Freedom in the World
Freedom Rating (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Civil Liberties (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Political Rights (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Gabon's political rights rating declined from 5 to 6 because of flawed, uncompetitive elections and continuing military influence over the electoral process.
President Omar Bongo, already Africa's longest-serving ruler, won another seven-year term in a flawed November 2005 election, which was marred by a lack of competition and continuing military influence over the electoral process. Poor fiscal management and declining oil revenues have lowered the living standards of many Gabonese, though new oil discoveries and higher prices on the world market bolstered an economic turnaround in 2005. The government successfully concluded a stand-by agreement with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in September 2005.
Straddling the equator on Central Africa's West Coast, Gabon gained independence from France in 1960. Omar Bongo, whom France raised from soldier to president in 1967, completed the consolidation of power begun by his predecessor, Leon Mba, by officially declaring Gabon a one-party state in 1968. France maintains a military contingent in Gabon and has intervened twice to preserve Bongo's regime. In 1990, protests prompted by economic crisis 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, sparking violent protests repressed by the presidential guard. The 1996 parliamentary elections were also seriously flawed.
Following opposition gains in the 1996 local government polls, along with mayoral victories in several major cities, including Libreville, 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. Polling, partially boycotted by the opposition, was marked by serious irregularities.
A partial opposition boycott and low voter turnout, as well as government interference in the polls, helped assure victory for the ruling Gabonese Democratic Party (PDG) in the December 2001 National Assembly polls. The PDG gained 88 of 120 seats. In 2002, legislative by-elections, held to fill seats nullified in the 2001 legislative elections, resulted in the PDG and allied parties holding 107 seats, against the 13 held by the opposition in the National Assembly. In the 2003 senatorial elections, municipal and regional government officials elected 91 senators, all from the PDG, to six-year terms. There were widespread reports of irregularities, and the elections were considered neither free nor fair.
In 2003, led by the ruling PDG, parliament removed a 1997 constitutional amendment that imposed term limits on the presidency. This move, which allows Bongo to seek reelection indefinitely, also replaced the country's runoff system with a single round of voting in all elections. These changes, marking the sixth time the constitution has been amended since the introduction of a multiparty system in 1990, were resisted by most opposition parties and widely viewed as an attempt to make Bongo president for life.
Bongo is adept at the use of patronage in undermining the opposition. His bloated government presently counts 44 ministries, which he uses to undermine and reward former opposition leaders with jobs and access to state resources. Many observers believe that he is grooming his son, Ali Bongo Ondimba, to succeed him. The younger Bongo has been defense minister since 1999.
After results of a census released in 2005 showed that the population had grown 50 percent from 1993-2003, opposition leaders and independent experts accused the government of inflating the figures in order to stuff the electoral register with false names and manipulate economic data to qualify for increased aid.
The 2005 presidential election took place over two days, with security forces voting on November 25 and the public on November 27, an arrangement criticized by the opposition for heightening opportunities for fraud. Though generally peaceful, the election was marred by irregularities, including incomplete and inaccurate electoral lists, the abuse of government resources, and unequal access to the media. Opposition candidates charged PDG stalwarts with vote buying, multiple voting, and ballot stuffing. Bongo won with approximately 79 percent of the vote. Pierre Mamboundou of the Union for Gabonese People (UPG) won 14 percent, with former cabinet minister Zacharie Myboto coming in third. Myboto was forced to run as an independent when the government refused to register his newly created party, the Gabonese Union for Democracy and Development (UGDD). Overall, the election lacked competition and reflected continuing military influence over the electoral process. The government claimed a voter turnout of over 63 percent, though other observers reported that actual participation may have been as low as 30 percent.
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 higher education standards. Gabon's economy rebounded slightly in 2005 from new oil discoveries and higher prices on the world market. Overly dependent on oil for decades, Gabon still faces overall dwindling production, heavy debt, and a stagnant economy. To secure a stand-by agreement signed with the IMF in September 2005, Gabon agreed to a series of economic reforms, including the privatization of its state-owned companies and the reduction of public sector employment and salary growth.
Citizens of Gabon cannot change their government demo-cratically. With the lifting of term limits on the presidency and the continued co-optation and marginalization of the political opposition, President Omar Bongo took 79 percent of the vote to win a sixth, seven-year term in the flawed November 2005 presidential election. Gabon's bicameral legislature consists of a Senate with 91 seats and a lower chamber, the National Assembly, with 120. Senators are elected to six-year terms by regional and municipal government officials. National Assembly members are elected by direct popular vote to serve five-year terms. National Assembly elections are slated for December 2006, with Senate elections scheduled for early 2009.
Bongo's PDG has held power continuously since its creation in 1968, and is the only party with national reach. Of 35 registered parties, 29 belong to the presidential majority.
A special government ministry to fight corruption was established in 2003, but it has yet to issue a report or take action against corrupt officials. Revelations during high-profile corruption trials in France involving the TotalFinaElf oil company that tens of millions of dollars in bribes were paid to Bongo have had no fallout for the president at home. Gabon was ranked 88 out of 159 countries surveyed in Transparency International's 2005 Corruption Perceptions Index.
Press freedom is guaranteed in law but often restricted in practice. State censorship of the press continued in 2005, with publications printed outside of the country subject to review before distribution. The state is authorized to criminalize civil libel suits. One independent newspaper, Nku'u Le Messager, was banned for more than two weeks in August 2005 for criticizing the National Council for Communication, a government body that determines accreditation for professional journalists. The 2003 suspensions of the satirical weeklies Misamu and Sub-Version and the bi-monthly newspaper La Sagaie remained in effect. At least 10 private weeklies, mainly controlled by opposition parties, are published irregularly. 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.
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. During the election campaign, the government banned all marches by political groups except those allied with President Bongo's campaign. Freedom to form and join political parties is generally respected, but civil servants may face harassment because of their associations. Several government employees were fired in 2005 because of their association with former cabinet minister Zacharie Myboto, who founded a new party, the UGDD, in April 2005 and contested the November presidential election as an independent candidate. 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. In September 2005, the president announced that the government would revoke the passport of anyone who criticized the government in press conferences abroad. Discrimination against African immigrants, including harassment by security forces and arbitrary detention, is a problem. Most of Gabon's several thousand indigenous Pygmies live marginalized in the forest without access to government services.
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. Women continue to face legal and cultural discrimination, however, particularly in rural areas, and domestic violence is reportedly widespread. Polygynous marriages are more common than monogamous relationships, which provide more legal protection to women, particularly regarding property rights in case of divorce. Common law marriage, which is accepted socially and practiced widely, affords women no property rights. Abortion is prohibited.