Although Gabon holds multiparty elections, President Ali Bongo Ondimba maintains political dominance through a combination of patronage and repression, having succeeded his father when he died in 2009 after more than 40 years in power. The executive branch effectively controls the judiciary, and prisoners suffer from harsh conditions. Other significant problems include discrimination against African immigrants, marginalization of indigenous people, and legal and de facto inequality for women.
Key Developments in 2018:
- In January, after receiving final approval from Parliament, the government promulgated constitutional amendments that further consolidated executive power and excluded opposition proposals to impose presidential term limits.
- Legislative elections, scheduled for 2016 but postponed twice, were held in October. Some opposition parties boycotted the voting amid credible allegations of fraud, and the ruling party retained an overwhelming majority of seats.
- President Bongo suffered a stroke that month, and a lack of public information about his health status through the end of the year fueled speculation about his ability to govern.
POLITICAL RIGHTS: 4 / 40
A. ELECTORAL PROCESS: 0 / 12
A1. Was the current head of government or other chief national authority elected through free and fair elections? 0 / 4
The president, who wields executive authority, is elected by popular vote for seven-year terms. Presidential term limits were abolished in 2003. The president nominates and can dismiss the prime minister at will.
The August 2016 presidential election pitted incumbent Ali Bongo Ondimba against Jean Ping of the opposition Union of Forces for Change (UFC). The electoral commission declared Bongo the winner with 49.8 percent of the vote, compared with 48.2 percent for Ping. In Haut-Ogooué Province, a Bongo family stronghold, the commission claimed a turnout rate of 99.9 percent, with 95 percent for Bongo, even though turnout in the rest of the country was just 54 percent. Both Ping and observers from the European Union called for a recount.
Meanwhile, violent protests erupted, and security forces stormed Ping’s headquarters. Although the government claimed the death toll from the unrest was under 10, journalists and opposition leaders estimated that more than 50 people had died, and hundreds of others were arrested.
The Constitutional Court, headed by a longtime Bongo family ally, rebuffed an observation mission from the African Union during the recount. The president was credited with 50.66 percent of the vote, leaving Ping with 47.24 percent. Ping rejected the results.
A2. Were the current national legislative representatives elected through free and fair elections? 0 / 4
Gabon’s Parliament consists of the National Assembly, whose members are elected by popular vote for five-year terms, and the Senate, which is indirectly elected by regional and municipal officials for six-year terms. Under the 2018 constitution, the size of the National Assembly increased from 120 to 143 seats, and the Senate was set to decrease in size from 102 to 52 members at its next elections in 2020. The most recent Senate elections were held in 2014, with Bongo’s Gabonese Democratic Party (PDG) claiming 81 seats.
National Assembly elections were originally due in 2016 but were repeatedly postponed. The incumbent assembly was finally dissolved in April 2018, leaving the Senate as the only legislative body for most of the year. The PDG claimed 98 seats in the National Assembly elections in October, which were boycotted by several opposition parties due to the government’s failure to create a genuinely independent electoral commission. PDG allies won roughly 10 more seats, and no single party other than the PDG took more than 11. The elections were marked by credible allegations of fraud and repression. The president’s eldest daughter was credited with more than 99 percent of the vote for the seat she won.
A3. Are the electoral laws and framework fair, and are they implemented impartially by the relevant election management bodies? 0 / 4
Gabon’s electoral laws and framework do not ensure credible elections. The electoral commission, the Interior Ministry, and the Constitutional Court all play important roles in managing elections, and all are widely seen as loyal to the president.
In January 2018, Parliament gave its final approval to constitutional amendments that were developed in an opaque process without meaningful input from opposition parties or civil society. Among other changes, the amendments introduced a runoff system for presidential elections if no candidate wins a majority in the first round, granted the president authority to set state policy unilaterally rather than in concert with the prime minister and cabinet, and required ministers to pledge allegiance to the president. Lawmakers rejected opposition proposals including the imposition of presidential term limits.
B. POLITICAL PLURALISM AND PARTICIPATION: 2 / 16
B1. Do the people have the right to organize in different political parties or other competitive political groupings of their choice, and is the system free of undue obstacles to the rise and fall of these competing parties or groupings? 1 / 4
The PDG dominates the nominally multiparty system. Opposition parties remain fragmented, and the government has disrupted their activities by denying them permits for public gatherings, arresting participants in their largely peaceful protests, and incarcerating their leaders. A number of opposition figures arrested in 2016 and 2017 remained in detention during 2018.
B2. Is there a realistic opportunity for the opposition to increase its support or gain power through elections? 0 / 4
The PDG has monopolized the executive branch since the 1960s, and there is no realistic opportunity for the opposition to gain power through elections. In 2017, Ping called for a civil disobedience campaign, arguing that he had exhausted all institutional remedies for the fraudulent 2016 election. He and some other opposition leaders boycotted the 2018 National Assembly elections.
B3. Are the people’s political choices free from domination by the military, foreign powers, religious hierarchies, economic oligarchies, or any other powerful group that is not democratically accountable? 0 / 4
The Bongo family and its associates have acquired enormous wealth and economic control after decades in power. These resources are allegedly used to sustain political patronage networks and vote-buying during elections. The leadership also relies on security forces to intimidate the opposition. Ahead of the 2018 National Assembly elections, there were some reports of opposition candidates and supporters being detained and threatened with violence.
B4. Do various segments of the population (including ethnic, religious, gender, LGBT, and other relevant groups) have full political rights and electoral opportunities? 1 / 4
While women and ethnic minorities formally enjoy full political rights, in practice they have little ability to organize independently and gain political influence given the dominance of the PDG structure. Key government and military posts are held by loyalists from all major ethnic groups except indigenous populations, which are poorly represented in politics and government. Women are also underrepresented, including in both chambers of Parliament.
C. FUNCTIONING OF GOVERNMENT: 2 / 12
C1. Do the freely elected head of government and national legislative representatives determine the policies of the government? 0 / 4
Government policy is set by the president, who is not freely elected, and his senior aides. President Bongo apparently remained out of the country at the end of 2018 after suffering a stroke in October, which raised questions about his ability to govern. In November, the Constitutional Court unilaterally altered the constitution to allow the vice president to assume some of the president’s functions if he is “temporarily unavailable.” The constitution had only provided for the president’s permanent incapacitation, in which case the Senate president would serve as interim president and an election would be called within 60 days.
Parliament is dominated by the ruling party and provides little oversight of the executive branch. Moreover, due to the Constitutional Court’s April 2018 dissolution of the National Assembly, whose mandate had expired, the country had only one chamber of Parliament for the remainder of the year; the new National Assembly had yet to convene at year’s end.
C2. Are safeguards against official corruption strong and effective? 1 / 4
Relatively robust anticorruption laws as well as anticorruption institutions launched since Ali Bongo took office are not employed effectively, and both corruption and impunity remain major problems. Authorities have reportedly used anticorruption efforts to target regime opponents. In 2017, the government criticized an ongoing French corruption probe focused on Marie-Madeleine Mborantsuo, a Bongo family ally who serves as president of the Constitutional Court. A special criminal court for cases involving the theft of public funds was established in 2018, but critics said prosecutions remained selective.
C3. Does the government operate with openness and transparency? 1 / 4
The government operates with little transparency, particularly regarding expenditures. The presidency’s budget is not subject to the same oversight as those for other institutions. High-level civil servants are required to disclose their assets, but the declarations are not made public.
CIVIL LIBERTIES: 19 / 60
D. FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION AND BELIEF: 8 / 16
D1. Are there free and independent media? 1 / 4
Press freedom is guaranteed by law and the constitution but restricted in practice, and self-censorship to avoid legal repercussions for critical reporting is common. A new communications code that went into effect in 2017 was criticized by activists for provisions that restricted media freedom, including an obligation for media to promote “the country’s image and national cohesion.”
A new state media regulator created in February 2018, the High Authority of Communication, imposed suspensions on three news outlets in August in response to reporting on government corruption, and another newspaper was suspended for three months in November for an article on Bongo’s health. Workers at the public broadcaster went on strike for several days between April and May 2018, complaining of unpaid salaries and government meddling in their work. The strike was suspended to allow for talks with the government. Landry Amiang Washington, an activist blogger arrested in 2016, remained in prison at the end of 2018.
D2. Are individuals free to practice and express their religious faith or nonbelief in public and private? 3 / 4
Although religious freedom is enshrined in the constitution and generally respected, some heterodox religious groups reportedly have difficulty obtaining registration from the government.
D3. Is there academic freedom, and is the educational system free from extensive political indoctrination? 2 / 4
Omar Bongo University, Gabon’s main center for tertiary education, is state run, and academic freedom there is tenuous. Professors are believed to self-censor to protect their positions and avoid conflicts with the authorities. Police used violence to disperse student protests regarding university tuition hikes and other grievances during 2017.
D4. Are individuals free to express their personal views on political or other sensitive topics without fear of surveillance or retribution? 2 / 4
Ordinary individuals’ freedom to express criticism of the government is limited by restrictive laws and deterred by the authorities’ surveillance and detention of opposition figures and activists.
E. ASSOCIATIONAL AND ORGANIZATIONAL RIGHTS: 3 / 12
E1. Is there freedom of assembly? 1 / 4
Freedom of assembly is limited. In recent years the government has repeatedly denied permits for meetings and used tear gas and arrests to disperse unauthorized demonstrations. A 2017 law further limited the freedom to assemble, in part by making organizers responsible for offenses committed during a public gathering.
E2. Is there freedom for nongovernmental organizations, particularly those that are engaged in human rights– and governance-related work? 1 / 4
Relatively few nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) are able to operate in Gabon. Freedom of association is guaranteed by the constitution, but the process for formally registering NGOs is onerous and implemented inconsistently, leaving groups vulnerable to accusations that they are not in compliance with the law.
E3. Is there freedom for trade unions and similar professional or labor organizations? 1 / 4
Workers are legally permitted to join unions, engage in collective bargaining, and strike, but the government has cracked down on union activism in recent years. In April 2018, the authorities were accused of forcibly dispersing a sit-in at the Education Ministry by teachers who were protesting the government’s failure to pay salaries. Among other labor actions during the year, attempts by unions to mount strikes and protests against government austerity measures in August prompted bans from the interior minister and short-terms arrests for some participants.
F. RULE OF LAW: 3 / 16
F1. Is there an independent judiciary? 0 / 4
The judiciary is accountable to the Ministry of Justice, through which the president has the power to appoint and dismiss judges. Under the amended constitution, the country’s highest judicial body, the Constitutional Court, is composed of three members appointed by the president, two by the National Assembly, one by the Senate, and three by the Superior Council of the Judiciary, which itself is headed by the president and justice minister. The 2018 constitution also created a new special court, the Court of Justice of the Republic, which alone has the authority to judge top executive and judicial officials. It consists of seven members appointed by the Superior Council of the Judiciary and six members of Parliament.
The Constitutional Court’s handling of the 2016 presidential election, its approval of lengthy delays in the National Assembly elections, and its legally dubious response to Bongo’s health crisis in late 2018 further demonstrated its lack of impartiality. Critics have noted that Mborantsuo, the court’s president for more than 20 years, had been a mistress of late president Omar Bongo, bearing him two children and winning appointment to another high court at age 28. She has been accused of amassing illicit wealth while in office.
A magistrates’ union ended a weeks-long strike in February 2018 after the justice minister, who had accused judges of corruption and allegedly interfered with a ruling, was replaced.
F2. Does due process prevail in civil and criminal matters? 1 / 4
Legal safeguards against arbitrary arrest and detention are not upheld by police, and detainees are often denied access to lawyers. Lengthy pretrial detention is common. Cases of arbitrary arrests linked to opposition activism have reportedly increased since the 2016 election crisis. Several detained opposition figures have been denied due process.
F3. Is there protection from the illegitimate use of physical force and freedom from war and insurgencies? 1 / 4
Prison conditions are harsh, and facilities are severely overcrowded, with limited access to proper medical care. Torture is outlawed by the constitution, but detainees and inmates continue to face physical abuse. Violent crime and ritual killings remain serious concerns in Gabon. Following the 2016 elections, the authorities used indiscriminate and often deadly force against political opponents and protesters, causing a number of fatalities.
F4. Do laws, policies, and practices guarantee equal treatment of various segments of the population? 1 / 4
The country’s large population of noncitizen African immigrants is subject to harassment and extortion, including by police. Indigenous people reportedly experience discrimination in the workplace and often live in extreme poverty.
Women have equal legal rights on some issues but face significant de facto discrimination in employment and other economic matters. Sexual harassment in the workplace, which is not prohibited by law, is reportedly common.
Gabon has no specific statute outlawing same-sex sexual activity, but bias against LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) people remains a problem. Those who live openly risk housing and employment discrimination.
G. PERSONAL AUTONOMY AND INDIVIDUAL RIGHTS: 5 / 16
G1. Do individuals enjoy freedom of movement, including the ability to change their place of residence, employment, or education? 2 / 4
There are no laws restricting internal travel, but police often monitor travelers at checkpoints and demand bribes. Married women seeking to obtain a passport or travel abroad must have permission from their husbands. The government has imposed travel bans on opposition leaders in recent years.
G2. Are individuals able to exercise the right to own property and establish private businesses without undue interference from state or nonstate actors? 1 / 4
Bureaucratic and judicial delays can pose difficulties for businesses. Enforcement of contracts and property rights is weak, and the process for property registration is lengthy. Bongo and his associates play a dominant role in the economy, impairing fair competition and favoring those with connections to the leadership.
G3. Do individuals enjoy personal social freedoms, including choice of marriage partner and size of family, protection from domestic violence, and control over appearance? 1 / 4
Personalized forms of violence are believed to be widespread, and perpetrators generally enjoy impunity. Rape and domestic abuse are rarely reported to authorities or prosecuted. Spousal rape is not specifically prohibited. Abortion is a punishable crime under most circumstances. The minimum age for marriage is 15 for women and 18 for men. About 22 percent of women aged 20–24 were first married before age 18, according to UN data. The civil code states that a wife must obey her husband as the head of household.
G4. Do individuals enjoy equality of opportunity and freedom from economic exploitation? 1 / 4
Wage standards and laws against forced labor are weakly enforced, particularly in the informal sector and with respect to foreign workers. Both adults and children are exploited in a number of different occupations, and foreign women are trafficked to Gabon for prostitution or domestic servitude.