For the most current version of this Note, see Background Notes A-Z.
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 became 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 1964 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 (PDG). He invited all Gabonese, regardless of previous political affiliation, to participate. Bongo was elected President in February 1975; in April 1975, the office of vice president was abolished and replaced by the office of prime minister, who had no right to automatic succession. Bongo was re-elected President in December 1979 and November 1986 to 7-year terms. Using the PDG as a tool to submerge the regional and tribal rivalries that divided Gabonese politics in the past, Bongo sought to forge a single national movement in support of the government's development policies.
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 the 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. Under the 1991 constitution, in the event of the president's death, the prime minister, the National Assembly president, and the defense minister were to share power until a new election could be held.
Opposition to the PDG continued, however, and in September 1990, two coup d’etat 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 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.
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. Legislative elections held in 2001-02, 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.
A constitutional revision of 2003 clears the way for Bongo to run for presidential office as often as he would like. Bongo is expected to be a candidate again in 2005.
GOVERNMENT AND POLITICAL CONDITIONS
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.
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 Bongo 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 and 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. Although the main opposition parties claimed the elections had been manipulated, there was none of the civil disturbance that followed the 1993 election. Peaceful though flawed legislative elections in 2001-02 produced a new National Assembly dominated by the President's party and its allies.
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
Gabon maintains an embassy in the United States at 2034 20th Street NW, Washington, DC 20009 (tel. 202-797-1000).
Gabon's oil revenues have given it a strong per capita GDP of more than $4,500, extremely high for the region. On the other hand, a skewed income distribution and poor social indicators are evident. Approximately 5% of the population receives over 90% of the income/wealth. The economy is highly dependent on extraction of abundant primary materials. After oil, logging 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 embarked 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. A 15-month Stand-By Arrangement between the government and the IMF was negotiated in June 2004.
Gabon is a member of the UN and some of its specialized and related agencies, as well as of the World Bank; the African Union (AU); the Central African Customs Union/Central African Economic and Monetary Community (UDEAC/CEMAC); EU association under Lome Convention; the Communaute Financiere Africaine (CFA); the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC); and the Nonaligned Movement. Gabon withdrew from the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) in 1995.
Principal U.S. Officials
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).
For the most current version of this Note, see Background Notes A-Z.