Freedom in the World
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Civil Liberties (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Political Rights (1 = best, 7 = worst)
President Omar Bongo's Gabonese Democratic Party (PDG) overwhelmingly won the first and second round of parliamentary elections in December 2001. A divided opposition and low voter turnout, as well as government interference in the polls, helped assure the PDG victory. Provisional results indicated that ruling party candidates won 84 seats compared to 14 for opposition and independent candidates. A third round of voting was to be held in January 2002 in some areas of the country where there was an outbreak of the Ebola virus during the December election period. In addition, polls are to be held again in other areas where opposition protesters had smashed ballot boxes and burned polling stations. One group of opposition parties boycotted the elections, accusing the government of inflating voter registration lists, while other opposition parties participated.
Straddling the equator on central Africa's west coast, Gabon gained independence from France in 1960. Bongo, whom France raised from soldier to president in 1967, completed the consolidation of power begun by his predecessor, Leon Mba, by officially outlawing the opposition. France, which maintains marines in Gabon, has intervened twice to preserve Bongo's regime. In 1990, protests prompted by economic duress forced Bongo to accept a conference that opposition leaders hoped would promote a peaceful democratic transition. However, Bongo retained power in rigged 1993 elections that sparked violent protests, which were repressed by his presidential guard.
Although Gabon has more than 40 ethnic groups, it has escaped the ethnic strife of its neighbors. The country's human rights record has improved in recent years with the easing of press repression and attacks on African immigrants, but arbitrary detention and abuse of detainees continues.
Gabon's capital, Libreville, ranks among the most expensive cities in the world; one-third of the population has migrated here. Three decades of autocratic and corrupt rule have made Bongo among the world's richest men, while some money has trickled out to rural areas and contributed to education. Oil accounts for 80 percent of the country's exports. State institutions are influenced or controlled by Bongo and a small elite, with strong backing by the Gabonese army and France. The highly profitable French Elf Aquitaine oil company plays a dominant role in the country's economic and political life. Oil revenues have declined in recent years as a result of the depletion of the country's petroleum resources.
Gabon's citizens have never been able to exercise their constitutional right to change their government democratically, despite a gradual political opening since 1990. There are numerous political parties, but the Gabonese Democratic Party (PDG) has ruled since President Omar Bongo created it in 1968. The 1994 Paris accords claimed to institute true democratic reforms, but Bongo's electoral victory in 1998, with 61 percent of the vote, followed a campaign that made profligate use of state resources and state media. The polling, which was partially boycotted by the opposition, was marked by serious irregularities, including incomplete and inaccurate electoral lists and the use of false documents to cast votes. The National Election Commission proved neither autonomous nor competent. Legislative elections in 1993 and 1996 were also seriously flawed. Following the 1996 local government elections, which gave the opposition several victories, the government transferred key electoral functions to the interior ministry, taking them from the electoral commission.
President Bongo was granted judicial immunity by parliament in 2000; immunity lasts beyond the expiration of the presidential term. The judiciary suffers from political interference. Rights to legal counsel and public criminal trials are generally respected. Judges may deliver summary verdicts, and torture is sometimes used to produce confessions. Prison conditions are marked by beatings and insufficient food, water, and medical care. Arbitrary arrests and long periods of pretrial detention are common.
The rights of assembly and association are constitutionally guaranteed, but permits required for public gatherings are sometimes refused. Freedom to form and join political parties is generally respected, but civil servants may face harassment based on their associations. Nongovernmental organizations operate openly, but local human rights groups are weak and not entirely independent.
A government daily and at least one dozen private weeklies, which are primarily controlled by opposition parties, are published. At least six private radio and television broadcasters have been licensed and operate, but their viability is tenuous. The state is authorized to criminalize civil libel suits.
While no legal restrictions on travel exist, harassment on political and ethnic bases has been reported. Discrimination against African immigrants, including harassment by security forces and arbitrary detention, has diminished. Most of Gabon's several thousand indigenous Pygmies live in the forest and are largely independent of the formal government. Religious freedom is constitutionally guaranteed and respected. An official ban on the Jehovah's Witnesses is not enforced.
Legal protections for women include equal-access laws for education, business, and investment. In addition to owning property and businesses, women constitute more than 50 percent of the salaried workforce in the health and trade sectors, and women hold high-ranking positions in the military and judiciary. Women continue to face legal and cultural discrimination, particularly in rural areas, and are reportedly subject to widespread domestic violence.
Gabon has come under international scrutiny for its exploitation of thousands of child laborers who are sent from other central or west African countries to work in agriculture or as domestic servants. The government has cooperated with the international organizations to fight child trafficking, but it has not ratified the International Labor Organization's convention on the worst forms of child labor.
The constitution recognizes the right to form unions, and virtually the entire formal private sector workforce is unionized. Strikes are legal if they are held after an eight-day notice advising that outside arbitration has failed. Collective bargaining is allowed by industry, not by firm. Public sector employees may unionize, but their right to strike is limited if a strike could jeopardize public safety.