Freedom in the World
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President Omar Bongo, Africa’s longest-serving ruler, continues to exercise broad powers and authority. However, opposition parties struck a deal with the government on a package of electoral reforms that are scheduled to be implemented before communal elections in 2007. The ruling party won a majority in the December 2006 legislative elections that were seen as generally free and fair. Gabon’s dwindling oil reserves will be exhausted within 30 years, and there is pressure on the government to diversify the economy.
Gabon gained independence from France in 1960. President Omar Bongo declared the country 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 hardship forced Bongo to accept a conference that opposition leaders hoped would promote a peaceful democratic transition. However, Bongo retained power in a rigged 1993 presidential election. The 1996 parliamentary elections were also seriously flawed.
Following opposition gains in the 1996 local government polls, including mayoral victories in Libreville and several other major cities, 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, partially boycotted by the opposition, was marked by serious irregularities.
Another partial opposition boycott, low voter turnout, and government interference in the polls helped assure victory for the ruling Gabonese Democratic Party (PDG) in the December 2001 legislative elections. The next year’s legislative by-elections, held to fill seats for which the 2001 results had been nullified, left the PDG and allied parties with 107 seats in the National Assembly, compared with 13 held by the opposition. 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.
The National Assembly in 2003 removed a 1997 constitutional amendment that had imposed term limits on the presidency, and replaced the country’s runoff system with a single round of voting in all elections. The changes were resisted by most opposition parties and widely viewed as an attempt to make Bongo president for life. Many observers also theorized that he was 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 by 50 percent from 1993 to 2003, opposition leaders and independent experts accused the government of inflating the figures in order to falsify the electoral register and manipulate economic data to qualify for increased aid.
The 2005 presidential election occurred over two days, with security forces voting on November 25 and the public on November 27, an arrangement criticized by the opposition for increasing 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. 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. Official results gave Bongo 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. The government refused to register Myboto’s newly created party, the Gabonese Union for Democracy and Development (UGDD), forcing him to run as an independent.
Mamboundou challenged the result publicly, and police used tear gas and batons to disperse a demonstration by his supporters in December 2005. Fourteen opposition members were among the 23 supporters and bystanders arrested and charged with vandalism.
In May 2006, the government reached agreement with opposition parties, including the UPG and the newly registered UGDD, on an electoral reform package that would introduce a single ballot paper, restore the two-round runoff system, provide equal access to state media for opposition political parties, and establish a permanent national electoral commission in time for 2007 communal elections. Legislative elections were held in December 2006 with the PDG taking 81 of the 120 seats. Parties allied to the PDG took another 16. Opposition party and independent candidates won the remaining seats, including UPG leader Mamboundu. The elections were judged to be credible, and were seen as an improvement over the flawed 2005 presidential contest.
Three decades of autocratic and corrupt rule have made Bongo one of the world’s richest men, although some money has trickled down to rural areas and contributed to higher education standards. New oil discoveries and higher world prices in recent years have provided a temporary boost to Gabon’s economy. Oil income currently accounts for 60 percent of all government revenue, but oil reserves are expected to be depleted within 30 years. To secure a standby agreement signed with the International Monetary Fund (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.
The United Nations has since 2004 served as mediator in a dispute between Equatorial Guinea and Gabon over exploration rights in the potentially oil-rich Corisco Bay Islands. During 2006, allegations surfaced that senior Gabonese officials had attempted to sell at least one of the islands to Equatorial Guinea for personal gain.
Gabon is not an electoral democracy. However, the December 2006 legislative elections were as credible as, and an improvement over, past elections, including the flawed November 2005 presidential election. Bongo’s WIDE presidential prerogatives include powers to veto legislation, dissolve the legislature, call new elections, and issue decrees that have the force of law. He appoints all cabinet ministers and heads of state-owned corporations.
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 were held in December 2006, with the PDG and allied parties taking 97 seats. Senate elections are 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. Freedom to form and join political parties is generally respected, but civil servants face harassment and potential discrimination if they affiliate with opposition groups.
Corruption is widespread in Gabon. 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. Gabon was ranked 90 out of 163 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2006 Corruption Perceptions Index.
Press freedom is guaranteed in law but often restricted in practice. State censorship of the press continued in 2006, with publications printed outside of the country, usually in Cameroon, subject to review before distribution. Journalists practice self-censorship, and the state is authorized to criminalize civil libel suits. Journalists are particularly careful about criticizing the president or members of his family. Norbert Ngoua Mezui, founder and editor of an independent newspaper, Nku’u Le Messager, was arrested in October and made to serve a 21-day sentence on criminal defamation charges. The case stemmed from an original sentence he had received in 2003 for an article on Equatorial Guinea’s alleged payment of the salaries of high-ranking Gabonese officials. Mezui’s arrest followed weeks of debate over the so-called Mbiane affair, which involved the possible sale of one of the Corisco Bay Islands to Equatorial Guinea. Another publication, Echos du Nord , was suspended during the year for “unethical” reporting after publishing a story about infighting within the government. Despite the media controls, Gabon does not limit access to the internet.
Religious freedom is enshrined in the constitution and generally upheld by authorities. The government does not restrict academic freedom.
The rights of assembly and association are guaranteed, but not always respected. During the 2005 presidential campaign, the government banned all marches by political groups except those allied with President Bongo’s campaign. 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 is not independent, but rights to legal counsel and a public criminal trial 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 arrest and long periods of pretrial detention are common.
While no legal restrictions on travel exist, interference by the authorities occurs regularly. Discrimination against African immigrants, including harassment by security forces and arbitrary detention, is a problem. Though equal under the law, most of Gabon’s several thousand indigenous Pygmies live in extreme poverty in isolated forest communities without access to government services, and are often exploited as cheap labor by other ethnic groups.
Gabon has been criticized 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, but these laws favor educated women in urban areas. Women continue to face legal and cultural discrimination, however, particularly in rural areas, and domestic violence is reportedly widespread. Rape is illegal, but cases are seldom prosecuted. Women have no property rights in common-law marriages, which are practiced widely. Despite legal protections, trafficking in women and children, especially girls, continues to occur. Young girls from Benin and Togo often work as domestic servants and are prey to sexual harassment and other forms of abuse. Abortion is prohibited.