Political Rights: 5
Civil Liberties: 4
Status: Partly Free
Population: 1,300,000
GNI/Capita: $3,160
Life Expectancy: 59
Religious Groups: Christian (55-75 percent), animist (25-45 percent)
Ethnic Groups: Bantu, other Africans, Europeans
Capital: Libreville


Overview

Gabon's politics continued to be dominated by President Omar Bongo's efforts to consolidate power by removing presidential term limits. In 2003, unlike in the tumultuous first half of the 1990s, Bongo's tactless maneuvers barely caused an outcry in or outside Gabon. Meanwhile, however, the country's once bountiful oil reserves have been declining fast, reportedly due to overexploitation and a lack of government initiatives to diversify the embattled economy.

Straddling the equator on Central Africa's west coast, Gabon gained independence from France in 1960. Bongo, whom France raised from soldier to president in 1967, completed the consolidation of power begun by his predecessor, Leon Mba, by officially outlawing the opposition. France, which maintains marines in Gabon, has intervened twice to preserve Bongo's regime. In 1990, protests prompted by economic duress forced Bongo to accept a conference that opposition leaders hoped would promote a peaceful democratic transition. However, Bongo retained power in rigged 1993 presidential elections that sparked violent protests, which were repressed by his presidential guard. The 1996 parliamentary elections were also seriously flawed.

Following 1996 local government polls, which gave the opposition several victories, the government transferred key electoral functions from the electoral commission to the Interior Ministry. Bongo's electoral victory in 1998, with 61 percent of the vote, followed a campaign that made profligate use of state resources and state media. The polling, which was partially boycotted by the opposition, was marked by serious irregularities, while the National Election Commission proved neither autonomous nor competent.

The Gabonese Democratic Party (PDG), which Bongo created in 1968, won parliamentary elections in December 2001. A divided opposition and low voter turnout, as well as government interference in the polls, helped assure the PDG victory. Ruling party candidates won 88 seats compared with 32 for independent and opposition candidates. Some opposition parties boycotted the vote.

Led by the ruling PDG, parliament in 2003 removed a 1997 constitutional amendment that imposed term limits on the head of state, allowing President Bongo to seek reelection indefinitely. The move also replaced the country's runoff system with a single round of voting in all elections. These changes, fiercely opposed by most opposition parties, were interpreted as an attempt to make Bongo, whose current term ends in 2005, president for life. This is the sixth time the constitution has been amended since the introduction of a multiparty system in 1990. Bongo is adept at the use of patronage. In January 2003, he promoted one of his most serious critics, opposition figurehead Paul Mba Abessole, to the post of deputy prime minister, giving Bongo's government the appearance of greater inclusiveness. In July, the PDG held its first national congress in eight years. Bongo was elected as the party's new president, and his son was elected as vice president.

Gabon faced dwindling oil production, heavy external debt, and a stagnant economy throughout the year. The government projects that for the first time in three decades, oil revenue will be lower than non-oil revenue. These pressures have made the country eager to start mending fences with the IMF and other creditors, primarily France. Diplomatic wrangling escalated over a strategic islet in the potentially oil-rich Bay of Corisco that is also claimed by Equatorial Guinea. If joint exploration is ruled out, the case will probably end up in the International Court of Justice.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties

Despite a gradual political opening since 1990, Gabon's citizens have never been able to exercise their constitutional right to change their government democratically. With the 2003 lifting of term limits on the presidency and the continued co-optation and marginalization of the political opposition, President Omar Bongo is poised for another landslide victory in the 2005 elections. Although there are numerous political parties, the Gabonese Democratic Party (PDG) has ruled since President Bongo created it in 1968. Bongo has introduced two new laws to fight corruption, which were approved by the National Assembly.

Press freedom is guaranteed, but often restricted in practice. The state is authorized to criminalize civil libel suits. A government daily and at least 10 private weeklies, which are primarily controlled by opposition parties, are published. Almost all Gabonese private newspapers are printed in Cameroon because of the high costs at the only local printing company. At least six private radio and television broadcasters have been licensed and operate, but their viability is tenuous and most of the programming is nonpolitical. At the end of 2002, there were three Internet service providers in the country, two of which are privately owned. The government did not restrict access to or use of the Internet.

In September, Gabon's media watchdog, the National Council on Communications, suspended two private newspapers and renewed the suspension of a third. The council earlier in the year had suspended publication of two magazines and issued warnings to two others. Three of those penalized media outlets had recently issued reports alleging human rights abuses and government corruption. One of the weeklies, Misamu, was shut down for three months in 2002 for reporting on the disappearance of $4.4 million from the government treasury.

Religious freedom is constitutionally guaranteed and respected. The government does not restrict academic freedom, including research.

The rights of assembly and association are constitutionally guaranteed, but permits required for public gatherings are sometimes refused. Freedom to form and join political parties is generally respected, but civil servants may face harassment because of associations. Nongovernmental organizations operate openly, but local human rights groups are weak and not entirely independent. Virtually the entire formal private sector workforce is unionized. Collective bargaining is allowed by industry, not by firm.

The judiciary suffers from political interference. Rights to legal counsel and a public criminal trial are generally respected. However, judges may deliver summary verdicts, and torture is sometimes used to produce confessions. Prison conditions are marked by beatings and insufficient food, water, and medical care. Arbitrary arrest and long periods of pretrial detention are common. In July, three activists from a small opposition party were arrested and charged with plotting to burn down government buildings.

While no legal restrictions on travel exist, harassment on political and ethnic bases has been reported. Discrimination against African immigrants, including harassment by security forces and arbitrary detention, is a problem. Most of Gabon's several thousand indigenous Pygmies live in the forest and are largely independent of the formal government.

Gabon has come under scrutiny for the exploitation of thousands of child laborers who are sent from other Central or West African countries to work as domestic servants. The government has cooperated with international organizations to fight child trafficking, but says it lacks sufficient funds and resources to tackle the problem. In March, the National Assembly introduced a bill that would criminalize child trafficking in the country.

Three decades of autocratic and corrupt rule have made Bongo among the world's richest men, although some money has trickled down to rural areas and contributed to education. State institutions are influenced or controlled by Bongo and a small elite, with strong backing by the Gabonese army and France. Oil accounts for some 80 percent of the country's exports.

Legal protections for women include equal-access laws for education, business, and investment. In addition to owning property and businesses, women constitute more than 50 percent of the salaried workforce in the health and trade sectors, and women hold high-ranking positions in the military and judiciary. In August, the president announced that government ministries must appoint at least four women as advisers, that is, more than 150 women for the whole government. Women continue to face legal and cultural discrimination, however, particularly in rural areas, and are reportedly subjected to widespread domestic violence.

Trend Arrow

Gabon received a downward trend arrow due to the lifting of term limits for the president and increased repression of the media.

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