Released by the Bureau of African Affairs.
Area: 266,024 sq. km. (102,317 sq. mi.); about the size of Colorado.
Cities: Capital--Libreville (pop. 400,000). Other cities-Port Gentil, Franceville.
Terrain: Narrow coastal plain; hilly, heavily forested interior; some savanna regions in east and south.
Climate: Hot and humid all year with two rainy and two dry seasons.
Nationality: Noun and adjective--Gabonese (sing. and pl.).
Population (1993 est.): 1,015,000, of which 200,000 are resident foreigners.
Annual growth rate: 2.5%.
Ethnic groups: Fang (largest), Myene, Bapounou, Eschira, Bandjabi.
Education: Years compulsory--to age 16. Attendance--89% primary, 50% secondary/technical, 4-5% higher education. Literacy--69.6%.
Health: Infant mortality rate--60/1,000. Life expectancy--52 yrs.
Work force--600,000 (120,000 salaried): Agriculture--60%. Industry and commerce--15%. Services and government--25%.
Independence: August 17, 1960.
Constitution: February 21, 1961 (revised April 15, 1975; rewritten March 26, 1991).
Branches: Executive--president (head of state). Legislative--unicameral National Assembly (including Prime Minister, head of government); Senate to be formed following next National Assembly elections, expected in 1996. Judicial--Supreme Court.
Administrative subdivisions: 9 provinces, 37 prefectures, and 9 subprefectures.
Political parties (including number of seats in the 120-seat National Assembly, 1990-1996): Parti Democratique Gabonais (PDG-66), Parti Gabonais Du Progres (PGP-19), Rassemblement National Des Bucherons (RNB-17), Morena Originel (MOR-7), Parti Socialist Gabonais (PSG-4), Union Socialiste Gabonaise (USG-3), Association Pour Le Socialisme Au Gabon (APSG-2), Parti Social Democrat (PSD-1), and Union Pour La Democratie et le Developpement (UDD-1).
Suffrage: Universal, direct.
Central government budget (1996 est.): $1.7 billion.
Defense (1996 est.): 5.7% of government budget.
National holidays: August 17, Independence Day; major Islamic and Christian holidays.
Flag: From top, blue, yellow, and green horizontal bands.
GDP (1995 est.): $4.75 billion.
Annual growth rate (in current dollars, 1995 est.): 3.2%.
Per capita income (1995): $4,750.
Avg. inflation rate (1994 est.): 35%.
Natural resources: Petroleum (60% of GDP), manganese, uranium, iron ore, wood.
Agriculture (2% of GDP): Products--cocoa, coffee, pineapples. Cultivated land--1%.
Industry (8% of GDP): Types--petroleum related, wood processing, food and beverage processing.
Trade (1994 est.): Exports--$2.4 billion: petroleum, wood, uranium, manganese. Major markets--France, U.S. Imports--$54 million: construction equipment, machinery, food, automobiles, manufactured goods. Major suppliers--France, Japan, U.S., Germany.
Official exchange rate: 100 CFA francs=1 French franc, fixed.
Fiscal year: Calendar year.
Nearly all Gabonese are of Bantu origin. There are at least 40 tribal groups with separate languages and cultures. The largest is the Fang. Others include the Myene, Bandjabi, Eshira, Bapounou, Bateke/Obamba, and Okande. There is also a population of 3,500 pygmies living in isolated villages throughout Gabon. French, the official language, is a unifying force. Approximately 12,000 French nationals live in Gabon today--more than in colonial times.
During the last seven centuries, Bantu ethnic groups arrived in the area from several directions to escape enemies or to find new land. Little is known of tribal life before European contact, but tribal art suggests a rich cultural heritage.
Gabon's first European visitors were Portuguese traders who arrived in the 15th century and named the country after the Portuguese word gabao--a coat with sleeve and hood resembling the shape of the Como River estuary. The coast became a center of the slave trade. Dutch, British, and French traders came in the 16th century. France assumed the status of protector by signing treaties with Gabonese coastal chiefs in 1839 and 1841. American missionaries from New England established a mission at Baraka (Libreville) in 1842. In 1849, the French captured a slave ship and released the passengers at the mouth of the Como River. The slaves named their settlement Libreville meaning "free town." French explorers had penetrated Gabon's dense jungles by 1887. The most famous explorer--Savorgnan de Brazza--used Gabonese bearers and guides in his searches for the headwaters of the Congo River.
France occupied Gabon in 1885 but did not administer it until 1903. In 1910, Gabon became one of the four territories of French Equatorial Africa, a federation that survived until 1959. The territories became independent in 1960 as the Central African Republic, Chad, Congo (Brazzaville), and Gabon.
Under the 1961 constitution, Gabon became a republic with a presidential form of government. As revised by the 1991 constitution, the legislature is divided into a National Assembly with 120 deputies elected directly for five-year terms, and a Senate of 91 persons to be elected indirectly in 1996. The president is elected by universal suffrage also for a five-year term. The president appoints the prime minister, the cabinet, and the judges of the independent judiciary.
For administrative purposes, Gabon is divided into nine provinces, which are further divided into 49 departments and 23 districts. The president appoints the provincial governors, the prefects, and the subprefects. A 1996 law provides for the election on a proportional partisan basis of municipal and provincial councils.
At the time of Gabon's independence in 1960, two principal political parties existed: the Bloc Democratique Gabonais (BDG), led by Leon Mba; and the Union Democratique et Sociale Gabonaise (UDSG), led by J.H. Aubume. In the first post-independence election held under a parliamentary system, neither party won a majority. The BDG obtained support from three of the four independent legislators, and Mba was named Prime Minister. Soon after concluding that Gabon had an insufficient population for a two-party system, the two leaders agreed on a single list of candidates. In the February 1961 election--held under the new presidential system--Mba became President and Aubume Foreign Minister. This one-party system functioned until February 1963, when the larger BDG element forced the UDSG members to choose between a merger of the parties or resignation. The UDSG cabinet ministers resigned, and Mba called for new elections for February 1964 for a reduced number of National Assembly representatives (46 instead of the previous 67). The UDSG failed to muster a list of candidates able to meet the requirements of the electoral decrees. When the BDG appeared likely to win the elections by default, the Gabonese military moved against Mba in a bloodless coup on February 18, 1964. French troops reestablished his government the next day. Elections were held in April with many opposition participants. BDG-supported candidates won 31 seats and the opposition took 16.
In 1966, the constitution was revised to provide for automatic succession of the vice president should the president die in office. In March 1967, Leon Mba and Omar Bongo (then Albert Bernard Bongo) were elected President and Vice President, respectively. Mba died later that year after a long illness and Omar Bongo succeeded him as President. In March 1968, he declared Gabon a one-party state, dissolving the BDG and establishing a new party--the Parti Democratique Gabonais (PDG). He invited all Gabonese, regardless of previous political affiliation, to participate.
Bongo was elected president in February 1975, and reelected in December 1979 and November 1986 to seven-year terms. In April 1975, the office of vice president was abolished and replaced with the office of prime minister with no provision for automatic succession. Under the 1991 constitution, in the event of the president's death, the prime minister, the National Assembly president, and defense minister share powers until new elections are held.
Using the PDG as a tool to submerge the regional and tribal rivalries that have divided Gabonese politics in the past, Bongo sought to forge a single national movement in support of the government's development politics. Opposition to the PDG continued, however, and in September 1990, two coup attempts were uncovered and aborted.
Economic discontent and the desire for political liberalization resulted in violent demonstrations and strikes by students and workers in early 1990. In the spring of 1990, Bongo convened a national conference attended by the PDG and 74 other political groupings. The conference approved sweeping political reforms to set up multi-party democracy, guaranteed by a redrafted constitution with a basic bill of rights to be enforced by an independent judiciary. The first multi-party National Assembly elections in nearly 30 years took place in September-October 1990.
Among the provisions of the 1990 constitution are a Western-style bill of rights and the creation of a National Council of Democracy to oversee the guarantee of those rights, a council advising on economic and social issues, and an independent judiciary. The new constitution was adopted in March 1991 following multi-party legislative elections. In 1994, the National Assembly amended the constitution to provide for the creation of a Senate upon renewal of the legislature in 1996. The president retains strong powers including authority to dissolve the National Assembly, declare a state of siege, delay legislation, submit proposals for vote by referendum, and appoint and dismiss the prime minister and cabinet members.
Authorities declared President Bongo the winner of a December 1993 presidential election which was marred by disorganization and a lack of transparency. Civil unrest, demonstrations, and violent repression of dissent followed over a period of several months. Majority and opposition representatives eventually negotiated the "Paris Accords" of October 1994 which set guidelines for a more transparent electoral process and for various reforms of government institutions. Elections for local and provincial councils, the National Assembly, and the Senate were to be administered in 1996 by a newly established independent National Election Commission.
Principal Government Officials
President--El Hadj Omar BONGO
Prime Minister, Head of Government--Paulin OBAME NGUEMA
Minister of Foreign Affairs and Cooperation--Casimir OYE MBA
Ambassador to the United States--Paul BOUNDOUKOU-LATHA
Permanent Representative to the United Nations--Denis DANGUE REWAKA
Gabon maintains an embassy in the United States at 2034 - 20th Street NW, Washington, DC 20009 (tel. 202-797-1000).
Gabon has bountiful natural resources including petroleum, manganese, uranium, phosphates, and wood. Because of income from exports of those products and its small population, Gabon's per capita GDP is the highest in sub-Saharan Africa. Income distribution is, however, heavily skewed in favor of a small urban elite. The non-oil economy is dominated by inefficient, overstaffed parastatal enterprises. Petroleum production, estimated at 390,000 barrels a day--approximately 50% above Gabon's OPEC quota--yields more than 80% of export revenues--$2 billion (U.S.) in 1995--and provides 53% of the funding for the government budget. Gabon welcomes private foreign investment, most of which is in the petroleum sector. Its investment law provides the types of incentives, concessions, and guarantees available in similar oil-producing countries.
Unrestrained spending, poor financial management, and embezzlement caused the government to run up extensive internal and external arrears during the 1980s. Gabon suspended payments due under an IMF agreement made in 1989. After the CFA Franc Zone presidents agreed in January 1994 to devalue their currency against the French franc by 50%, Gabon concluded a one-year standby agreement with the IMF and received a Paris Club rescheduling. Gabon met the primary conditions of restraining rises in public wages and drawing up plans for privatization of leading parastatal corporations. In September 1995, the IMF concluded a three-year extended financing facility for Gabon which required further steps toward privatization and improvements in government accounting and budget administration.
Gabon's economic performance was relatively unaffected by the devaluation, largely because most of its revenue comes from the export of primary resources at international prices denominated in dollars. The devaluation gave a strong boost to exports of timber--a sector in which the government seeks to increase processing so as to capture additional added value. Although Gabon imports about 90% of its food--much of it from neighboring countries--the private sector engagement in food production has been minimal.
Gabon has invested a vast amount in transportation infrastructure. As much as $3 billion was spent in constructing a trans-Gabonese railway in the early 1970s, a project which the World Bank specifically refused to support. Serving principally for the export of manganese ore and uranium yellowcake, the line is generally underused and poorly maintained. Only in recent years has the government devoted substantial resources from foreign borrowing to improving and paving major highways.
Gabon's wealth and need for skilled labor have attracted legal and illegal immigrants from much of West Africa. Foreigners make up at least 20% of the population.
Gabon has followed a non-aligned policy, advocating dialogue in international affairs. President Bongo has sought to encourage dialogue between parties to conflicts in Congo, Angola, and Chad. Gabon has not participated in any international peacekeeping efforts.
Gabon has a small, professional military of about 5,000 personnel, serving in branches of the army, navy, air force, gendarmerie, and national police. Gabonese forces are oriented to the defense of the country and have not been trained for an offensive role. A well-trained, well-equipped, 2,200-member Republican Guard provides security to the president and state property.
Relations between the United States and Gabon are good. U.S. private investment exceeds $600 million and the U.S. is the largest importer of Gabonese crude oil. The U.S. supplies telecommunications equipment, oil-field equipment, construction equipment, aircraft, and machinery to Gabon.
There is no USAID mission in Gabon, although a modest regional program for the environment will be managed from Libreville by a USAID-funded American NGO. A contingent of about 100 Peace Corps volunteers serve as teachers, primary school construction specialists, fish culture extension agents, and health workers.
Principal U.S. Embassy Officials
Deputy Chief of Mission--Michael Meigs
Economic/Commercial Officer-- Vacant
Peace Corps Director--Frank J. Conlon
The U.S. Embassy in Gabon is located on the Boulevard D'Independence B.P. 4000, Libreville (tel: 241-76-20-03/04; fax: 241-745-507).
TRAVEL AND BUSINESS INFORMATION
The U.S. Department of State's Consular Information Program provides Travel Warnings and Consular Information Sheets. Travel Warnings are issued when the State Department recommends that Americans avoid travel to a certain country. Consular Information Sheets exist for all countries and include information on immigration practices, currency regulations, health conditions, areas of instability, crime and security, political disturbances, and the addresses of the U.S. posts in the country. Public Announcements are issued as a means to disseminate information quickly about terrorist threats and other relatively short-term conditions overseas which pose significant risks to the security of American travelers. Free copies of this information are available by calling the Bureau of Consular Affairs at 202-647-5225 or via the fax-on-demand system: 202-647-3000. Travel Warnings and Consular Information Sheets also are available on the Consular Affairs Internet home page: http://travel.state.gov and the Consular Affairs Bulletin Board (CABB). To access CABB, dial the modem number: (301-946-4400 (it will accommodate up to 33,600 bps), set terminal communications program to N-8-1 (no parity, 8 bits, 1 stop bit); and terminal emulation to VT100. The login is travel and the password is info (Note: Lower case is required). The CABB also carries international security information from the Overseas Security Advisory Council and Department's Bureau of Diplomatic Security. Consular Affairs Trips for Travelers publication series, which contain information on obtaining passports and planning a safe trip abroad, can be purchased from the Superintendent of Documents, U.S. Government Printing Office, P.O. Box 371954, Pittsburgh, PA 15250-7954; telephone: 202-512-1800; fax 202-512-2250.
Emergency information concerning Americans traveling abroad may be obtained from the Office of Overseas Citizens Services at (202) 647-5225. For after-hours emergencies, Sundays and holidays, call 202-647-4000.
Passport Services information can be obtained by calling the 24-hour, 7-day a week automated system ($.35 per minute) or live operators 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. (EST) Monday-Friday ($1.05 per minute). The number is 1-900-225-5674 (TDD: 1-900-225-7778). Major credit card users (for a flat rate of $4.95) may call 1-888-362-8668 (TDD: 1-888-498-3648)
Travelers can check the latest health information with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, Georgia. A hotline at (404) 332-4559 gives the most recent health advisories, immunization recommendations or requirements, and advice on food and drinking water safety for regions and countries. A booklet entitled Health Information for International Travel (HHS publication number CDC-95-8280) is available from the U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, DC 20402, tel. (202) 512-1800.
Information on travel conditions, visa requirements, currency and customs regulations, legal holidays, and other items of interest to travelers also may be obtained before your departure from a country's embassy and/or consulates in the U.S. (for this country, see "Principal Government Officials" listing in this publication).
U.S. citizens who are long-term visitors or traveling in dangerous areas, are encouraged to register at the U.S. embassy upon arrival in a country (see "Principal U.S. Embassy Officials" listing in this publication). This may help family members contact you in case of an emergency.
Further Electronic Information:
Department of State Foreign Affairs Network. Available on the Internet, DOSFAN provides timely, global access to official U.S. foreign policy information. Updated daily, DOSFAN includes Background Notes; Dispatch, the official magazine of U.S. foreign policy; daily press briefings; directories of key officers of foreign service posts; etc. DOSFAN's World Wide Web site is at U.S. State Department Home Page; this site has a link to the DOSFAN Gopher Research Collection, which also is accessible at gopher://gopher.state.gov.
U.S. Foreign Affairs on CD-ROM (USFAC). Published on a semi-annual basis by the U.S. Department of State, USFAC archives information on the Department of State Foreign Affairs Network, and includes an array of official foreign policy information from 1990 to the present. Contact the Superintendent of Documents, U.S. Government Printing Office, P.O. Box 371954, Pittsburgh, PA 15250-7954. To order, call (202) 512-1800 or fax (202) 512-2250.
National Trade Data Bank (NTDB). Operated by the U.S. Department of Commerce, the NTDB contains a wealth of trade-related information, including Country Commercial Guides. It is available on the Internet (www.stat-usa.gov) and on CD-ROM. Call the NTDB Help-Line at (202) 482-1986 for more information.
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