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Gabon (10/24/11)


October 24, 2011

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For the most current version of this Note, see Background Notes A-Z.

PROFILE

Geography
Area: 267,667 sq. km. (103,347 sq. mi.); about the size of Colorado.
Cities: Capital--Libreville (pop. 673,995). Other cities--Port-Gentil (150,000), Franceville (31,183).
Terrain: Narrow coastal plain; hilly, heavily forested interior (about 80% forested); 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 (2010 est.): 1,545,255.
Annual population growth rate (2010 est.): 2.025%.
Ethnic groups: Fang (largest), Myene, Bapounou, Eshira, Bandjabi, Bakota, Nzebi, Bateke/Obamba.
Religions: Christian (55%-75%), Muslim (5%-10%), animist less than 1%.
Languages: French (official), Fang, Myene, Bateke, Bapounou/Eschira, Bandjabi.
Education: Years compulsory--to age 16. Attendance--94%. Literacy--86%.
Health: Infant mortality rate--55/1,000. Life expectancy--60 yrs.
Work force (600,000 est.): Agriculture--52%; industry and commerce--16%; services and government--33%.

Government
Type: Republic.
Independence: August 17, 1960.
Constitution: February 21, 1961 (revised April 15, 1975; rewritten March 26, 1991; revised July 29, 2003).
Branches: Executive--president (head of state); prime minister (head of government) and appointed Council of Ministers. Legislative--bicameral legislature (National Assembly and Senate). Judicial--Supreme Court and Constitutional Court.
Administrative subdivisions: 9 provinces, 36 prefectures, and 8 subprefectures.
Political parties: Parti Democratique Gabonais (PDG) holds the largest number of seats in the National Assembly; l’Union Nationale (UN); Union du Peuple Gabonais (UPG); Rassemblement du Peuple Gabonais (RPG).
Suffrage: Universal, direct.
Central government budget (2010 est.): Receipts--$2.7 billion; expenses--$2.4 billion; defense (2007)--3.5% of government budget.

Economy
Real GDP (2010 est.): $14 billion.
Annual real growth rate (2010 est.): 5.4%.
Per capita income (2010 est.): $8,600.
Avg. inflation rate (2010 est.): 5%.
Natural resources: Petroleum, timber, manganese, uranium, gold.
Agriculture and forestry (4% of GDP): Products--manioc, rubber, sugar, and pineapples. Cultivated land--approximately 1%.
Industry (64% of GDP): Types--petroleum related, wood processing, food and beverage processing.
Services (32% of GDP): Types--government services, tourism.
Trade (2007): $8.499 billion. Exports--61% of GDP (f.o.b.): petroleum, wood, manganese. Major markets--U.S. 16.6%, China 15.9%, EU 13.7%, France 4.3%. Imports--30% of GDP (f.o.b.): construction equipment, machinery, food, automobiles, manufactured goods. Major suppliers--EU 56.9%, France 32.2%, U.S. 7.9%, China 7.0%, Belgium 5.0%. Current account balance with U.S. (2009)--$1.060 billion.

PEOPLE
Gabon is one of the least densely inhabited countries in Africa, with a population that is estimated at 1,545,255.

Almost all Gabonese are of Bantu origin. Gabon has at least 40 ethnic groups, with separate languages and cultures. The largest ethnicity is the Fang (about 30%). Other ethnic groups include the Nzebi, Myene, Bandjabi, Eshira, Bapounou, Bateke/Obamba, and Bakota.

Ethnic group boundaries are less sharply drawn in Gabon than elsewhere in Africa. 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 official language, 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. France dominates foreign cultural and commercial influences.

HISTORY
Over the last 7 centuries, Bantu ethnic groups arrived in the area from several directions to escape enemies or find new land. In the process they displaced other groups in the region, among them the pygmies who now inhabit the jungle in the country’s far east. Gabon's first European visitors were Portuguese traders who arrived in the 15th century. They named the area after the Portuguese word "gabao," a coat with sleeves and hood resembling the shape of the Komo River estuary. Dutch, British, and French traders followed the Portuguese in the 16th century, and the coast became a center of the slave trade. In a bid to beat the other European powers, France began to formalize its status in Gabon by signing treaties with Gabonese coastal chiefs in 1839 and 1841.

Libreville, the capital, grew out of a series of small settlements along the Komo River estuary. The first settlement was started in 1842 by American missionaries from New England who established a Presbyterian mission on a hilltop overlooking the estuary. The mission, called Baraka, is now located in the section of Libreville called Glass. In 1849, the population along the Komo River estuary swelled when the French captured an illegal slave ship and released the passengers at the mouth of the Komo River. The slaves named their settlement Libreville--"free town."

The interior remained relatively unexplored by outsiders until the mid-19th century. An American, Paul du Chaillu, was among the first foreigners to explore the interior of the region in the 1850s. Between 1862 and 1887, French explorers penetrated the dense jungles of what would become Gabon. The most famous, Savorgnan de Brazza, used local Bantu bearers and guides in his search for the headwaters of the Congo River.

Capitalizing on treaties signed with indigenous chiefs earlier in the century, France occupied Gabon in 1885 during the European scramble for Africa. However, it did not begin to 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--forming the independent nations of the Central African Republic, Chad, Congo (Brazzaville), and Gabon.

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 this the two parties agreed that Gabon did not have enough people to support a two-party system, and the two party leaders agreed on a single list of candidates, starting with the 1961 presidential election. In that 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. Then, 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 at the same time reduced the 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 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'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 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 Rogombe, 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 was 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.

In January 2011, Andre Mba Obame, the Secretary General of the UN coalition, swore himself in as President, established a parallel government, and occupied the United Nations Development Program headquarters in Libreville for a month. Mba Obame believed himself the rightful winner of the 2009 presidential election despite coming in third according to the official count. In response to Mba Obame’s self-proclamation, the government dissolved the UN for violating the country’s unity (per Article 94 of the constitution). Further, on May 5, 2011, Gabon’s National Assembly voted to dissolve Mba Obame’s immunity as a member of Parliament. Mba Obame has since departed the country for medical treatment.

On June 17, 2011, the Gabonese Parliament adopted a law on the protection of personal data to allow for the introduction of biometrics in Gabon’s future elections.

GOVERNMENT AND POLITICAL CONDITIONS
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.

Principal Government Officials
President of the Republic--Ali Bongo Ondimba
Prime Minister, Head of Government--Paul Biyoghe Mba
Minister of Foreign Affairs and Cooperation--Paul Toungui
Minister of Defense--Pacome Rufin Ondzounga
Minister of the Economy, Trade, Industry and Tourism--Magloire Ngambia
Minister of the Budget, Public Account, Civil Service, in Charge of the State Reform--Franck Emmanuel Issozet
Minister of the Interior, Public Security, Immigration and Decentralization--Jean-Francois Ndoungou
Ambassador to the United States--Michael Moussa-Adamo
Ambassador to the United Nations--Noel Nelson Messone

Gabon maintains an embassy in the United States at 1630 Connecticut Ave. NW, Suite 700, Washington, DC, 20009 (tel. 202-797-1000).

ECONOMY
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 has been 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 has only recently begun 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. 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 was slow. Successive IMF missions 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. Consultations with the IMF are ongoing. The Bongo Ondimba administration has voiced a commitment to work toward an economic transformation of the country but faces significant challenges to realize this goal.

Gabon's oil revenues have given it a strong per capita GDP of $8,600, extremely high for the region. On the other hand, a skewed income distribution and poor social indicators misrepresent the situation if only GDP is taken into account. The richest 20% of the population receive over 90% of the income while about a third of all Gabonese live 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.

DEFENSE
Gabon has a small, professional military of about 8,000 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 1,500-member Presidential Guard provides security for the president. French troops also remain stationed in the country.

FOREIGN RELATIONS
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 Cote 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 Cotonou Agreement; the Communaute Financiere Africaine (CFA); the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (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.

U.S.-GABONESE RELATIONS
Relations between the United States and Gabon are excellent. In 1987, President Bongo made an official visit to Washington, DC. In September 2002, Secretary of State Colin Powell made a brief but historic visit to Gabon to highlight environmental protection and conservation in the Central Africa region. This was followed by a visit to the White House by President Bongo in May 2004. On March 8, 2010 President Bongo Ondimba met with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Washington, DC. On June 9, 2011 President Bongo Ondimba was received by President Barack Obama. President Obama urged President Bongo Ondimba to take bold steps to root out corruption and to reform the judiciary and other key institutions to ensure the protection of human rights, and he welcomed the reforms that Gabon has taken under President Bongo Ondimba to bring more transparency and accountability to government.

The United States imports a considerable percentage of Gabonese crude oil and manganese and exports heavy construction equipment, aircraft, and machinery to Gabon. Through a modest International Military Education and Training program, the United States provides military training to members of the Gabonese armed forces each year. In May 2009, the USS Nashville conducted a mission to help train Gabonese naval officers in maritime security, and a robust bilateral training schedule was planned for 2010. Other bilateral assistance includes the funding of small grants for qualified democracy and human rights, self-help, and cultural preservation projects. U.S. private capital has been attracted to Gabon since before its independence.

Principal U.S. Officials
Ambassador--Eric Benjaminson
Deputy Chief of Mission--Kathleen FitzGibbon
Management Officer--Jennifer McAlpine
Political/Economic Section Chief--Jenny Bah
Economic/Commercial Officer--Hilleary Smith
Defense Attache--Scott Roxburgh
Consular Officer--Jessica Munson
Public Affairs Officer--Janet Deutsch
Regional Security Officer--Matthew Becht

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).



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