Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
Gabon lies on the equator, on the Atlantic coast of Africa. It borders the Republic of Congo (Congo-Brazzaville) in the south and east, and Cameroon and Equatorial Guinea in the north. Gabon is rich in natural resources, including gas, oil, gold, manganese, and iron ore. It has a tropical climate and vegetation.
Pygmy peoples were the indigenous inhabitants of today’s Gabon, but were largely displaced or absorbed by Bantu peoples centuries ago. Portuguese explorers arrived in the 15th century, with slave traders and missionaries at their heels. France signed treaties with African leaders on the coast in 1839, making the territory a French protectorate. Freed French slaves established the town that would become Gabon’s capital, ‘Libreville’, a decade later. Gabon became part of the Federation of French Equatorial Africa in 1910, and was administered from Brazzaville in today’s Republic of Congo.
Gabon gained independence in 1960, Leon Mba of the Fang people became president. France retained a strong role, and when Mba was ousted in a 1964 military coup, the French military immediately intervened to restore him to power. Mba became increasingly authoritarian over time. His French-friendly vice president, Albert-Bernard Bongo, ascended to the presidency upon Mba’s death in 1967 and declared a one-party state. In 1973 Bongo converted to Islam and took the first name Omar.
Since the mid-1960s Gabon’s foreign earnings have boomed, chiefly in petrodollars. Yet between 1965 and 2006, the proportion of the population below the poverty line rose from 25 to between 60 and 70 per cent.
Main languages: Fang, Mbédé, BaPounou/Eshira, French (official)
Main religions: Christianity, indigenous beliefs, Islam
Ethnic groups include Fang (biggest ethnic group, but no reliable figures) non-Gabonese Africans (CIA Directory 2006) and Baka (Ethnologue, 1990)
The Gabonese population is culturally diverse, but with few of the major schisms by language family, form of livelihood, spatial isolation and differing ecologies that divide neighbouring countries. As the language of instruction is French, even in lower primary schools, no Gabonese ethnic group enjoys adequate possibilities to learn and value its mother tongue. Among many minor ethnic groups are Batéké, from whom President Omar Bongo Ondimba comes.
Numerically the most important Gabonese ethnic group with about a third of the country’s population, Fang immigrated from present-day Cameroon in the nineteenth century. They represent a southern branch of a people spread across southern Cameroon and all of Equatorial Guinea. Fang are active as accumulating entrepreneurs and farmers in the northern Woleu N’Tem area, where Protestant churches and schools are numerous, and some enjoy a small margin of economic autonomy from government.
Until recent years, French military and economic power guaranteed that the resident European minority remained large and suffered no privation. That is rapidly changing, as many French expatriates have chosen to repatriate. However, the non-Gabonese African minority has faced a very different fate.
Several thousand nomadic BaAka (‘Pygmies’) pursue isolated and nomadic livelihoods in the forests, mainly in the north-east.
Under Fang leadership in 1981, a political grouping emerged, at first in exile in Paris, to challenge President Bongo’s one-party rule. With a fall in world oil prices in the late 1980s, poverty became worse still, and Bongo faced increasing political opposition. In the 1990s, a party derived from the Fang opposition group in Paris led the principal opposition bloc, which was said to enjoy Catholic backing. The regime reacted to the pressure with enhanced authoritarian measures. There were credible claims of systematic discrimination against Fang in government appointments, and of intimidation by security forces. In 1987 the government outlawed a number of small, mainly syncretic sects, which it suspected of serving as a cover for political opposition. Among them was the Jehovah’s Witnesses; but the ban against their tiny fellowship has not been enforced. More serious was the outlawing of the Bwiti sect, a significant indigenous syncretic cult with strong traditions of mutual welfare.
In 1990 Bongo conceded to the convening of a national conference that the opposition viewed as a vehicle for democratic change. The adoption of a multi-party system that emerged from the conference led to 1993 presidential elections. Despite rigging the vote in his favour, Bongo narrowly won, and when protests became violent, his presidential guard cracked down. Again in 1996, the opposition made electoral gains in parliamentary and mayoral elections despite serious flaws, prompting Bongo to strip the independent election commission of much of its mandate. Through another round of fraudulent elections, he prolonged his power for another seven years in 1998. A succession of constitutional amendments orchestrated by Bongo gradually rolled back the democratic advances made in 1990 and 1991. Finally in 2003, his party pushed through a change that stripped the constitution of its provision on presidential term limits, paving the way to cement him in office as president for life. Flawed national census figures released in 2005-widely criticized by experts in Gabon and abroad-appeared to wildly inflate the national population figures in preparation for voter rolls containing hundreds of thousands of fictitious voters. Africa’s longest-serving head of state was safely ‘re-elected’ in November 2005. Police cracked down to break up peaceful street protests of the results.
The ruling oligarchy has been strongly tied to France. Social standing and life chances have depended greatly on that leadership’s choices of who is eligible for state largesse and who is not. Careful balances struck among the different groups, and ample petrodollars, have exempted any one Gabonese minority from wholesale marginalization. Bongo’s Batéké people are over-represented in government’s bloated ministries, and in particular in the security services. The aging Bongo may be grooming his son and defence minister to succeed him.
Minority based and advocacy organisations
Groupe d’Etudes et de Recherches sur la Démocratie et le Développement Economique et Social – Afrique (GERDDES/ICRD)
Tel: +229 -33-43-33
Sources and further reading
Barnes, J.F., Gabon: Beyond the Colonial Legacy, Boulder, CO, Westview Press, 1992.
Yates, D., The Rentier State in Africa: Oil Rent Dependency and Neo-colonialism in the Republic of Gabon, 1996.
Minorities and indigenous peoples in