Avoiding the coups, wars and poverty that have plagued the rest of the continent, Gabon has been an oasis of stability and prosperity in a very troubled region for more than 40 years. Its president, El Hadj Omar Bongo, has held power since 1967 and ranks as Africa’s longest-serving head of state. He has presided over an economy bolstered by income from oil, which has made Gabon one of the richest in sub-Saharan Africa – though dwindling reserves have forced planners to seek out other sources of revenue, and ecotourism has become the buzz word of the day.
Gabon has been inhabited for at least 400, 000 years. Some 1200 rock paintings have been found in the area around Réserve de la Lopé. They were made by iron-working cultures that razed the forest for agriculture, creating today’s savannah. The earliest modern society, the Pygmies, were displaced between the 16th and 18th centuries by migrating peoples from the north, principally the Fang, who came after settling in what is now Cameroon and Equatorial Guinea.
Contact with Europeans, starting with the arrival of the Portuguese in 1472, had a profound effect on tribal structures. British, Dutch and French ships traded for slaves, ivory and tropical woods. The coastal tribes established strong ties with these foreign powers, but the interior tribes defended their lands against European encroachment. Animosity still lingers between the coastal tribes and the rest of the country.
The capital, Libreville, was established in 1849 for freed slaves on an estuary popular with traders. In 1885, the Berlin Conference of European powers recognised French rights in Gabon, which became part of the French Congo and later French Equatorial Africa. The country became self-governing in 1958, and won independence in 1960 under President Léon M’Ba. After M’Ba died in a French hospital in 1967, his vice president, Albert Bernard Bongo, took power of the nation (changing his name when he adopted Islam in 1974).
The newly independent nation got off to an extravagant start. As money rolled in from the sale of timber, manganese ore, iron ore, chrome, gold, diamonds and finally oil, Gabon’s per capita income soared higher than South Africa’s.
In 1976, Bongo’s government announced a four-year, US$32 billion plan to create a modern transport system, encourage local industry and develop mineral deposits. Few of these projects ever took shape. The government did, however, spend vast sums hosting a summit of the Organization of African Unity in 1977 and is still doing construction on the (conservatively estimated) US$250 million presidential palace.
After four decades of dominance by President Bongo, his rule is evident everywhere, from the women’s clothing that bears his image to the ubiquitous portraits and huge billboards glorifying the leader. A bevy of French political and military advisers serve him, as does a personal bodyguard composed of European mercenaries, Moroccan soldiers and 400 top-notch French airborne troops.
In 1990, after the country’s first real political unrest, Bongo ended more than two decades of one-party rule by legalising the opposition (though subsequent elections were marred by fraud).
Today, the National Assembly remains dominated by Bongo’s ruling party, the Democratic Party of Gabon (PDG), though his opponents hold a few seats. Allegations of massive government corruption persist, and Bongo’s power is nearly absolute.
As Bongo ages gracefully, the question looms large in the populace’s mind: when his tenure finally comes to an end, will Gabon go the volatile way of Cote d’Ivoire, or will Bongo manage to control from beyond the grave?