Freedom in the World
A new opposition party, the National Union, received accreditation in 2010, but the ruling Gabonese Democratic Party dominated a special election for the National Assembly in June. Restrictions on opposition-affiliated media continued during the year, while prosecutions for corruption appeared to target opposition members. In February, the U.S. Senate released a damaging report detailing instances of money laundering in the United States by the ruling Bongo family.
Gabon gained independence from France in 1960. Omar Bongo became president in 1967 and went on to establish a one-party regime. In 1990, protests prompted by economic hardship led to multiparty legislative elections. Bongo and the ruling Gabonese Democratic Party (PDG) retained power over subsequent years through a series of flawed elections.
In 2006 legislative elections, the PDG and allied parties won 97 of the 120 seats in the National Assembly, the bicameral parliament’s lower house. Observers called the elections credible and an improvement over the 2005 presidential contest, which led to postelection violence and accusations of irregularities. Regional and municipal councilors voted in the 2009 Senate election; thePDG captured 75 of 102 seats, reflecting its success in 2008 local elections.
Bongo died in June 2009 after more than 40 years in power, and in keeping with the constitution, Senate president Rose Francine Rogombe became interim head of state. Defense Minister Ali Bongo, son of the late president, was nominated as the PDG candidate for a snap presidential election. Several senior PDG figures, including former interior minister Andre Mba Obame, decided to run as independents. Bongo won the election with almost 42 percent of the vote, while Mba Obame and Pierre Mamboundou placed second and third, each with approximately 25 percent of the vote. The opposition challenged the official results and claimed that 15 people died in subsequent clashes between police and protesters. Following a recount in September, the Constitutional Court upheld Bongo’s victory.
The PDG held an extraordinary congress in March 2010 and elected Bongo as party president. In June, the PDG won three out of five National Assembly seats during a special election, while the opposition party National Union (UN), participating for the first time, gained the remaining two seats.In August, the country celebrated 50 years of independence.
The country’s dwindling oil production accounts for some 60 percent of state income. However, new onshore exploration that began in 2010 is expected to increase the country’s oil production.
Political Rights and Civil Liberties:
Gabon is not an electoral democracy. The 2009 presidential election was marred by irregularities, including allegations of vote rigging and intimidation of the press. The president is elected for seven-year terms, and a 2003 constitutional amendment 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 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 additional eligibility requirements to hold the office of president.
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. Of some 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 Andre Mba Obame as a leading member. In 2010, the CGPPA coalesced into the opposition UN party, which received accreditation in April.
Corruption is widespread. Rampant graft prevents the country’s significant natural-resource revenue from benefiting most citizens. In 2008, Transparency International sued the late president for graft in a French court, which dismissed the case on procedural grounds. In February 2010, the U.S. Senate released a report highlighting money laundering by the former president and his family in the United States. Combatting corruption is touted as a priority by the government, which has, among other things, audited government agencies to expunge ghost workers from pay rolls. A former official at the Bank of Central African States (BEAC) and a local mayor were convicted separately of corruption in July 2010, but these prosecutions may be politically motivated; the mayor is a member of the opposition, and prosecution of the former BEAC official was likely motivated by suspension of International Monetary Fund support. Gabon was ranked 110 out of 178 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2010 Corruption Perceptions Index.
Press freedom is guaranteed by 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. The government imposed restrictions on the media ahead of the 2009 presidential election, including curtailing media access to polling stations and denying accreditation to foreign journalists. In late 2009, the government suspended six independent newspapers and one private television channel for several months. Opposition-affiliated media continued to face restrictions in 2010, including limited access to broadcasting towers. The National Communications Council imposed a six-month ban on Enzombolo, the newspaper’s third suspension in five years, for “persistently insulting the head of state.” Additionally, in June, a journalist for the state-owned L’Union received a suspended three-month prison sentence and fine for criminal defamation for his article on the unsolved murder of a government official. In October, the editor of Le Temps was imprisoned for not paying damages from a 2004 libel case. Access to the internet is not restricted by the government.
Religious freedom is enshrined in the constitution and generally upheld by the authorities. The government does not restrict academic freedom.
The rights of assembly and association are legally guaranteed but not always respected in practice. Following the 2009 presidential election, security forces violently dispersed hundreds of protesters staging a peaceful demonstration. In February 2010, police used tear gas to disperse university students who took to the streets to protest the non-payment of monthly scholarship funds.
Due to the lack of strong opposition parties, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) are 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.
Virtually the entire private-sector workforce is unionized. Collective bargaining is allowed by industry, not by firm. In 2009, the government imposed a number of conditions on trade unions, including prohibiting public sector employees from holding paid senior union positions. In 2010, oil-sector workers, teachers, health workers, and civil workers went on strike over wages and working conditions.
The judiciary is not independent. Judges may deliver summary verdicts in some cases, and torture is sometimes used to extract confessions. In addition, prosecutions of former government officials appear to target opposition members. In late 2009, a civil society leader won a case against former interior minister and current opposition leader Obame for the imposition of a travel ban in 2008. However, rights to legal counsel and a public criminal trial are generally respected. Prison conditions are poor, 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 and are often exploited as cheap labor. In August 2010, a local NGO published a report highlighting the negative effects of mining on indigenous people, including the polluting of water sources.
While there are no legal restrictions on travel, interference by the authorities occurs regularly. In 2009, the government banned opposition leaders from leaving the country pending an investigation into postelection violence.
Gabon has been criticized for the exploitation of thousands of child laborers who arrive from other African countries to work as domestic servants. In 2010, Gabon acceded to two UN anti-trafficking treaties, one on the trafficking of humans and the other on the trafficking of arms, and ratified the Optional Protocol on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict; it is not clear, though, how or whether Gabon will honor its obligations in practice.
Legal protections for women include equal access to education, business, and investment, but these favor educated women in urban areas. Several women hold high-level positions in the government, including the minister of defense and the minister of justice. Women have no property rights in common-law marriages and continue to face societal discrimination, particularly in rural areas. Domestic violence is reportedly widespread. Children and young adults are susceptible to ritual killings, and 11 ritual crimes were confirmed in 2009. Rape is illegal but seldom prosecuted, and abortion is prohibited.