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

PROFILE

Geography

Area: 266,024 sq. km. (102,317 sq. mi.); about the size of Colorado.
Cities: Capital--Libreville (pop. 400,000). 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.

People

Nationality: Noun and adjective--Gabonese (sing. and pl.).
Population (1993 est.): 1,015,000, of which 200,000 are resident 
foreigners.
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%.

Government

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); 
Senate to be formed following next National Assembly elections, 
expected in 1996. Judicial--Supreme Court.
Administrative subdivisions: 9 provinces, 37 prefectures, and 9 
subprefectures.
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 
Christian holidays.
Flag: From top, blue, yellow, and green horizontal bands.

Economy

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 
ore, wood.
Agriculture (2% of GDP): Products--cocoa, coffee, pineapples. 
Cultivated land--1%.
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.

GEOGRAPHY

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 
industries.

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.

PEOPLE

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. 

HISTORY

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 
River. 

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. 

GOVERNMENT

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 
judiciary.

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 
Rewaka

Gabon maintains an embassy in the United States at 2034 20th Street 
NW., Washington, D.C., 20009  (tel. 202-797-1000).

POLITICAL CONDITIONS

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-
October 1990.

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.

ECONOMY

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 
major highways.

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.

FOREIGN RELATIONS

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.

DEFENSE

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. 

US-GABONESE RELATIONS

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 
Gabon.

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

Ambassador--Elizabeth Raspolic
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).

TRAVEL NOTES

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 
season .

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 
potable.

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 
Europe. 

National Holidays: August 17, Independence Day; major Islamic and 
Christian holidays.

FURTHER INFORMATION

These titles are provided as a general indication of material published 
on this country. The Department of State does not endorse unofficial 
publications.

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, 
1976.
Bouquerel, Jacques. Le Gabon. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 
1970.
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 
Press, 1981.
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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