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)
In 2012, several private news outlets were suspended after criticizing President Ali Bongo Ondimba or reporting on a national address by the country’s main opposition leader, and an opposition-owned television station was attacked. In September, 20 opposition groups called for a national conference on governance, including discussions on overhauling the constitution, though the government continued to resist such calls at year’s end.
Gabon gained independence from France in 1960. Omar Bongo Ondimba became president in 1967 and solidified the Gabonese Democratic Party’s (PDG) grip on power. In 1990, protests prompted by economic hardship led to multiparty legislative elections. Bongo and the ruling PDG retained power over subsequent years through a series of flawed elections.
Bongo died in June 2009 after more than 40 years in power, and Senate president Rose Francine Rogombe became interim head of state. Defense Minister Ali Bongo Ondimba, son of the late president, was nominated as the PDG candidate for a snap presidential election. Several senior PDG figures, including former interior minister André Mba Obame, decided to run as independents. Bongo won the August 2009 election with almost 42 percent of the vote, while Mba Obame and Pierre Mamboundou each received 25 percent. Although the opposition challenged the official results amid violent protests, the Constitutional Court upheld Bongo’s victory following a recount in September.
On January 25, 2011, Mba Obame declared himself the legitimate president of Gabon, occupied the UN Development Programme’s headquarters in Libreville for a month, and established a parallel government. Mba Obame and his supporters tried to ignite a popular uprising, though aside from a series of demonstrations held on January 29, there were no large-scale protests. The Gabonese government subsequently outlawed Mba Obame’s opposition party, the National Union (UN). In the December National Assembly elections, which were boycotted by some of the opposition over the government’s failure to implement biometric technology for voter registration, the PDG captured 115 out of 120 seats.
Gabon co-hosted the Africa Cup of Nations with Equatorial Guinea in January 2012. The government was criticized for spending hundreds of millions of dollars on a soccer tournament while about 20 percent of the population lives on less than $2 per day.
In September, 20 normally fragmented opposition groups united to call for a national conference to discuss overhauling the constitution, dissolving the government, and holding elections. This call followed the return of Mba Obame to Gabon after spending 14 months in France for medical treatment. Bongo continued at year’s end to resist calls for a national conference.
Gabon is not an electoral democracy. The president is elected for seven-year terms, and a 2003 constitutional amendment removed the two-term limit imposed in 1991. The president has extensive powers, including the authority to appoint judges and dissolve the parliament. The bicameral legislature consists of a 102-seat Senate and a 120-seat National Assembly. Regional and municipal officials elect senators for six-year terms, while National Assembly members are elected by popular vote for five-year terms. In December 2010, the legislature approved several constitutional amendments, including one that permits the president to prolong his term during a declared national emergency.
Freedom to form and join political parties is generally respected, but civil servants face harassment and discrimination if they are affiliated with opposition groups. The PDG has held power continuously since 1968, and of the approximately 50 other registered parties, 40 are part of the PDG’s ruling coalition, the Union for the Gabonese Presidential Majority. In late 2009, eight opposition parties formed a new alliance, the Coalition of Groups and Political Parties for Change (CGPPA), with presidential runner-up André Mba Obame as a leading member. In 2010, the CGPPA coalesced into the opposition UN party, which received accreditation in April. However, the UN was dissolved by the Gabonese government in response to Mba Obame appointing himself president in January 2011.
Corruption is widespread, and rampant graft prevents the country’s significant natural resource revenues from benefiting most citizens. Combating corruption is touted as a priority by the government, which has, among other things, audited government agencies to expunge ghost workers from pay rolls. In March, a provincial director of the Ministry of Water and Forests was arrested for taking part in illegal logging activities; he was sentenced to five years in prison. Gabon was ranked 102 out of 176 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2012 Corruption Perceptions Index.
Press freedom is guaranteed by law but restricted at times in practice. Conviction for libel can result in fines, publishing suspension, or a prison sentence. State-controlled outlets dominate the media, but there are some private broadcasters, and foreign news sources and independent newspapers are available. In August 2012, unidentified gunmen burned down the transmitters of TV+, a private television station owned by Mba Obame, and in September, assailants stabbed a security guard and tried unsuccessfully to enter the station’s studio; the government denied responsibility. The government, through the National Communication Council, frequently suspends news outlets following critical reporting. In January, TV+ and the independent weekly Echos Du Nord were suspended for three months and two months, respectively, for featuring coverage of a national address by Mba Obame. In August, two private newspapers, Embozolo and La Une, were suspended for six months over articles critical of President Ali Bongo Ondimba. Access to the internet is not restricted by the government.
Religious freedom is enshrined in the constitution and upheld by the authorities. The government does not restrict academic freedom.
The rights of assembly and association are legally guaranteed. Police used tear gas to disperse a student protest over financial aid policies in June 2012, after students started throwing rocks at police. In August, one demonstrator was accidentally killed and about a dozen were injured during clashes between police and supporters of Mba Obame. Due to the lack of strong opposition parties, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) are important vehicles for scrutiny of the government. However, human rights and environmental activist Marc Ona Essangui was charged with defaming the president and his cabinet chief over statements that both men held personal stakes in Group Olam, a Singaporean agribusiness company with substantial investments in Gabon. Ona and other civil society leaders have accused Group Olam of causing environmental damage and benefiting from land-grabbing practices in Gabon. Ona’s trial, which was scheduled to begin in late December 2012, was postponed until after year’s end. Virtually the entire private-sector workforce is unionized, and collective bargaining is allowed by industry, not by firm.
The judiciary is not independent. Judges may deliver summary verdicts in some cases, and prosecutions of former government officials appear to target opposition members. However, the right to legal counsel is generally respected. The authorities do not always observe prohibitions against arbitrary arrest and detention, and torture is sometimes used to extract confessions. Lengthy pretrial detention is common, and prisons suffer from overcrowding and poor food, ventilation, and sanitation.
Discrimination against African immigrants is widespread, and security forces harass and solicit bribes from African expatriates working in the country. Though equal under the law, most of Gabon’s several thousand indigenous Baka live in extreme poverty in isolated forest communities and are often exploited as cheap labor.
The law provides for gender equality in education and employment, but women continue to face discrimination, particularly in rural areas. Several women hold high-level positions in the government, including the minister of justice. Domestic violence legislation is rarely enforced, and the crime continues to be widespread. Rape is seldom prosecuted. In 2012, the government made serious efforts to reduce human trafficking, initiating prosecuting eight suspected traffickers and assisting in repatriating victims.