Freedom in the World
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Civil Liberties (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Political Rights (1 = best, 7 = worst)
President Omar Bongo remained firmly in power in 2004 despite Gabon's poor economic prospects, including the long-term decline of its oil wealth. Meanwhile, Bongo agreed to a series of reform measures to obtain much-needed aid from the IMF.
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 presidential elections that sparked violent protests, which were repressed by his presidential guard. The 1996 parliamentary elections were also seriously flawed.
Following 1996 local government polls, which gave the opposition several victories, the government transferred key electoral functions from the electoral commission to the Interior Ministry. 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, while the National Election Commission proved neither autonomous nor competent.
The Gabonese Democratic Party (PDG), which Bongo created in 1968, 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 independent and opposition candidates. Some opposition parties boycotted the vote.
Led by the ruling PDG, parliament in 2003 removed a 1997 constitutional amendment that imposed term limits on the head of state, allowing Bongo to seek reelection indefinitely. The move also replaced the country's runoff system with a single round of voting in all elections. These changes, fiercely opposed by most opposition parties, are widely viewed as an attempt to make Bongo, whose current term ends in 2005, president for life. It marked the sixth time the constitution has been amended since the introduction of a multiparty system in 1990. Bongo is adept at the use of patronage in undermining the opposition. In April 2004, six more parties joined his 27-party ruling alliance, further bolstering Bongo's future electoral ambitions.
Throughout the year, Gabon faced dwindling oil production, heavy debt, and a stagnant economy, although high oil prices have provided a temporary cushion; oil accounts for some 80 percent of the country's exports. In a bid to secure assistance from the IMF, Gabon agreed to a series of economic reforms, including reducing spending and increasing non-oil revenues, and forming an anticorruption body, the National Commission against Illicit Enrichment. The commitment to the IMF paved the way for the rescheduling of Gabon's unmanageable foreign debt burden in June. A compromise deal with neighboring Equatorial Guinea to jointly explore disputed islands, pending the outcome of UN mediation, could boost Gabon's shrinking oil reserves. The government has also taken steps to strengthen relations with countries other than France, signing its first-ever oil exploration deal with China
Three decades of autocratic and corrupt rule have made Bongo among the world's richest men, although some money has trickled down to rural areas and contributed to education. State institutions are influenced or controlled by Bongo and a small elite, with strong backing by the Gabonese army and France.
Despite a gradual political opening since 1990, Gabon's citizens have never been able to exercise their constitutional right to change their government democratically. With the 2003 lifting of term limits on the presidency and the continued co-optation and marginalization of the political opposition, President Omar Bongo is poised for another landslide victory in the 2005 elections. Although there are numerous political parties, the PDG has ruled since Bongo created it in 1968 and is the only one with national reach.
A special government ministry to fight corruption was established in 2003. However, it issued no reports and took no action against corrupt officials during 2004. Meanwhile, a revelation during high-profile corruption trials in France involving the TotalFinaElf oil company, that tens of millions of dollars in bribes were paid to Bongo, had negligible fallout for the president at home. Gabon was ranked 74 out of 146 countries surveyed in Transparency International's 2004 Corruption Perceptions Index.
Press freedom is guaranteed in law, but often 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. Almost all Gabonese private newspapers are printed in Cameroon because of the high costs at the only local printing company. 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. At the end of 2002, there were three Internet service providers in the country, two of which are privately owned. The government did not restrict access to or use of the Internet.
State censorship of the press escalated in early 2004, with publications printed outside of the country subjected to review before distribution. Several independent newspapers critical of the government were temporarily shuttered, and a new commission was formed with wide powers to decide who qualifies for accreditation as a professional journalist.
Religious freedom is constitutionally guaranteed and respected. The government does not restrict academic freedom.
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. Virtually the entire formal private sector workforce is unionized. Collective bargaining is allowed by industry, not by firm.
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.
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.
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.
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. Government ministries must appoint at least four women as advisers, that is, more than 150 women for the whole government. Women continue to face legal and cultural discrimination, however, particularly in rural areas, and domestic violence is reportedly widespread.