Bateke/Obamba, and Okande. There is also a population of 3,500
pygmies living in isolated villages throughout Gabon. French, the
official language, is a unifying force. Approximately 12,000 French
nationals live in Gabon today, more than in colonial times.
Bantu ethnic groups arrived in the area over the last seven centuries
from several directions to escape enemies or find new land. Little is
known of tribal life before European contact, but tribal art suggests a
rich cultural heritage.
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 (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 had penetrated Gabon's dense jungles by
1887. The most famous one, Savorgnan de Brazza, used Gabonese
bearers and guides in his searches for the headwaters of the Congo
France occupied Gabon in 1885 but did not administer it until 1903. In
1910, it 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, Gabon became a republic with a
presidential form of government. As revised by the 1991 constitution,
the legislature is divided into a National Assembly with one hundred
twenty deputies elected directly for 5-year terms and a Senate of 91
persons to be elected indirectly in 1996. The president is elected by
universal suffrage also for a 5-year term. The president appoints the
Prime Minister, the Cabinet, and the judges of the independent
For administrative purposes, Gabon is divided into 9 provinces, which
are further divided into 49 departments and 23 districts. The president
appoints the provincial governors, the prefects, and the subprefects. A
1996 law provides for the election on a proportional partisan basis of
municipal and provincial councils.
Principal Government Officials (March, 1996)
President of the Republic--El Hadj Omar Bongo
Prime Minister, Head of Government--Paulin Obame Nguema
Minister of Foreign Affairs and Cooperation--Casimir Oye Mba
Ambassador to the United States--Paul Boundoukou-Latha
Permanent Representative to the United Nations--Denis Dangue
Gabon maintains an embassy in the United States at 2034 20th Street
NW., Washington, D.C., 20009 (tel. 202-797-1000).
At the time of Gabon's independence in 1960, two pricipal political
parties existed: the Bloc Democratique Gabonais (BDG), led by Leon
Mba, and the Union Democratique et Sociale Gabonaise (UDSG), led
by J.H. Aubume. In the first post-independence election, held under a
parliamentary system, neither party won a majority. The BDG obtained
support from three of the four independent legislators, and Mba was
named Prime Minister. Soon after concluding that Gabon had an
insufficient population for a two-party system, the two leaders agreed
on a single list of candidates. In the February 1961 election,held under
the new presidential system, Mba became President and Aubume
foreign minister. This one party system functioned 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 Mba called for new elections for February 1964
for a reduced number of National Assembly representatives (46 instead
of the previous 67). 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
moved against Mba 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 took 16.
Later 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 Mba and Omar Bongo (then Albert Bernard Bongo)
were elected President and Vice President. Mba died later that year
after hospitalization in France for a long illness and Omar Bongo
became President. In March 1968, he declared Gabon a one party state,
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 reelected in
December 1979 and November 1986 to 7-year terms. In April 1975,
the office of vice president was abolished and replaced with the office
of prime minister, with no provision for automatic succession. Under
the 1991 constitution, in the event of the president's death, the prime
minister, the National Assembly president, and defense minister share
powers 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 politics. Opposition to the PDG continued, however, and
in September 1990, two coup attempts were uncovered and aborted.
Economic discontent and the desire for political liberalization resulted
in violent demonstrations and strikes by students and workers in early
1990. In March-April 1990, Bongo convened a national conference
attended by the PDG and 74 other political groupings. The conference
approved sweeping political reforms to set up multi-party democracy,
guaranteed by a redrafted constitution with a basic bill of rights to be
enforced by an independent judiciary. The first multi-party National
Assembly elections in almost 30 years took place in September-
A national conference in 1990 resulted in major changes to the political
system, including a new constitution. Among its provisions are a
Western-style bill of rights and the creation of a National Council of
Democracy to oversee the guarantee of those rights, a council advising
on economic and social issues, and an independent judiciary. The new
constitution was adopted in March 1991 following multi-party
legislative elections. In 1994 the National Assembly amended the
constitution to provide for the creation of a Senate upon renewal of the
legislature in 1996. The president retains strong powers, including
authority to dissolve the National Assembly, to declare a state of siege,
to delay legislation, to submit proposals for vote by referendum, and to
appoint and dismiss the prime minister and cabinet members.
Authorities declared President Bongo the winner of a December 1993
presidential election which was marred by disorganization and a lack of
transparency. Civil unrest, demonstrations, and violent repression of
dissent followed over a period of several months. Majority and
opposition representatives eventually negotiated the "Paris Accords" of
October 1994 which set guidelines for a more transparent electoral
process and for various reforms of government institutions. Elections
for local and provincial councils, the National Assembly, and the
Senate were to be administered in 1996 by a newly-established
independent National Election Commission.
Gabon has bountiful natural resources, including petroleum,
manganese, uranium, phosphates and wood. Because of income from
exports of those products and its small population, Gabon per capita
GDP is the highest in sub-Saharan Africa. Income distribution is,
however, heavily skewed in favor of a small urban elite. The non-oil
economy is dominated by inefficient, overstaffed parastatal enterprises.
Petroleum production, estimated at 390,000 barrels a day (roughly 50
percent above Gabon's OPEC quota), yields more than 80 percent of
export revenues (US dollars 2 billion in 1995) and provides 53 percent
of the funding for the government budget. Gabon welcomes private
foreign investment, most of which is in the petroleum sector. Its
investment law provides the sorts of incentives, concessions and
guarantees available in similar oil-producing countries.
Unrestrained spending, poor financial management and embezzlement
caused the government to run up extensive internal and external arrears
during the 1980s. Gabon suspended payments due under an IMF
agreement made in 1989. After the CFA Franc Zone presidents agreed
in January 1994 to devalue their currency against the French franc by
50 percent, Gabon concluded a one-year stand-by agreement with the
IMF and received a Paris Club rescheduling. Gabon met the primary
conditions of restraining rises in public wages and drawing up plans for
privatization of leading parastatal corporations. In September 1995 the
IMF concluded a three-year extended financing facility for Gabon
which required further steps toward privatization and improvements in
government accounting and budget administration.
Gabon's economic performance was relatively unaffected by the
devaluation, in large part because most of its revenue comes from the
export of primary resources at international prices denominated in
dollars. The devaluation gave a strong boost to exports of timber, a
sector in which the government seeks to increase processing so as to
capture additional added value. Although Gabon imports about 90
percent of its food (much of it from neighboring countries) the private
sector has been little engaged in investment in food production.
Gabon has invested a vast amount in transportation infrastructure. As
much as $3 billion was spent in constructing a trans-Gabonese railway
in the early 1970s, a project which the World Bank specifically refused
to support. Serving principally for the export of manganese ore and
uranium yellowcake, the line is generally underused and poorly
maintained. Only in recent years has the government devoted
substantial resources from foreign borrowing to improving and paving
Gabon's wealth and need for skilled labor have attracted legal and
illegal immigrants from much of West Africa; foreigners make up at
least 20 percent of the population.
Gabon has followed a non-aligned policy, advocating dialogue in
international affairs. President Bongo has sought to encourage dialogue
between parties to conflicts in Congo, Angola and Chad. Gabon has not
participated in any international peace-keeping efforts.
Gabon has a small, professional military of about 5,000 personnel,
serving in the branches of the 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, 2,200-member Republican Guard provides security to
the president and state property.
Relations between the United States and Gabon are good. U.S. private
investment exceeds $600 million and the U.S. is the largest importer of
Gabonese crude oil. The U.S. supplies telecommunications equipment,
oil field equipment, construction equipment, aircraft, and machinery to
There is no U.S. AID mission in Gabon, although a modest regional
program for the environment will be managed from Libreville by an
AID-funded American NGO. A contingent of about 100 Peace Corps
volunteers serve as teachers, primary school construction specialists,
fish culture extension agents, and health workers.
Principal U.S. Officials
Deputy Chief of Mission--Michael Meigs
Economic/Commercial Officer--Christina Dougherty
Peace Corps Director--Frank J. Conlon
The U.S. Embassy is located on the Boulevard D'Independence B.P.
4000, Libreville, Gabon (tel: 241-762-03/04; fax: 241-745-507).
Customs: Visas must be obtained in advance from the Gabonese
Embassy in Washington, D.C. or the consulate in New York City.
Yellow fever inoculations are required. Health requirements change;
check latest information.
Climate and clothing: Libreville is hot and humid most of the year.
Business attire is suit and tie for men and similar office wear for
women. Summer-weight clothing is recommended. Bring light
sweaters for relatively cool evenings during the June-August dry
Health: There are a number of hospitals and private clinics in the
capital and major cities. Health care outside of Libreville, Port Gentil
and Franceville is of poor quality. Major cities have private doctors;
very few are U.S.-trained. Residents and visitors are strongly advised to
take regular preventative medication against malaria. Avoid raw fruits
and vegetables and undercooked meats. Tapwater is not always
Telecommunications: Local and long-distance telephone service is
available 24 hours a day. Cellular telephone service is available in the
capital and major towns. International telephone rates are about 10
times higher than in the U.S. Libreville is six time zones ahead of
Eastern Standard time.
Transportation: Libreville has no public bus service. Taxis are plentiful
along major routes. Rides may be shared at a substantial savings. Air
Gabon and several charter air companies operate one of the densest
domestic air networks in Africa. Nearly all major population centers
are linked by jet aircraft to Libreville. An international airport at
Libreville provides service to capitals in francophone Africa and in
National Holidays: August 17, Independence Day; major Islamic and
These titles are provided as a general indication of material published
on this country. The Department of State does not endorse unofficial
Alexander, Caroline. One Dry Season: In the Footsteps of Mary
Kingsley. New York: Alfred E. Knopf, Inc., 1989.
Brabazon, James. Albert Schweitzer: A Biography. London: Gollancz,
Bouquerel, Jacques. Le Gabon. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France,
Carter, Gwedolyn, ed. National Unity and Regionalism in Eight
African States. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1966.
Darlington, Charles. African Betrayal. New York: McKay, 1967.
Development Assistance Programs of US Non-Profit Organizations:
Gabon. New York: American Council of Voluntary Agencies Foreign
Service, Technical Assistance Information Clearing House.
Frediani, Lorenzo. The Banking System in Gabon and the Central Bank
of Equatorial Africa and Cameroon. Milan: Cassa di risparmio delle
provincie lombarde, 1974.
Gardiner, David. Historical Dictionary of Gabon. Metuchen: Scarecrow
Kingsley, Mary. Travels in West Africa, Congo Francais, Corisco, and
Cameroons. London, 1987.
Seaver, George. Albert Schweitzer--The Man and His Work.
Surveys in African Economies, Vol. 1. Washington, D.C.: International
Monetary Fund, 1968.
Thompson, Virginia and Richard Adloff. The Emerging States of
French Equatorial Africa. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1960.
Weinstein, Brian. Gabon: Nation Building on the Ogooue. Cambridge,
Mass.: MIT Press, 1966.
For more information on economic trends, commercial development,
production, trade regulations, and tariff rates, contact the International
Trade Administration, U.S. Department of Commerce, Washington,
D.C., 20230, or any Commerce Department district office.
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