New Internationalist

Gabon

Issue 391
Sven Torfinn / Panos
Sven Torfinn / Panos

Gabon has often been described as ‘the African Emirates’. This oil-rich state produces about 290,000 barrels of oil a day and boasts sub-Saharan Africa’s third-largest reserves – around 2.5 billion barrels. Average per-capita income is 10 times higher than the average for the continent and some of its people have got used to a more cosseted lifestyle. An African success story, you might think. Well, appearances can be deceptive. A clearer case that you cannot judge a country by its per-capita gross national income (the standard measure of the World Bank) could hardly be made. The money that has poured into the country over the past four decades has largely been wasted.

Half the country still lives below the poverty line. There is no main road linking the capital Libreville with the other cities of the country. To travel overland between them, drivers have to negotiate bumpy rural roads. There is mass unemployment and underemployment.

Gabon also suffers the disastrous effects of poor governance: there is a marked absence of a clear and consistent development policy and a significant breakdown in constitutional democracy. The situation is aggravated by disregard for public property, corruption, and by wasteful expenditure on festive, politicking events aimed at buying popularity.

Presiding over this mess for the last 38 years has been President Omar Bongo Ondimba, Africa’s longest-serving leader. At the age of 70 he was sworn in on 19 January 2006 for another seven-year term, following his crushing victory in presidential elections last year.

Opposition parties accused President Bongo Ondimba’s Parti Démocratique Gabonais of stealing the parliamentary elections. One opposition party claimed that the Government was ‘incapable of transforming its corrupt style of managing the state’.

The Government certainly still appears to be showing some signs of nervousness about its domestic opponents. The veteran opposition leader Pierre Mamboundou of the Union du Peuple Gabonais (UPG) was forced to seek asylum on 21 March in the South African embassy in Libreville, following a police raid on his party headquarters and allegations that firearms had been found. UPG officials denied they had kept any arms there and said this was a smear aimed at sabotaging the party, which has undoubtedly been one of the only real sources of political opposition to the President. Mamboundou remained inside the embassy for a month and only returned to his office after a personal meeting with the President and the Prime Minister on 19 April.

By then President Bongo Ondimba had lost one of his staunchest allies, after the death of Georges Rawiri, the Senate president. Rawiri, one of Gabon’s richest people, was a key operator in managing the President’s political networks. Married to a French woman, he was also a strong proponent of French influence – Gabon continues to reflect its colonial heritage through its strong economic, linguistic and cultural ties with France.

Relations with the United States are improving too as the superpower seeks increasingly to project its military and political power into the oil-rich Gulf of Guinea. IMF staff visited Libreville in late February and early March, and said in a brief report after their visit that the last quarter of 2005 was marked by ‘large budgetary slippages’. The IMF said it was urgent to re-establish fiscal discipline, despite the high oil prices which have provided a significant cushion for the Government. Prime Minister Jean Eyéghé Ndong said in March that the Government continued to aim for a three-year IMF programme – though at a time when countries in Latin America are paying back their loans rather than submit to IMF dictates, you might well wonder why the oil-rich nation is so keen to sign on this particular dotted line.

Hugues Desormaux
Gabon Fact File
Leader President El Hadj Omar Bongo Ondimba.
Economy GNI per capita $3,940 (Congo $770, France $30,090).
Monetary unit Franc.
Main exports crude oil (80%), timber (10%), manganese and uranium (10%). The economy is highly dependent on oil and in grave need of diversification. Gabon is part of the Central African Economic and Monetary Community (Cameroon, Central African Rep, Chad, Congo and Equatorial Guinea), which shares the same currency and agreed in 1999 to create a common market.
People 1.4 million. People per square kilometre: 5 (UK 245).
Health Infant mortality 60 per 1,000 live births (Congo 81, France 4). The Government is supposedly committed to making vaccines available in all health centres but immunization coverage remains poor, particularly for polio. In recent years there have been epidemics of measles and there was an outbreak of Ebola in the north. HIV prevalence rate: 8.1%.
Environment Deforestation is a serious problem, as is the bushmeat trade, which threatens the country’s abundant wildlife, including the western lowland gorilla. Plans to expand mining also threaten wildlife habitats.
Culture There are more than 40 Bantu-speaking groups. The Fang and Kwele in the north make up a third of the population while the southern people include the Punu and Nzebi. There are also Baka and Babongo pygmy people.
Religion Mainly Christian but over a third practise traditional African religions.
Language French is the official language but there are many ethnic languages. Human development index: 1990 0.545 Latest 0.635 (Congo 0.512, France 0.938).
Sources World Guide, State of the World’s Children 2006, Human Development Report 2005.
Last profiled link http://www.newint.org/issue170/profile.htm
Gabon ratings in detail
Income distribution
The revenues from oil stick to the hands of the élite while half the population lives below the poverty line.
Previously reviewed
1987
Literacy
Estimated at 80% for men and 52% for women. UNICEF estimates from household surveys that net primary school enrolment/attendance between 1996 and 2004 was 94%.
Life expectancy
54 years (Congo 52, France 80).
Previously reviewed
1987
Position of women
The Civil Code requires women to obey their husbands and only allows them to work in the vicinity of the conjugal home. Polygamy is common. Child marriage (at 15) is allowed for girls but not boys.
Previously reviewed
1987
Freedom
Opposition activity is severely circumscribed, despite the lipservice paid to democracy. The press is also restricted.
Previously reviewed
1987
Sexual minorities
Homosexuality is technically not illegal over 21 but in practice is severely repressed.
NI Assessment (Politics)
Dominated by its autocratic President, Gabon is is experiencing enormous problems in terms of education, health, housing, other social services and basic infrastructure. With the re-election of Bongo Ondimba nothing is likely to change in the next seven years and these serious problems will remain unaddressed. No more than 30-35 per cent of voters have participated in elections since the adoption of multiparty politics in 1990.

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