Freedom in the World
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Freedom Rating (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Civil Liberties (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Political Rights (1 = best, 7 = worst)
The coalition cabinet appointed in January is likely to face increasing popular discontent as the true state of Gabon's economy begins to reveal itself. High oil prices have masked falling oil production. However, it is unlikely that Gabon will suffer from widespread popular unrest because the country's civil society is weak, the political opposition lacks cohesion, and President Omar Bongo is adept at the use of patronage. Gabon could draw increasing attention from the United States as Washington looks to alternative sources of oil instead of relying heavily on petroleum from the Persian Gulf states.
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.
Three decades of autocratic and corrupt rule have made Bongo among the world's richest men, while some money has trickled down 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. Bongo has introduced two new laws to fight corruption, which were approved by the National Assembly.
Gabon's citizens have never been able to exercise their constitutional right to change their government democratically, despite a gradual political opening up since 1990. There are numerous political parties, but the ruling Gabonese Democratic Party (PDG) has ruled since President Omar Bongo created it in 1968. 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. The National Election Commission proved neither autonomous nor competent. Legislative elections in 1993 and 1996 were also seriously flawed.
The PDG won 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. Ruling party candidates won 88 seats compared with 32 for opposition and independent candidates. Some opposition parties boycotted the vote. 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.
The judiciary suffers from political interference. Rights to legal counsel and a public criminal trial are generally respected. However, 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 arrest 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 because of associations. Nongovernmental organizations operate openly, but local human rights groups are weak and not entirely independent.
Press freedom is guaranteed, but sometimes restricted in practice. The state is authorized to criminalize civil libel suits. A government daily and at least 10 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 and most of the programming is nonpolitical.
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, is a problem. 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.
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, however, particularly in rural areas, and are reportedly subject to widespread domestic violence.
Gabon has come under scrutiny for the exploitation of thousands of child laborers who are sent from other Central or West African countries to work as domestic servants. The government has cooperated with international organizations to fight child trafficking, but says it lacks sufficient funds and resources to tackle the problem.
The constitution recognizes the right to form unions, and virtually the entire formal private sector workforce is unionized. Collective bargaining is allowed by industry, not by firm.