Gabon is not an electoral democracy. The 2009 presidential election was marred by irregularities, including allegations of vote rigging and intimidation of the press. Opposition candidates challenged the election results and petitioned the constitutional court, which called for a vote recount that supported Ali Bongo’s victory. The president is elected for seven-year terms, and a 2003 constitutional change removed the two-term limitimposed 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, expanded from 91 seats in 2008, 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.
Freedom to form and join political parties is generally respected, but civil servants face harassment and discrimination if they affiliate with opposition groups. The PDG has held power continuously since 1968, and Ali Bongo’s victory in the 2009 presidential election reinforced the party’s dominance. Of some 50 other registered parties, 40 are part of the PDG’s ruling coalition, the Union for the Gabonese Presidential Majority. In November, eight opposition parties formed a new political alliance, the Coalition of Groups and Political Parties for Change (CGPPA), with presidential runner-up Andre Mba Obame as a leading member.
Corruption is widespread. Though a National Commission Against Illicit Enrichment was established in 2003, it has yet to take major action. Rampant graft prevents the country’s significant natural-resource revenue from reaching the majority of the population. In 2008, Transparency International brought a complaint against President Omar Bongo and two other African heads of state, alleging embezzlement of public funds to buy assets in France. In October 2009, however, a French appeals court dismissed the case, citing the organization’s lack of legal standing. In November, Jean-Pierre Oyiba, the president’s cabinet director, resigned amid accusations of graft. Gabon was ranked 106 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2009 Corruption Perceptions Index.
Press freedom is guaranteed in law but restricted in practice. The state has the power to criminalize civil libel suits, and because legal cases against journalists are relatively common, many reporters practice self-censorship. State-controlled outlets dominate the broadcast media, but there are some private broadcasters, and foreign news sources are available. In December 2008, two journalists and three civil society leaders were arrested for possession of a publicly available letter alleging financial mismanagement by Omar Bongo. The five were released, but the charges were not dropped. One of the civil society leaders, Marc Ona Essangui, won a court case against the government in November 2009, which found that the travel bans imposed on him infringed on his rights. In May 2009, two newspapers, Ezombolo and Le Nganga, were suspended and warnings were issued to Radio France Internationale over their coverage of the president’s worsening health. In the run-up to the August presidential election, the government placed restrictions on the media, including curtailing the media’s access to polling stations and denying accreditation to some foreign journalists. Additionally, a private television station owned by independent candidate Andre Mba Obame was taken off the air. The editor of the government-owned newspaper L’Union was arrested and interrogated in September after the outlet reported on postelection violence. Further media restrictions occurred in November when the government suspended six independent newspapers and one private television channel. 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. Following the 2009 presidential election, security forces violently dispersed hundreds of protesters staging a peaceful demonstration in front of the electoral commission.
Due to the lack of strong opposition parties, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) serve as important vehicles for scrutiny of the government. However, it is difficult for these groups to operate freely. In 2008, the interior minister suspended 22 NGOs for a week after they issued a public statement criticizing the government. Civil society leader Marc Ona Essangui was prevented from leaving the country to attend international conferences on four occasions in 2008.
Virtually the entire private-sector workforce is unionized. Collective bargaining is allowed by industry, not by firm. In June 2009, the government reached agreement with a number of public-sector unions and ended most ongoing strikes, which had intermittently involved oil workers, health workers, and teachers over the past two years. However, the new government placed restrictions on trade unions in October 2009, including banning public sector employees from holding paid senior union positions and withholding wages from striking workers during strike action.
The judiciary is not independent. Judges may deliver summary verdicts in some cases, and torture is sometimes used to produce confessions. However, the rights to legal counsel and a public criminal trial are generally respected. Prison conditions are poor, and arbitrary arrest and long periods of pretrial detention are common.
Discrimination against immigrants is widespread. 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.
While there are no legal restrictions on travel, interference by the authorities occurs regularly. In September 2009, the government banned opposition leaders from leaving the country pending an investigation into postelection violence. Business conditions remain difficult; Gabon ranked 158 out of 183 countries in the World Bank’s 2010 Doing Business survey.
Gabon has been criticized for the exploitation of thousands of child laborers who arrive from other 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. Several women hold high-level positions in the new government, including the minister of defense and the minister of justice. Women have no property rights in widely practiced common-law marriages, and they continue to face societal discrimination, particularly in rural areas. Domestic violence is reportedly widespread. Children and young adults are susceptible to ritual killings, and 12 such killings were reported ahead of the 2008 local elections. At least 11 ritual crimes were confirmed in 2009. Rape is illegal but seldom prosecuted, and abortion is prohibited.