Gabon

Not Free
21
100
PR Political Rights 3 40
CL Civil Liberties 18 60
Last Year's Score & Status
22 100 Not Free
Global freedom statuses are calculated on a weighted scale. See the methodology.

header1 Overview

Although Gabon holds multiparty elections, President Ali Bongo Ondimba maintains political dominance through a combination of patronage and repression, having succeeded his father upon his death in 2009 after more than 40 years in power. However, President Bongo’s fitness to exercise power has been the subject of considerable doubt since he suffered a stroke in October 2018. The executive branch effectively controls the judiciary. Other significant problems include discrimination against immigrants, marginalization of minority groups, and legal and de facto inequality for women.

header2 Key Developments in 2021

  • In February, President Bongo’s Gabonese Democratic Party (PDG) won 45 of the Senate’s 52 elected seats. The president then appointed the remaining 15 senators, a new power invested in him by constitutional amendments rushed through the National Assembly in December 2020.
  • In June, Mathurin Ovono Ebe, a prominent faculty member and president of the Omar Bongo University chapter of the National Union of Teachers and Researchers (SNEC), was kidnapped, tortured, and threatened by armed assailants, who some analysts suspect had ties to the government. Ebe had participated in a protest in front of the university hours before he was abducted.

PR Political Rights

A Electoral Process

A1 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Was the current head of government or other chief national authority elected through free and fair elections? 0.000 4.004

The president, who wields executive authority, is elected by popular vote for seven-year terms. Presidential term limits were abolished in 2003. The president nominates and can dismiss the prime minister at will.

The August 2016 presidential election pitted incumbent Ali Bongo Ondimba of the PDG against Jean Ping of the opposition Union of Forces for Change (UFC). The electoral commission declared Bongo the winner with 49.8 percent of the vote. In Haut-Ogooué Province, a Bongo family stronghold, the commission claimed a turnout rate of 99.9 percent, with 95 percent for Bongo, even though turnout in the rest of the country was just 54 percent. Both Ping and observers from the European Union (EU) called for a recount.

Meanwhile, violent protests erupted, and security forces stormed Ping’s headquarters. Although the government claimed the death toll from the unrest was under 10 people, journalists and opposition leaders estimated that more than 50 people had died; hundreds of people were arrested.

The Constitutional Court, headed by a longtime Bongo family ally, rebuffed an observation mission from the African Union (AU) during the recount. Following the recount, the president was credited with 50.66 percent of the vote. Ping rejected the results.

President Bongo suffered a stroke in 2018 and was not seen publicly for nearly a year. Since then, his capacity to serve as president has been questioned.

A2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Were the current national legislative representatives elected through free and fair elections? 0.000 4.004

Gabon’s Parliament consists of the National Assembly, whose members are elected by popular vote for five-year terms, and the Senate, which was reformed by December 2020 constitutional amendments as part of the ruling party’s efforts to consolidate control should Bongo be further incapacitated. Under the new constitution, the Senate consists of 67 seats, 52 of which are directly elected and 15 of which are appointed by the president. Bongo appointed 15 senators in February 2021, days after the PDG claimed 45 of the body’s 52 elected seats.

National Assembly elections were originally due in 2016 but were repeatedly postponed. The incumbent assembly was finally dissolved in 2018, leaving the Senate as the only legislative body for most of the year. The PDG claimed 98 seats in the National Assembly elections that October, which were boycotted by opposition parties due to the government’s failure to create an independent electoral commission. PDG allies won roughly 10 more seats, and no single party other than the PDG took more than 11. The elections were marked by credible allegations of fraud and repression.

A3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Are the electoral laws and framework fair, and are they implemented impartially by the relevant election management bodies? 0.000 4.004

Gabon’s electoral laws and framework do not ensure credible elections. The electoral commission, the Interior Ministry, and the Constitutional Court all play important roles in managing elections, and all are loyal to the president.

In January 2018, Parliament gave its final approval to constitutional amendments that were developed without meaningful input from opposition parties or civil society. The amendments introduced a runoff system for presidential elections if no candidate wins a majority in the first round and required ministers to pledge allegiance to the president. Lawmakers rejected the imposition of presidential term limits. In December 2020, Parliament rushed through a slate of constitutional amendments that reduced the size of the Senate and provided for the president’s appointment of 15 of the body’s 67 members. Critics largely saw the amendments as a means of consolidating the PDG’s power.

B Political Pluralism and Participation

B1 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do the people have the right to organize in different political parties or other competitive political groupings of their choice, and is the system free of undue obstacles to the rise and fall of these competing parties or groupings? 1.001 4.004

The PDG dominates the nominally multiparty system. Opposition parties remain fragmented, and the government has disrupted their activities by denying them permits for public gatherings, arresting participants in their largely peaceful protests, and incarcerating their leaders.

In September 2021, the government proposed a new law that would require presidential candidates to have lived in Gabon for at least six months in each of the two years preceding an election. Analysts believe the law targets members of the extended Bongo family who might contest the 2023 election against the president or his anointed successor.

B2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Is there a realistic opportunity for the opposition to increase its support or gain power through elections? 0.000 4.004

The PDG has monopolized the executive branch since the 1960s, and there is no realistic opportunity for the opposition to gain power through elections. In 2017, Ping called for a civil disobedience campaign, arguing that he had exhausted all institutional remedies for the fraudulent 2016 election. He and some other opposition leaders boycotted the 2018 National Assembly elections.

B3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Are the people’s political choices free from domination by forces that are external to the political sphere, or by political forces that employ extrapolitical means? 0.000 4.004

The Bongo family and associates have acquired enormous wealth after decades in power, which has led to judicial investigations in France, including of BNP Paribas, which is accused of laundering money on the Bongo family’s behalf. The October 2021 release of the Pandora Papers, an investigation by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) that revealed the corrupt global financial system and connections of rich and powerful actors around the world, revealed that the Bongo family used substantial resources to sustain patronage networks and fund vote-buying during elections. The leadership relies on security forces to intimidate the opposition.

B4 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do various segments of the population (including ethnic, racial, religious, gender, LGBT+, and other relevant groups) have full political rights and electoral opportunities? 1.001 4.004

Ethnic minorities have little ability to gain political representation, given the PDG’s dominance. Key government and military posts are held by loyalists from major ethnic groups. Though Parliament decriminalized homosexuality in 2020, LGBT+ people are not openly represented politically.

In July 2020, Rose Christiane Ossouka Raponda of the PDG became the first woman to be prime minister of Gabon.

C Functioning of Government

C1 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do the freely elected head of government and national legislative representatives determine the policies of the government? 0.000 4.004

Government policy is set by the president and senior aides, and the parliament is dominated by the PDG. President Bongo suffered a stroke in October 2018, and his fitness for office remains uncertain. In November 2018, the Constitutional Court unilaterally altered the constitution to allow the vice president to assume some of the president’s functions if he is “temporarily unavailable.” In December 2020, the PDG-dominated parliament passed further constitutional amendments stipulating that the president of the Senate, the president of the National Assembly, and the defense minister would share interim executive powers should the president become incapacitated.

C2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Are safeguards against official corruption strong and effective? 1.001 4.004

Corruption and impunity remain major problems, and the Bongo family’s corrupt networks were exposed by the Pandora Papers, released in October 2021. Authorities have reportedly used anticorruption efforts to target regime opponents. A special criminal court for cases involving the theft of public funds was established in 2018, but prosecutions remain selective. In January 2020, civil society organizations filed a lawsuit in Libreville accusing Noureddin Bongo, the president’s son, of corruption and money laundering. The public prosecutor dismissed the complaint. In September of that year, President Bongo announced that Noureddin would direct his 2023 reelection campaign, despite widespread skepticism about the president’s health.

C3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Does the government operate with openness and transparency? 0.000 4.004

The government operates with minimal transparency. The presidency’s budget is not subject to the same oversight as those for other institutions. High-level civil servants are required to disclose their assets, but the declarations are not made public. The government has refused to disclose any information about President Bongo’s health.

CL Civil Liberties

D Freedom of Expression and Belief

D1 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Are there free and independent media? 1.001 4.004

Press freedom is guaranteed by law but is restricted in practice, and reporters self-censor to avoid legal repercussions. The 2017 communications code contains provisions that restricted media freedom, including an obligation for media to promote “the country’s image and national cohesion.”

In April 2020, the High Authority of Communication (HAC) suspended the news site Gabon Media Time for three months after its representatives ignored a summons to attend an HAC meeting on a libel complaint; the HAC had suspended the site for a month in 2019 after it criticized state hospitals.

D2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Are individuals free to practice and express their religious faith or nonbelief in public and private? 3.003 4.004

Although religious freedom is enshrined in the constitution and generally respected, some heterodox religious groups reportedly have difficulty obtaining registration from the government.

D3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Is there academic freedom, and is the educational system free from extensive political indoctrination? 1.001 4.004

Omar Bongo University, Gabon’s main center for tertiary education, is state-run, and academic freedom is tenuous. Professors self-censor to avoid conflicts with the authorities.

In June 2021, Mathurin Ovono Ebe, a prominent faculty member and president of the Omar Bongo University chapter of the National Union of Teachers and Researchers (SNEC), was kidnapped, tortured, and threatened by armed assailants, who some analysts believe are linked to the government. Ebe had participated in a protest in front of the university hours before he was abducted.

Score Change: The score declined from 2 to 1 due to the kidnapping and torture of a high-profile university figure by unknown assailants in apparent retaliation for his union activity.

D4 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Are individuals free to express their personal views on political or other sensitive topics without fear of surveillance or retribution? 2.002 4.004

Ordinary individuals’ freedom to express criticism of the government is limited by restrictive laws and deterred by state surveillance. Individuals who criticize the government are routinely detained or attacked by security forces.

E Associational and Organizational Rights

E1 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Is there freedom of assembly? 1.001 4.004

Freedom of assembly is limited. The government repeatedly denied permits for meetings, used tear gas, and arrested demonstrators to disperse unauthorized gatherings. A 2017 law further limited the freedom to assemble by making organizers responsible for offenses committed during gatherings.

In February 2021, two people died during protests against the government’s COVID-19 restrictions after police fired tear gas and stun grenades into crowds in Libreville and Port Gentil. Some witnesses claimed that police used live ammunition and shot the two individuals who were killed.

E2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Is there freedom for nongovernmental organizations, particularly those that are engaged in human rights– and governance-related work? 1.001 4.004

Relatively few nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) operate in Gabon. Freedom of association is guaranteed by the constitution, but the process for formally registering NGOs is onerous and implemented inconsistently, leaving groups vulnerable to accusations that they are not in compliance with the law.

E3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Is there freedom for trade unions and similar professional or labor organizations? 1.001 4.004

Workers are legally permitted to join unions, engage in collective bargaining, and strike, but the government has disrupted sit-ins and other labor activism in recent years, and has arrested participants. Some analysts suspect that the June 2021 kidnapping and assault of Omar Bongo University faculty member and SNEC leader Mathurin Ovono Ebe was carried out by government-linked agents.

F Rule of Law

F1 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Is there an independent judiciary? 0.000 4.004

The courts are subordinate to the president. The judiciary is accountable to the Ministry of Justice, through which the president has the power to appoint and dismiss judges. Gabon’s highest judicial body, the Constitutional Court, is composed of three members appointed by the president, two by the National Assembly, one by the Senate, and three by the Superior Council of the Judiciary, which itself is headed by the president and justice minister. The 2018 constitution also created a new special court, the Court of Justice of the Republic, which alone has the authority to place a check on top executive and judicial officials. It consists of seven members appointed by the Superior Council of the Judiciary and six members of Parliament. The Constitutional Court is headed by a longtime Bongo ally.

In 2019, a Libreville appellate court agreed to hear a lawsuit that would have required President Bongo to undergo a medical exam to determine his fitness for office. The government suspended the judge who made the ruling and blocked the proceedings. In February 2020, the government refused to hear a lawsuit charging Noureddin Bongo with corruption. In July of that year, a Libreville court convicted Bertrand Zibi Abeghe, a former ally turned opposition leader arrested during the 2016 election, to six years in prison.

F2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Does due process prevail in civil and criminal matters? 1.001 4.004

Legal safeguards against arbitrary arrest and detention are not upheld by police, and detainees are often denied access to lawyers. Lengthy pretrial detention is common. Arbitrary arrests linked to opposition activism have increased since the 2016 election crisis. Several detained opposition figures have been denied due process, and prisoners have occasionally died in custody.

F3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Is there protection from the illegitimate use of physical force and freedom from war and insurgencies? 1.001 4.004

Prisons are severely overcrowded, with limited access to proper medical care. Torture is outlawed by the constitution, but detainees and inmates face physical abuse. In January 2021, former head of the state-run Gabon Oil Company Patrichi Christian Tanasa, imprisoned as the result of a corruption investigation, alleged he had been tortured and sexually assaulted while in custody.

F4 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do laws, policies, and practices guarantee equal treatment of various segments of the population? 1.001 4.004

The country’s large population of African immigrants is subject to harassment and extortion, including by police. Members of some minority groups experience workplace discrimination and live in extreme poverty.

Women have equal legal rights on some issues but face significant de facto discrimination in employment and other economic matters. Sexual harassment in the workplace, which is not prohibited by law, is common.

In June 2020, the government passed a law decriminalizing homosexuality. Same-sex marriage remains illegal and LGBT+ individuals are still subject to widespread social stigma, discrimination, and the threat of physical violence.

G Personal Autonomy and Individual Rights

G1 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do individuals enjoy freedom of movement, including the ability to change their place of residence, employment, or education? 2.002 4.004

There are no laws restricting internal travel, but police often monitor travelers at checkpoints and demand bribes. Married women seeking to obtain a passport or travel abroad must have permission from their husbands. The government has imposed travel bans on opposition leaders in recent years.

G2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Are individuals able to exercise the right to own property and establish private businesses without undue interference from state or nonstate actors? 1.001 4.004

Bureaucratic and judicial delays can pose difficulties for businesses. Enforcement of contracts and property rights is weak, and the process for property registration is lengthy. Bongo and his associates play a dominant role in the economy, impairing fair competition and favoring those with connections to the leadership.

G3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do individuals enjoy personal social freedoms, including choice of marriage partner and size of family, protection from domestic violence, and control over appearance? 1.001 4.004

Personalized forms of violence are believed to be widespread, and perpetrators generally enjoy impunity. Rape and domestic abuse are rarely reported to authorities or prosecuted. Spousal rape is not specifically prohibited. Abortion is a punishable crime under most circumstances. The minimum age for marriage is 15 for women and 18 for men. The civil code states that a wife must obey her husband as the head of household.

In March 2021, the parliament amended the civil code to enhance legal equality for married women, including by recognizing gender-based violence as legitimate grounds for divorce.

G4 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do individuals enjoy equality of opportunity and freedom from economic exploitation? 1.001 4.004

Wage standards and laws against forced labor are poorly enforced, particularly in the informal sector and with respect to foreign workers. Both adults and children are exploited in a number of different occupations, and foreign women are trafficked to Gabon for prostitution or domestic servitude.

On Gabon

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  • Global Freedom Score

    21 100 not free