Type of Government
The Gabonese Republic has a multiparty government, with powers divided between executive, legislative, and judicial branches. The executive branch consists of the president, prime minister, and an appointed cabinet of ministers. The president utilizes dismissal and appointment powers to dominate the legislature and the judiciary. The bicameral legislature is constituted through direct, popular vote. The judicial branch is constitutionally independent but functionally subordinate to executive policy. The president appoints the governors of the nation’s nine administrative divisions.
Archaeologists have found artifacts in Gabon, a small country on the western coast of Africa, that indicate the presence of numerous hunter-gatherer tribes as early as 7000 BC. By AD 1100 the Bantu were the dominant ethnic group, which was divided into a number of kingdoms—the Fang and the Loango were the largest and controlled most of the interior of the region. The Portuguese first visited Gabon in the 1470s, but efforts to establish settlements were hindered by disease.
In the fifteenth century the native Gabonese were under pressure from Islamic slave traders, who intermittently raided villages near the coast to acquire slaves. British, French, and Dutch traders also conducted expeditions to Gabon, hoping to establish rubber plantations and harvest the region’s elephants for ivory. The French won the competition for Gabon in 1839, when French explorer Louis Bouët-Willaumez (1808–1871) met with King Antchouwé Kowe Rapontchombo—he was known as King Denis—of the Asigas branch of the Mpongwe Kingdom. They signed treaties that established Gabon as a protectorate of France.
In 1875 Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza (1852–1905) was dispatched to explore and evaluate the economic potential of the Gabonese interior. De Brazza met and negotiated with several tribes along the Ogooué River, obtaining treaties that permitted the establishment of settlements. However, disagreements over the development of those settlements into colonies led to turmoil in the French Assembly, so the French were unable to commit further resources to Gabon. Tensions eased after the 1885 Berlin Conference, at which the major European powers divided up Africa for their own colonization. They also established rules for trade and river navigation and abolished the commerce in slaves.
In 1886 France established colonial headquarters in Gabon and brought in military detachments to defend it against resistance from native tribes. During the next decade the French engaged in repeated conflicts with the powerful Fang kingdom, which was eventually forced to submit to the colonial government. The French integrated the Fang into their colonial efforts by using them as guides and enforcers. They also converted them to Roman Catholicism; the converted Fang then became missionaries to spread the religion throughout Gabon. The French continued to encounter some resistance into the twentieth century, and thousands of Gabonese were placed in prison and labor camps.
After World War I the strain on the French economy prevented the government from effectively preventing the rise of an anticolonial lobby among the Gabonese. To avoid popular rebellion the French gradually instituted democratic reforms and allowed some native representation in local assemblies. Following World War II the Gabonese independence movement became more powerful, lobbying for greater participation in the government.
By the 1950s the French government was making plans to relinquish its colonial commitments. As French Equatorial Africa was dissolved, each nation was given a choice to remain a French territory or to seek full independence. In a 1958 public referendum the Gabonese voted to become an autonomous republic within the French community. In the following two years the French worked with local leaders to prepare a constitution and organize elections. The Gabonese Republic was formed in October 1960. Fang ethnic leader León Mba (1902–1967) became the first president of the republic.
The Gabonese Republic is divided into nine provincial regions, each of which is divided into thirty-six prefectures and eight sub-prefectures. The president appoints governors, prefects, and sub-prefects to head the provisional governments, while members of the provincial and prefectural assemblies are elected by popular vote.
The president, who holds the most powerful office in the central government, is elected by direct, popular vote for seven-year terms (term limits for the president were abolished in a 2003 referendum). The president has the power to name a prime minister, who serves as the head of government and consults with the president concerning all appointments to the executive cabinet. The president can also dissolve the legislature, suspend pending legislation, and introduce legislation through referendum. In addition, the president has the power to appoint and dismiss members of the military and the judiciary without the approval of the legislature.
Under constitutional reforms approved in 2007, the legislative branch is bicameral, consisting of the National Assembly, with 120 members elected by direct, popular vote for five-year terms, and the Senate, with ninety-one members elected by the municipal assemblies to six-year terms. The National Assembly and the Senate cooperate in initiating and approving legislation. Though constitutional revisions in 1991 granted the legislature approval power over some presidential decisions, in practice the legislature is subordinate to presidential decree. The legislature does not have the power to remove the president or prime minister from office.
The judicial system is based on French law, with some elements of tribal law. The lowest level of the judiciary consists of the trial courts, which are located within the prefectures and subprefectures. A system of appellate courts has jurisdiction over the trial courts, and the appellate courts are subject to review by the Supreme Court, which is divided into three chambers: judicial, administrative, and accounts. Gabon’s constitution also calls for the establishment of a Constitutional Court, which has jurisdiction over constitutional law, treaties, and international agreements. The Gabonese judicial branch is constitutionally designated as independent of both the legislature and the executive branch, but it actually functions as a kind of advisory group for the president.
Political Parties and Factions
The Parti Démocratique Gabonais (Democratic Party of Gabon), or PDG, was formed in 1968 as the political vehicle of president Albert-Bernard “Omar” Bongo (1935–). Bongo invited leaders from opposition and allied parties to join the PDG in forming a coalition government. Those who declined to join with the PDG were not permitted to take part in the government until reforms in 1991 legalized multiparty elections.
The PDG focuses on economic development and infrastructural investment. During the presidential elections of 2005, Bongo received 79 percent of the popular vote, running against four opposition candidates. The PDG also fared well in the legislative elections of 2006, winning eighty-two seats in the National Assembly and fifty-five seats in the Senate. During the legislative elections, the PDG formed a coalition government with a number of closely aligned parties. The coalition controls ninety-nine of the 120 seats in the National Assembly.
The Union de Peuple Gabonaise (Gabonese People’s Union), or UPG; is the primary opposition party. The UPG was founded in 1991 by Pierre Momboundou (1945–), who was the party’s presidential candidate in 1998 and 2005. The UPG supports greater popular involvement in the government and opposed the 2003 referendum to remove term limits on the presidency. In the 2005 presidential election, Momboundou received approximately 13 percent of the popular vote, coming in a distant second to Bongo. In the 2006 legislative elections, the UPG party won eight seats in the National Assembly.
The Union Gabonaise pour la Démocratie et le Développement (Gabonese Union for Democracy and Development), or UGDD, was founded in 2005 to oppose the PDG coalition government. The UGDD’s leader, Zacharie Myboto (1938–), a former secretary of state, broke away from the PDG in protest of Bongo’s policies. Myboto ran as an independent presidential candidate in 2005—the government had not yet officially recognized the UGDD—and won 6.6 percent of the popular vote, or third place. In 2006 the UGDD won four seats in the National Assembly.
When Gabon achieved independence, neither of the two primary political parties of the time—the Bloc Démocratique Gabonais (BDG) and the Union Démocratique et Sociale Gabonaise (UDSG)—had enough members to command a majority in the executive branch or the legislature. Mba, the leader of the BDG, and Jean-Hilaire Aubame (1912–1989) of the UDSG agreed to form a coalition government, with Mba serving as president.
In 1963 Mba forced the UDSG members of the cabinet to resign and ordered an election to reconstitute the legislature. Accusing Mba of authoritarianism, the Gabonese military and UDSG supporters staged a coup, removing Mba from power for one day until the French military intervened and reinstated his administration. Aubame was arrested and sentenced to ten years in prison for his role in the coup.
In the 1964 elections the BDG won a majority in the legislature and Mba was reelected president, with Bongo serving as vice president. Mba died in office in 1967, and Bongo became president. In the following months Bongo abandoned the BDG and announced the establishment of a single-party government under his newly formed PDG.
Bongo’s party immediately initiated legislation to increase the scope of presidential power. He was reelected in 1975, in 1979, and in 1986, while the nation enjoyed relative stability—his administration succeeded in mediating rivalries between ethnic groups and developed the nation’s export industries. Economic prosperity prevented armed uprising, despite high levels of poverty in Gabon’s poorest regions.
Economic depression hit Gabon in the 1980s and led to an increase in antigovernment sentiment. Protests and workers’ strikes eventually persuaded Bongo to allow moderate democratic reforms. In 1990 he met with seventy-four rival and ally political organizations in a conference to decide the future of the nation. The conference resulted in constitutional amendments that ended the single-party system and allowed multiparty legislative and presidential elections. Other amendments established a Senate and an independent judiciary and provided for a basic bill of rights with greater protection for civil liberties, including freedom of the press.
Bongo voluntarily resigned from office and allowed the creation of a transitional government under Prime Minister Casimir Oyé-Mba (1942–). Bongo’s reforms satisfied many in the population, but some militant groups continued to protest and to call for immediate regime change. The president’s security forces prevented two coup attempts prior to the elections in 1990. After the votes had been counted, the PDG retained its control by forming a coalition with several allied parties. Bongo won re-election in a controversial 1993 election, which was boycotted by many of the opposition parties—they accused Bongo and his allies of rigging the procedures.
Political disturbances continued as opposition leaders refused to accept the results of the presidential election. Hoping to protect their economic interests in the region, the French government sent negotiators to Gabon to bring an end to governmental deadlock. Eventually a deal was struck: The major political parties formed a coalition government and agreed to a power-sharing arrangement. Political divisions among the nation’s minor parties prevented them from organizing support behind a single candidate for the 1998 elections, allowing Bongo to win re-election amidst allegations of fraud and intimidation.
Bongo was reelected in 2005 by a wide margin, as the opposition was again unable to unite behind a single candidate. The PDG has also maintained its legislative and municipal majorities, although representation for opposition parties has been growing at the local level. Political opponents continue to accuse Bongo and the PDG of election fraud, but international and domestic monitoring agencies have reported that elections since 2000 have been largely representative of public opinion as gauged through polling. Bongo held a controversial referendum in 2003, which removed term limits from the presidential office (term limits had been removed in 1967 and reinstated in the constitution of 1991).
Economically, the Gabonese are heavily dependent upon petroleum exports and trade with France. The government retains ownership of many of the nation’s largest corporations, but has made moves toward privatization. It has also invested heavily in the nation’s ecotourism industry. Gabon is rich in natural resources and has become an important site for ecological and biological research.
Gray, Christopher. Colonial Rule and Crisis in Equatorial Africa: Southern Gabon, 1850–1940. Rochester: University of Rochester Press, 2002.
Nugent, Paul. Africa Since Independence: A Comparative History. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.
Yates, Douglass A. The Rentier State in Africa: Oil Rent Dependency and Neocolonialism in the Republic of Gabon. Trenton: Africa World Press, 1996.