Freedom in the World
You are here
During 2015, Gabon’s political leaders jockeyed for position ahead of presidential and legislative elections in 2016. In February, the government repealed a 2011 ban on the main opposition party National Union (NU), enabling NU candidates to run in the 2016 elections. However, NU’s leader, André Mba Obame, died of illness in April, sparking violence by opposition supporters in Libreville, the capital. Also in 2015, Jean Ping, another high-profile opposition figure, emerged as a leading challenger to President Ali Bongo Ondimba in the 2016 presidential election.
The offices of opposition newspapers La Loupe and L’Aube were raided in 2015, and documents and computers were seized by unknown perpetrators.
A variety of strikes from employees of the public sector took place during the year, calling for better wages for civil servants and better pensions for the retired. While Gabon has one of the highest per capita income levels in Africa, a large minority of the population still lives in poverty.
Political Rights: 9 / 40 [Key]
A. Electoral Process: 2 / 9
Gabon’s bicameral parliament consists of a National Assembly, whose 120 members are elected by popular vote for five-year terms, and a 102-seat Senate indirectly elected by regional and municipal officials for six-year terms. Presidential term limits were abolished in 2003, and the president, who is elected by popular vote for seven years, has the power to dissolve the National Assembly. President Omar Bongo Ondimba—who had ruled the country since 1967—died in June 2009, and his son, Ali Bongo Ondimba, won elections held in September of that year, claiming 42 percent of the vote. His opponents included several senior figures of the ruling Gabonese Democratic Party (PDG), who ran as independents. Although the opposition challenged the official results amid violent protests, the Constitutional Court upheld Bongo’s victory following a recount.
Some opposition parties boycotted the 2011 National Assembly elections over the government’s failure to implement biometric technology for voter registration; the ruling PDG won all but seven seats. Biometric registration was in effect for the 2013 municipal and regional elections, which were overwhelmingly won by the PDG as well.
B. Political Pluralism and Participation: 4 / 16
The government is dominated by the PDG, which has held power since it was formed in 1968. The country has several opposition parties, but they are fragmented, and many are spinoffs of the PDG. In February, the government repealed a 2011 ban against the NU. However, the NU’s leader, Obame—who had refused to concede defeat in the 2009 presidential election—died in April. His death led some NU supporters to set fire to the embassy of Benin and burn cars in Libreville.
Other opposition groups include United Opposition Front for Change (FOPA) coalition, which was formed in 2014. Its ranks include Jean Ping, a foreign minister under Omar Bongo and a former chair of the African Union Commission, as well as former PDG secretary general Jacques Adiahénot.
C. Functioning of Government: 3 / 12
Investigations by other countries, especially France and the United States, have documented extensive patronage under Omar Bongo’s regime. Since taking office, Ali Bongo has attempted to distance himself from his father. He has reduced the size of the presidential cabinet, eliminated ghost workers from the public payroll, formed the National Commission against Illegal Enrichment to combat corruption, and launched an anticorruption probe aimed at finding millions of dollars siphoned off from a decade’s worth of development projects during Omar Bongo’s reign. However, corruption remains an issue. Gabon was ranked 99 out of 168 countries and territories in Transparency International’s 2015 Corruption Perceptions Index.
In 2014, the government launched an investigation into hundreds of millions of dollars in state funds allegedly stolen during the final years of Omar Bongo’s regime. Critics say the probe targeted regime opponents, such as former prime minister Jean Eyeghé Ndong. The operation led to the arrest in August 2014 of a current minister, Jeannot Kalima, for alleged misappropriation of funds when he was a senior public works official under Omar Bongo. In August 2015, Bongo announced he would donate his share of his father’s estate to Gabonese youth. Also in August, French police temporarily detained Maixent Accrombessi, Bongo’s chief of staff, in connection with a corruption investigation; he was later released on the grounds that he had diplomatic immunity.
Gabon was delisted as a candidate for the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI) in 2013 because it submitted its validation report after the deadline. In 2014, the government held a National Workshop to take steps to reenter EITI, and in 2015, it appointed a president to lead the action plan aimed at reacquiring membership.
In May 2015, the government approved a UN Development Programme–backed, three-year strategy to fight corruption and money laundering. Facilitators of the project include the National Commission for the Fight against Illicit Enrichment and the National Agency for Financial Investigation, as well as members of civil society and the private sector.
Civil Liberties: 25 / 60
D. Freedom of Expression and Belief: 10 / 16
Press freedom is guaranteed by law and the constitution but restricted in practice. Both private and government-affiliated newspapers and websites criticize the government, but self-censorship occurs, especially regarding topics related to the president. While technically independent, Gabon’s main media regulatory body, the National Communication Council (CNC), is often subject to political influence from the ruling party and the Ministry of Communications, to which it reports.
In 2014, opposition newspapers La Loupe and L’Aube closed temporarily after claiming fake progovernment issues had replaced their original publications on newsstands. The government denied the allegations. In October 2015, unknown assailants raided the offices of both La Loupe and L’Aube, seizing computers and important documents. In November, the minister of communication issued a statement threatening La Loupe with prosecution via the CNC for an article on poor governance in Gabon.
There are no government restrictions on internet access or reports of illegal monitoring or surveillance. In 2015, the government was internationally recognized for implementing initiatives intended to increase internet access among the population.
Gabon is a predominantly Christian country, and many of its minority Muslim population are noncitizen residents from West Africa. Religious freedom is enshrined in the constitution and largely upheld by the authorities. In July 2015, authorities instructed security forces to monitor those wearing full face veils in public places after terrorists had used them as a means to disguise their identities in nearby countries. Wearing the veil is legally permitted however.
The government does not restrict academic freedom.
E. Associational and Organizational Rights: 4 / 12
The rights of assembly and association are legally guaranteed. Public protests must be approved by the government, and security forces have used harsh tactics to keep order. In March 2015, security forces used tear gas and fired blanks against protesters calling for various reforms in education, retirement, and salaries.
Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) serve as an important counterweight to the lack of an effective political opposition, and are generally free to investigate and report on civil liberties abuses. However, their numbers are small.
Unions are relatively strong and influential, and the private industrial sector is almost entirely unionized. Strikes are frequent, and in 2015, members of the public sector mobilized to demand higher wages for civil servants and a reevaluation of retirement pensions, while students called for improvements on issues including scholarships and school cancellations. In February and March, Libreville experienced periods of internet blackouts after employees of Gabon Télécom, the country’s main internet and phone provider, organized strikes as a means to seek better pay after the company was privatized in 2007.
F. Rule of Law: 6 / 16
The law stipulates that the judiciary be independent, but it is accountable to the Ministry of Justice, through which the president has the power to appoint and dismiss judges.
Prison conditions are harsh and facilities are severely overcrowded. The main prison in Libreville, built to hold 500 inmates, has approximately four times that many. Pretrial detention is often lengthy, and access to proper medical care is limited. Human rights organizations are technically allowed to visit prisons, but some reportedly experienced problems in obtaining authorization. Torture is specifically outlawed by the constitution, including of inmates, yet cruel treatment continues to occur in prisons nonetheless. Mob violence is pervasive, and residential burglaries are reportedly on the rise.
Ritual killings remain a serious problem, especially before elections, as some believe limbs, genitals, and organs can be used to increase strength. Many go unreported and impunity is a problem. After several bodies were discovered with parts missing, the government introduced a stricter penal code in 2015, condemning perpetrators of ritual killings and other mutilations to life in prison.
The country’s large population of noncitizen African immigrants is subject to harassment and extortion. Police occasionally beat and detain immigrants who do not have valid identification or residence permits. According to the law, indigenous peoples have the same civil rights as others, yet in practice, they are often marginalized from societal institutions. They reportedly experience discrimination in the workplace and live in extreme poverty.
Gabon has no specific statute outlawing same-sex sexual activity, but bias against LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) people remains an issue. Most members of the LGBT community choose to keep their identities a secret to avoid housing and employment discrimination. There were no reports of violence directed against LGBT members in 2015.
G. Personal Autonomy and Individual Rights: 5 / 16
There are no laws restricting internal travel, but police often monitor travelers at checkpoints and demand bribes. Married women seeking to either obtain a passport or travel abroad must have permission from their husbands. Gabon was ranked 144 of 189 countries in the 2015 World Bank Doing Business report.
Women hold positions at all levels of private business and the government, including 15 of 120 seats in the National Assembly and 19 of 100 seats in the Senate. Rape is illegal under the law, but spousal rape is not mentioned and no law exists against sexual harassment. However, rape is rarely prosecuted and is often unreported due to societal taboos.
Gabon’s relatively stable economy makes it attractive for smugglers who want to lure young people into the country, and teenagers from neighboring countries are commonly trafficked into Gabon. Many boys end up as street vendors or mechanics, while girls are forced to work as domestic servants. Although the government often does not respond to issues of trafficking, in 2015 the Ministry of Health and Social Welfare delivered aid to 14 victims found by local NGOs.
X = Score Received
Y = Best Possible Score
Z = Change from Previous Year