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New Internationalist


April 1987

new internationalist
issue 170 - April 1987


[image, unknown] Take a stroll down the streets of Libreville, Gabon's capital, and you could fancy yourself in France. There are boulangeries and patisseries, boutiques and wines from the Loire. Turn on the radio or TV and you are likely to get an in-depth analysis of events in France, with scarcely a word about life in Gabon itself. Add to this the French garrison, and the Mirage fighter-bombers that fly out every day and you begin to understand the neo-colonial realities which underlie the rhetoric about the two countries' 'eternal friendship'.

The Gabonese elite, headed by President Omar Bongo, like things the way they are. There is only one legal political party, the Parti Democratique Gabonais, and Bongo has been head of state since 1967. To ensure that public opinion reflected even more closely his own opinion, Bongo expelled most of the members of the National Assembly in 1985, replacing them with more like-minded people. His palace in the centre of Libreville is an opulent pleasure-dome behind a perimeter fence patrolled by soldiers with machine-guns.

But most of Gabon's people live in the hinterland - the dense rainforest. There are no chic French boutiques here, let alone health services and schools. Internal communication is limited to air travel since there are very few roads outside Libreville and Port-Gentil, the oil-refining centre.

Petroleum accounts for about 80 per cent of Gabon's export earnings. The French Elf companies have been the main producers, but the US Tenneco Oil Company is to develop an offshore field, with the first oil expected in late 1987.

But oil is not the black gold it once was. Falling prices mean falling revenues and many development projects have had to be cut back. President Bongo told the people last year that it was necessary for them to undergo a period of 'financial Ramadan'. With less than one per cent of the land under cultivation, more than half of the nation's food has to be imported and paid for from dwindling foreign exchange reserves.

Yet belt-tightening has not affected commitment to the Transgabon railway, a multi-million dollar project now nearing completion. The railway's primary purpose is to open up manganese, uranium and iron-ore mines in the interior for export to Europe and the US.

The railway is also central to Government plans to develop the agricultural sector, with sugar, coffee and other cash-crop schemes located along its route. A race is on to diversify the economy and develop the country's infrastructure before the income from oil peters out in the 1990s. And Gabon's main partners in this enterprise are the only ones with the requisite funds and expertise: Western corporations. For the time being at least, Libreville's boulangeries look set to continue their roaring trade in croissants and baguettes.

Rachel Lam

Leader: President Omar Bongo

Economy: GNP per capita US$4,000 (US $14,110)
Monetary unit CFA franc (Communauté Financière Africaine)
Main exports: crude oil, timber, manganese, uranium

People: 1.2 million

Health: Infant mortality figure n/a

Culture: Fang-speaking tribal in the hinterland, French influence in urban centres

Source: Africa Review 1988

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Urban élite much better off.

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Imports food and everything else.

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Much better in the cities if they can find a job.

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Right-wing autocracy under guise of a one-party state. Pro-West.

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no figure available.

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Everyone is free to agree with the Government.

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49 years
(US 74 years)

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This feature was published in the April 1987 issue of New Internationalist. To read more, buy this issue or subscribe.

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