Freedom in the World
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President Omar Bongo, Africa’s longest-serving ruler, was beset in 2007 by an environmental controversy surrounding a $3.5 billion iron-ore mining deal with China. The president continued to face pressure to diversify the economy amid dwindling oil reserves. Nevertheless, presidential elections are not due until 2012, and with all credible opposition either crushed or co-opted, President Bongo’s ruling Gabonese Democratic Party (PDG) was expected to win a landslide in the December 2007 local elections that were postponed to April 2008. Bongo appointed a new, 41-member cabinet in December 2007, marked by the absence of opposition leaders.
Gabon gained independence from France in 1960. President Omar Bongo took power in 1967 and declared the country a one-party state the following year. In 1990, protests prompted by economic hardship forced him to allow multiparty legislative elections, but he retained power in a rigged 1993 presidential vote.
The 1996 parliamentary elections were also seriously flawed. Following opposition gains in that year’s local elections, including mayoral victories in Libreville and other major cities, the government transferred key electoral functions from the electoral commission to the Interior Ministry. Bongo’s reelection in 1998 followed a campaign that made profligate use of state resources. The polling itself, partially boycotted by the opposition, was marked by serious irregularities. However, as in 1993, the president mollified many of his opponents through negotiations and promises of future reforms.
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 2001 legislative elections. In the 2003 senatorial elections, municipal and regional government officials elected 91 senators, all from the PDG, to six-year terms amid widespread reports of irregularities.
After results of a census released in 2005 showed that the population had grown by 50 percent to 1.4 million 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 inaccurate voter lists, the abuse of state resources, and allegedly falsified turnout figures. Official results gave Bongo 79 percent of the vote, followed by Pierre Mamboundou of the Union for Gabonese People (UPG) with 14 percent, and former cabinet minister Zacharie Myboto with about 7 percent. 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 results, and police used tear gas and batons to disperse protests by his supporters in December 2005. In May 2006, the government reached an agreement with opposition parties, including the UPG and the newly registered UGDD, on an electoral reform package that would establish a permanent national electoral commission in time for the 2007 local elections. Legislative elections were held in December 2006, with the PDG and allied parties taking 97 of the 120 seats. The elections were judged to be credible, and a major improvement over the flawed 2005 presidential contest. With all credible opposition either crushed or co-opted, President Bongo’s ruling PDG party was expected to sweep the board in the local elections due in December 2007; however, elections were postponed to April 2008 by the Autonomous and Permanent National Electoral Commission (CENAP).
Four decades of corrupt, autocratic rule have made Bongo one of the world’s richest men, although some of the revenues from oil production have trickled down to the relatively small population 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, but reserves are gradually dwindling, and the state currently depends on oil income for about 60 percent of its revenue. The need to diversify the economy helped motivate Bongo to begin an International Monetary Fund (IMF) structural adjustment program in 2005, including the privatization of state companies and cuts to public sector employment.
Environmental groups in 2007 pressed the government to reveal the details of the Belinga project, a $3.5 billion iron-ore mining deal with a Chinese state-owned company. They warned that Gabon’s portion of the Congo Basin forest could be seriously damaged by unchecked mining and related timber exploitation. However, Bongo insisted that the Belinga project would proceed as planned. Gabonese are outraged at the terms of the project and the likely damage to the country’s national parks. The recently founded Compagnie Minière de Bélinga (Comibel), jointly owned by China (85 percent) and the Gabonese government (15 percent), will manage the project.
Gabon is not an electoral democracy. However, international observers reported that the December 2006 legislative elections were an improvement over past elections. Local elections scheduled for December 2007 were postponed until April 2008.
The president is elected for seven-year terms, and a 2003 constitutional change removed a 1997 amendment that had imposed term limits on the presidency. The president’s extensive powers include the authority to dissolve parliament, declare a state of emergency, and appoint or dismiss the prime minister and cabinet. The bicameral legislature consists of a 91-seat Senate and a 120-seat lower chamber, the National Assembly. Regional and municipal government officials elect senators for six-year terms. National Assembly members are elected by direct popular vote to serve five-year terms.
Freedom to form and join political parties is generally respected, but civil servants face harassment and potential discrimination if they affiliate with opposition groups. President Omar Bongo’s PDG has held power continuously since its creation in 1968, and it is the only party with national reach. Of some 50 other registered parties, 40 are part of the ruling PDG-led coalition, the Union for the Gabonese Presidential Majority (UMPG); the coalition often serves as a vehicle for dispensing patronage to regime loyalists.
Corruption is widespread. A special anticorruption ministry was established in 2003 but has yet to issue a report or take action against corrupt officials. The rampant graft prevents significant oil, mining, and logging revenues from reaching the impoverished majority of the population; Gabon ranked 119 out of 177 countries surveyed in the UN Development Programme’s 2007 Human Development Index, which measures life expectancy, literacy, and standards of living. In June 2007, a judge in Bordeaux, France, found President Bongo guilty of accepting a bribe to free French citizen René Cardona from jail in 1996. Gabon ranked 84 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2007 Corruption Perceptions Index.
Press freedom is guaranteed in law but often restricted in practice. State censorship of the press continued in 2007, with publications printed outside of the country, usually in Cameroon, subject to review before distribution. In October 2007, the National Communications Council, Gabon’s media regulator, banned two publications in one day: the Paris-based, pan-African bimonthly Le Gri-Gri and the bimonthly La Nation. Journalists practice self-censorship, and the state is authorized to criminalize civil libel suits. The Pan-African News Agency reported in September 2007 that 250 trials have been conducted against the media in Gabon since 1990. State-controlled outlets dominate the broadcast media, but there are some private broadcasters, and foreign news sources like Radio France Internationale are also available. Access to the internet is not restricted by the government.
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. 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. However, 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.
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 they are often exploited as cheap labor by other ethnic groups.
While no legal restrictions on travel exist, interference by the authorities occurs regularly. Business conditions remain difficult; Gabon ranked 144 out of 178 countries in the World Bank’s 2008 Doing Business survey.
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 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, 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. Abortion is prohibited and the death penalty, which had not been applied for over 20 years, was abolished in September 2007.