Freedom in the World
Tensions between President Ali Ben Bongo Ondimba and National Union (UN) opposition leader André Mba Obame erupted in January 2011 when Obame declared himself the rightful winner of the 2009 presidential election. The ensuing government crackdown resulted in the dissolution of the UN party and Obame was charged with treason. An opposition boycott of the December legislative election led to a landslide victory for the ruling Gabonese Democratic Party.
Gabon gained independence from France in 1960. Omar Bongo Ondimba became president in 1967 and solidified the Gabonese Democratic Party’s (PDG) grip on power. In 1990, protests prompted by economic hardship led to multiparty legislative elections. Bongo and the ruling PDG retained power over subsequent years through a series of flawed elections.
In 2006 legislative elections, the PDG and allied parties won some 100 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 had led to postelection violence and accusations of irregularities. Regional and municipal councilors voted in the 2009 Senate election in which the PDG captured 75 of 102 seats.
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 Ben Bongo Ondimba, son of the late president, was nominated as the PDG candidate for a snap presidential election. Several senior PDG figures, including former interior minister André Mba Obame, decided to run as independents. Bongo won the August 2009 election with almost 42 percent of the vote, while Mba Obame and Pierre Mamboundou each received 25 percent. Although the opposition challenged the official results amid violent protests, the Constitutional Court upheld Bongo’s victory following a recount in September.
On January 25, 2011, Mba Obame declared himself the legitimate president of Gabon and established a parallel government. Drawing analogies with the successful rebellion against Tunisia’s Ben Ali regime, Mba Obame and his supporters tried to ignite a popular uprising. However, aside from a series of demonstrations held on January 29, Mba Obame’s pronouncements did not lead to large-scale protests. The Gabonese government charged Mba Obame with treason and outlawed his opposition party, the National Union (UN).
Legislative elections for the 120-seat National Assembly were held on December 17, 2011. Voter turnout was only 34 percent due to a boycott called by the opposition over the Bongo government’s failure to implement biometric technology for voter registration. Claiming to respect a June 2011 Constitutional Court ruling that rejected a proposal to delay elections for a year, the Bongo government announced in August that the December legislative elections would be held as planned. Consequently, 13 opposition parties withdrew from Gabon’s independent electoral commission in protest. As a result, the PDG captured 114 of the 120 seats. By year’s end, 45 objections to the election had been filed, and the Constitutional Court had yet to confirm the results.
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 2011 legislative elections were boycotted by the opposition. The president is elected for seven-year terms, and a 2003 constitutional amendment removed the two-term limit imposed 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 one that permits the president to prolong his term during a declared national emergency.
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 Mba Obame as a leading member. In 2010, the CGPPA coalesced into the opposition UN party, which received accreditation in April. However, the UN party was dissolved by the Gabonese government in response to Mba Obame appointing himself president in January 2011.
Corruption is widespread, and rampant graft prevents the country’s significant natural-resource revenue from benefiting most citizens. In February 2010, the U.S. Senate released a report highlighting money laundering by former president Omar Bongo and his family in the United States. Combating corruption is touted as a priority by the government, which has, among other things, audited government agencies to expunge ghost workers from pay rolls. Gabon was ranked 100 out of 183 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2011 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. Opposition-affiliated media continued to face restrictions in 2011, including limited access to broadcasting towers. 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. On January 29, 2011, police used tear gas to break up pro-UN protests. Due to the lack of strong opposition parties, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) are important vehicles for scrutiny of the government. However, it remains 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 and collective bargaining is allowed by industry, not by firm.
The judiciary is not independent. Judges may deliver summary verdicts in some cases, and prosecutions of former government officials appear to target opposition members. However, rights to legal counsel and a public criminal trial are generally respected. Torture is sometimes used to extract confessions. Prison conditions are poor, and long periods of pretrial detention are common.
Discrimination against African immigrants is widespread, and security forces harass and solicit bribes from African expatriates working in the country. 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.
The law provides for gender equality in education and employment, but women continue to face discrimination, particularly in rural areas. Several women hold high-level positions in the government, including the minister of defense and the minister of justice. Domestic violence legislation is rarely enforced, and the crime continues to be widespread. Rape is seldom prosecuted. Children and young adults are susceptible to ritual killings. Abortion is prohibited.