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Summary Article: Gabon
from The Columbia Encyclopedia

(gäbôN'), officially Gabonese Republic, republic (2005 est. pop. 1,389,000), 103,346 sq mi (267,667 sq km), W central Africa. It borders on the Atlantic Ocean in the west, on Equatorial Guinea and Cameroon in the north, and on Congo (Brazzaville) in the east and south. Libreville (the capital) and Port-Gentil, both seaports, are the country's only large cities.

Land and People

Much of Gabon, which is situated astride the equator, is drained by the Ogooué River (and its tributaries, the Ngounie and the Ivindo), which flows into the Atlantic through a long and broad estuary. The rest of the coastline comprises a narrow low-lying strip, which, south of the Ogooué's mouth, includes a series of lagoons. The interior of the country is made up of mountain ranges and high-lying plateaus. To the north of the Ogooué are the Cristal Mts. and to the south is the Chaillu Massif, which includes Mt. Iboundji (5,165 ft/1,574 m), Gabon's highest point. In the northeast is the Woleu-Ntem Plateau, which reaches c.2,500 ft (760 m), and in the southeast is the hot and arid Bateke Plateau (c.2,700 ft/820 m).

The inhabitants of Gabon belong to several ethnic groups including the Fang (who make up about one quarter of the population) in the north, the Omiéné along the coast, the Bakota in the northeast, and the Eshira in the southwest. French is the country's official language, but African languages are also spoken, and the country is seeking to increase the use of English. There are large numbers of immigrant workers from other French-speaking African nations, as well as Europeans, mainly French. The population is predominantly Christian in the cities, but most people in the countryside adhere to traditional beliefs.

Economy

Since the 1970s the Gabonese economy has been centered on the oil industry, which has provided it with one of the highest per capita incomes in sub-Saharan Africa and accounts for almost 80% of its export income and 50% of its GDP. Oil wealth, however, led to government corruption, and the population at large has failed to benefit from oil profits. Gabon's economy also is subject to fluctuating oil prices, and it must contend with diminishing reserves. Decreases in production since the mid-1990s have hurt the economy, although it benefited from oil price increases after 2000. The exploitation of forest products and the mining of manganese, which formed the backbone of the economy until oil became predominant, remain relatively important today, and in 2010 the government began taking specific steps to further diversify the oil-reliant economy. The country's most significant forest products are okume (a softwood used in making plywood), mahogany, ebony, and rubber. Other minerals extracted are gold, uranium, and iron ore.

The chief products of Gabon's industrial sector include refined petroleum, chemicals, food and beverages, textiles, and wood products. Despite this economic activity, the majority of Gabonese workers are engaged in subsistence farming, with sugarcane, cassava, plantains, and taro the chief crops. There is also fishing. However, food must be imported to meet the country's needs. Cocoa, coffee, and palm products are produced for export. Few animals are raised, partly because of the prevalence of the tsetse fly.

Gabon's main exports are crude petroleum, forest products, manganese and uranium ores, and cocoa; the principal imports are machinery and equipment, foodstuffs, chemicals, and construction materials. The leading trade partners are the United States and France. Gabon's limited transportation network was improved with the construction (1986) of the Trans-Gabon railway, which links the deepwater port of Owendo with iron ore and manganese deposits.

Government

Gabon is governed under the constitution of 1991. The president, who is head of state, is popularly elected for a seven-year term; there are no term limits. The government is headed by the prime minister, who is appointed by the president. The bicameral legislature consists of the 91-seat Senate, whose members are indirectly elected for six-year terms, and the 120-seat National Assembly, whose members are popularly elected for five-year terms. Administratively, the country is divided into nine provinces.

History
Early History to Independence

The region that is now Gabon was inhabited in Paleolithic times. By the 16th cent. A.D. the Omiéné were living along the coast, and in the 18th cent. the Fang entered the region from the north. From the 16th to the 18th cent. the area was part of the decentralized Loango empire, which included most of the area between the Ogooué and Congo rivers. In the 1470s, Portuguese navigators found the Ogooué estuary, and shortly thereafter they began to trade with coastal merchants for slaves who had been acquired in the interior. The Portuguese were followed by Dutch, English, and French traders, and by the late 18th cent. the French had gained a dominant position. Despite the abolition of the slave trade (1815) by the Congress of Vienna, slaves continued to be exported from the Gabon coast until the 1880s, although French naval patrols succeeded in reducing the number exported annually.

In the mid-19th cent., several treaties were signed with African rulers of the Ogooué estuary and neighboring territories, and Christian missions were established. In 1849, Libreville was founded by the French as a settlement for freed slaves. Paul B. Du Chaillu (in the 1850s) and A. M. A. Aymes (in the 1860s) explored the lower Ogooué. In the late 1870s, Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza reached the source of the river, and in the 1880s he founded Franceville (near the present-day border with the Republic of the Congo). In 1885 the Conference of Berlin recognized French rights to the region N of the Congo River that included Gabon. In 1886 the French assigned a governor to Gabon, which from 1889 to 1904 was included in the French Congo.

From 1910 to 1957, Gabon was a part of French Equatorial Africa. The Fang and some other African peoples resisted the imposition of French rule until 1911. In 1913, Albert Schweitzer established a hospital at Lambaréné on the Ogooué. During World War II, Free French forces gained control (1940) of Gabon from the Vichy government. In 1946, Gabon became an overseas territory of France, and in 1958 the country became internally self-governing within the French Community.

The New Nation

On Aug. 17, 1960, Gabon became an independent republic. Leon Mba, a Fang, was the country's first president. In Feb., 1964, Mba was ousted by a military coup led by Jean-Hilaire Aubame, but he was restored to power within a day with the help of French troops. Mba died in 1967 and was succeeded by Omar Bongo, who established (1968) the Gabonese Democratic party (PDG) as the country's sole political organization. Bongo was returned to office in the elections of 1973 and 1979.

Gabon was one of the few African countries to recognize and furnish supplies to Biafra during the Nigerian civil war (1967–70). During its first decade of independence, Gabon retained close political and economic ties with France. In the early 1970s, however, the government sought increased influence in the foreign (mainly French) companies active in Gabon, and it generally tried to loosen its ties with France. Disillusionment with Bongo's repressive policies led to the formation of a large opposition movement in the early 1980s and demands for a multiparty government.

Bongo was reelected to a fourth term in 1986. Popular discontent with the regime reached a high point in 1989 with seven days of riots in Port-Gentil, which were put down by the army. In 1990 opposition parties were legalized and multiparty legislative elections were held for the first time in 22 years. Amid charges of fraud, Bongo's party won a majority of seats. The same charges were leveled as Bongo was reelected in Gabon's first multiparty presidential election in 1993.

Despite constitutional reforms (1995) intended to reduce election fraud, the 1998 polls, in which Bongo once again was reelected, were termed unfair by observers. Bongo's party again won a majority of the legislative seats in 2001. The president was elected to a third term in 2005; the election was again criticized by the opposition, which was divided and relatively weak. The Dec., 2006, legislative elections were again solidly won by the president's party, but voter turnout was low.

Bongo died in June, 2009; the head of the senate, Rose Francine Rogombe, became Gabon's interim president. In the Aug., 2009, presidential election, Ali Bongo, the son of the late president, was elected with 42% of the vote. Opposition parties denounced the result as rigged, and opposition supporters rioted in the capital and Port-Gentil, but the constitutional court affirmed the results. In Jan., 2011, André Mba Obame, who had lost to Bongo in 2009, declared himself the rightful president, appointed a cabinet, and attempted to rally his supporters against Bongo. The government accused him of treason and dissolved his party. Opposition parties largely boycotted the elections in Dec., 2011, for the National Assembly, and governing party candidates won all but six of the seats.

Bibliography
  • See Bouquerel, J., Le Gabon (1970).
  • Gardinier, D. E., Historical Dictionary of Gabon (1981).
  • Paul, M. A. Saint, Gabon (1989).
The Columbia Encyclopedia, © Columbia University Press 2017

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