Gabon Western Equatorial Africa

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Gabon, a small country with a landmass of 267,537 square km located in Western Equatorial Africa gained independence from France in 1960 and has remained relatively unexplored by political scientists. Home to over 40 ethnic groups, post-independent Gabon went through only one regime change whereby power was transferred from the deceased President Leon Mba to his vice-president, the current President Omar Bongo. Bongo completed the consolidation of power commenced by Leon Mba and established an authoritarian regime that remained virtually unchallenged until 1980s due to Bongo’s ability to manipulate popular allegiances and neutralize his potential opponents, Gabon’s oil wealth, and financial and military support of France.

Investments in Gabon’s oil industry brought about the expected economic revival. Oil production began to rise and overall economic indicators improved. Gabon, however, is now in a desperate need to address the problems related to the uneven economic development, such as lagging non-oil sector, appreciation of real exchange rates and thus loss of competitiveness. The main focus here is to show the consequences of mismanagement of wealth and to show the role of oil funds in preventing uneven economic development in a resource-rich country with the implications for Gabon. Several theoretical approaches will be utilized to unearth socio-economical and political issues, which led such a rich country as Gabon to poverty.

Country Overview

A small country with the population of some 1.3 million people today, Gabon emerged out of the vast space sporadically inhabited by diverse communities with no state-like organizations. (CIA, 2006) The name of the country makes no reference to the population, its languages or topology of the land. It comes from the word “gabao”, which means “hood” in Portuguese, since the shape of the coastline of Gabon reminded the Portuguese sailors of a hooded cloak. (Barnes, 1993) In the past hundred years, this name has been given a territory, on which the Gabonese nation formed, preceded by the creation of a state apparatus. As was the case with several other African states, the administrative, political and social structure of Gabon was heavily influenced by French colonialism. (Gardinier, 2000)

Figure 1. The Map of Gabon (adapted from CountryWatch, 2006)

The colonial exploration and conquest of Gabonese territory was completed by the end of the 19th century. As of 1910 it became a part of a larger colonial territory – the French Equatorial Africa (AEF) with the capital in Brazzaville. The consequent self-determination of Gabon was in part influenced by its peripheral position within the colony. (Barnes, 1993)  The scarcity of population in Gabon has preoccupied both colonial and post-colonial governments. Ngolet (2000) explains the under population by three major factors: natural, historical and pathological.

The key natural factor is the hostility of the forest and quagmire environment that among other things prevents easy migrations of the local populace. Historical factors have to do with colonial exploitation and its effects, notably the imposition of production quotas during World War I and the famine of 1918-1925 that brought the population numbers in the north of the country down from 140,000 to 65,000 people in 1933. (Barnes, 1993, p.25)

The displacement of workers from Gabon to the Congo within French Equatorial Africa also played a role in the decline of an already small population of Gabon. Pathological factors can also be linked to colonialism. The incidence of the flu, syphilis, the pandemic of influenza also known as Spanish fever of 1918-1919 and effects of alcoholism took their toll on the numbers and quality of life of Gabonese communities. (Barnes, 1993)

The scarcity of local labor and the relative wealth of the Gabonese state allowed for significant immigration from other African states both during the colonial and post-colonial periods, which at the times of economic crises has caused tensions between the “Gabonese” and “foreigners”. In spite of its small numbers, the Gabonese population is extremely diverse both culturally and ethnically to the extent that Gabonese political processes are linked to and often conflated with the ethnic dimension of the Gabonese society. (Barnes, 2004)

The ethnic groups inhabiting Gabon include the Omyene (Myene), the Eshira, Okande, Bakele, Fang, Bakota (Kota), Mbede and Bateke to name just a few. (Indexmundi, 2006)  Ethnicity has often been understood as the antithetic to nationalism and denial of ethnicity has been exploited in political struggle. In his public speech given in Port-Gentil in 1961, Leon Mba declared: “There are no more tribes, now there is only Gabon”. (Barnes, 1993, p.36)

On the face of it, this nationalist statement serves a noble purpose of creating the unity of the nation. However, it appeared at a moment when Leon Mba consolidated his rule by successfully subduing all opposition and de facto usurping power in the newly independent Gabon. In the context of a colonial legacy of an inflated state apparatus and extensive patron-client networks the issue of ethnicity appears to retain its importance in Gabonese politics. (Barnes, 2004)

Gabon’s bountiful natural resources constitute another particularity of the state. Gabon was a major producer of timber for the metropole until oil and uranium were discovered in the late 1950s. The forestry industry and discovery of strategic resources tied Gabon closer with its colonizers. Many French foresters and, later, oil plant workers settled in Gabon quasi permanently or for long periods of time. Furthermore, on the state level France sought to secure access to and monopoly over Gabonese mineral resources, such as oil, uranium and manganese. (CIA, 2006)

Influence of France

Close ties with the French have had a significant impact on the workings of Gabonese politics and society. Initially rather uninterested in Gabon, France became very involved with its political and economic life as the richness of Gabonese resources became apparent. The French forestry industry was attracted by Gabonese timber, but with the discovery of oil, manganese and uranium the ties between France and Gabon strengthened even further. While uranium is no longer mined in Gabon, oil and manganese still represent a significant part of Gabonese exports and France remains Gabon’s major trade partner (Gardinier, 2000).

The relationship between France and Gabon, on the face of it, presents itself as a simple case of colonial dependency and exploitation of natural resources by the colonizer in collusion with the local elites. However, it is in fact a multi-layer interdependence that involves a number of cultural, political and economic factors. The oil wealth led to a significant collusion between the French and the Gabonese elites. However, at the same time it provided Bongo and his regime with a level of autonomy, giving them a say in the fate of Gabon and its policies on the international arena. In fact, it even allowed Bongo his share of influence in French politics, such as influence in choice of ambassadors to Libreville. (Barnes, 1993) It also permitted the regime to silence internal dissent by distributing material benefits to its followers.

Gabon started out as an extremely dependent and vulnerable state hardly discernible from its colonizer. However, it has been gradually disengaging from France and acquiring its own interests, a trend that is likely to continue in the years to come. The public discontent caused by the waning capacity of the state to redistribute the resources down the patron-client networks, combined with the decline of resources available for neo-colonial projects in France, opens a window of opportunity for popular political participation. However, it may be hampered by the neo-liberal agenda of the international financial institutions that may be more interested in a stable regime than in genuine popular representation. (Gardinier, 2000)

Politico-Economical Overview

Omar Bongo is one of the longest surviving African leaders who remains in power. After the brief political turmoil of the early 1960s, Bongo inherited French colonial political and economic structures that he exploited to his advantage. Having inherited power from Leon Mba, Omar Bongo to a large extent continued the policies of his predecessor, particularly his quest for consolidation of power. Through military threats, distribution of resources to the followers belonging to politically significant ethnic groups, cooptation of opposition leaders and overall ideological dominance, he was able to successfully maintain the status quo and remain in power. (Barnes, 2004)

With the overall economic slowdown of the 1980s and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, however, the ideological absolutism and economic power of Bongo began to whither. He then reintroduced a multiparty system, but was able to maintain a degree of control over the opposition by limiting their access to resources and mass media and a “buying out” the most radical opponents. At the same time, while building on the existing power relations, he reinforced a favorable sociopolitical environment and successfully adapted his policies to maneuver through successive political challenges. (Lawson, 2001)

Thus, introduction of the one-party system coincided with the birth of the national unity discourse, while the democratization discourse emerged as state income began to whither and the patron-client distribution networks became difficult to maintain. The comparison between public expenditure and provisional amounts dedicated to debt service, as well as the decline of most items of public expenditure, demonstrate the degree of financial strain the Bongo regime has found itself during recent years. (Barnes, 2004)

Oil wealth has played an important role in the success of the regime. It allowed Bongo to create and maintain his following, bring a degree of stability to the elite ranks and stem opposition movements. Regional and ethnic divisions maintained by colonialism, while publicly denounced by Bongo, allowed him to control access of various ethnic groups to the wealth of the state, thus further reinforcing the equilibrium of power and relative stability of the state.

Thus, the availability and bountifulness of resources is a key factor of the scheme. The external debt that was mostly incurred during the construction of the Transgabonese railway, neo-liberal policies and the overall economic crisis related to the drop of oil prices in the early 1980s undermined the government’s capacity to sponsor its following. This issue materialized into a number of political steps. In 1998 the changes were proposed to the electoral code that transferred the task of preparation of the electoral register to the Ministry of Interior. (Barnes, 2004)

The register prepared in September-October 1998 showed a 20% increase in the number of voters compared to the lists of 1996. In the summer of 2003 a constitutional reform eliminated the second round in presidential elections and made it possible for any President to be eligible for reelection regardless of the number of terms already served. (Tordoff and Young, 2003) The government maintained that the reform would save the money spent on elections, which, interestingly enough, may just be a true statement, given the shrinking resources available to the regime.

The international oil price drop in 1986 forced Gabon deeply into debt. External debt rose from about one billion dollars in 1985 to $3.5 billion in 1991. During this period, debt service rose from seven percent of GDP to over eleven percent, while debt service as a share of export earnings oscillated around 30 percent. (US Department of State, 1994)  As a result of the fiscal crisis of the late 1980s, Gabon rescheduled its private debts in the London Club in 1987 and went to the Paris Club four times before October 1991.

The IMF provided a one-year standby arrangement in 1994-95, a three-year Enhanced Financing Facility (EFF) at near commercial rates beginning in late 1995, and stand-by credit of $119 million in October 2000. (CountryWatch, 2006, p.66) IMF assistance came at a steep loss of autonomy for Bongo’s regime as the agreements with IMF mandated progress in privatization and fiscal discipline and other structural reforms. () The latest IMF stand-by arrangement was concluded in 2004 and last reviewed in July 2005. Although the report speaks positively of the increase of non-oil exports (mainly timber and manganese) and the rise of oil revenues related to the oil price surge on the world market, it criticized Gabon for slow civil service reforms and delays in privatization of two large public enterprises – Gabon Telecom and Air Gabon. (CIA, 2006)

 Gabon’s international debt has not declined since its surge in the early 1990s and was estimated at $3,804 billion dollars in 2004, slightly down from $4 billion it had reached in 1999 following the oil price slump of 1998. (CountryWatch, 2006, p. 66-67) Gabon also remains a recipient of foreign aid estimated at $331 million in 1995. The fluctuations of Gabon’s external debt that largely depend on oil price variations expose the extreme vulnerability of Gabon’s financial well-being and the state’s low ability to budget ahead. The development of non-oil exports does not entirely resolve the issue, since the prices of timber and manganese are also subject to fluctuations on the world markets. (CIA, 2006)

The wealth of Gabon, its close ties with the former colonizer that came as a direct result of this wealth, as well as the authoritarian power and religious structures created during the colonial era allowed its leader Omar Bongo to maintain his regime in power for well over 30 years. The example of Gabon supports the “wealth curse” theory referred to by Fareed Zakaria, which suggests that democracy and wealth in natural resources attracts authoritarianism. (Zakaria, 2003)

As Steven Fish (2002) notes, “resource abundance may enable the state to buy off the society with low taxation and high welfare spending and thereby allay popular demand for political accountability.” (p.10) In his cross-country study Fish exposes the negative statistically significant relationship between OPEC membership and democracy. (Fish, 2002, p.14) Gabon, with its reliance on natural resources, and particularly oil, then falls within four corners of this theory.

Regionalization and Decentralization Issues

In context of global economic and political changes, it became an urgent policy issue for peripheral regions, like Gabon, to find out how and to what extent they should and could link themselves with global markets and actors while also mitigating the negative impacts that emerged. (Edgington et al., 2001). The role of local and regional culture on the promotion of local economic initiatives and development is typically represented by such cross-border strategies as cross-border cooperations (Wu, 2001).

These strategies were attempts to take advantage of cultural and linguistic affinity as well as ethnicity, although they were not necessarily sufficient conditions (Hsing, 1998). These strategies were typically used for peripheral regional development of Central Africa, and commonly aimed at strengthening competitive advantage rather than traditional comparative advantage that relied on the advancement of telecommunications and transportation in terms of the competitiveness of regions in the global economy. These local and regional culture-based transfer of the power of decision-making to regions, i.e. decentralization, has become a universal issue.

In a society built around patron-client networks of distribution, the stable elite providing for a stable following helps explain the overall state stability. Apart from repositioning and multipositioning of the elites, they had to be drafted so as to provide the widest coverage of clientele possible. In the conditions of Gabon, the drafting is based on the ethnic allegiance of a person considered for the post. Such ethnic division of posts is known in Gabon as “geopolitics”. Bongo always maintained a certain number of representatives of key groups, such as Myene and Fang, in his government. (Ngolet, 2000)

The influential posts are distributed ethnically, with key sensitive positions, such as defense, given to the Bateke, mostly members of Bongo family either by blood or marriage. In the past decade, the prime minister’s post has been given to the Fang in apparent recognition of their numbers and influence. With the return of multiparty system geopolitical considerations became perhaps more acute as more regional groups asserted their identity, as we saw in the case of Bakele, and sought representation to obtain their share of resources. (Ngolet, 2000)

The core-periphery model of structuring regional relations (usually initiated by the center) addressed the discrepancy of income differentiation or economic inequality based on the concept of growth poles. (Keating 1997).  A critical role of regional planning conducted by the central state, then, was to balance the level of economic development between regions along with economic growth. For administrative purposes, Gabon is divided into nine provinces, which are further divided into 49 departments and 23 districts. (CountryWatch, 2006, p.60)  All 9 provinces have become increasingly active in restructuring their relationships with the government in order to increase their competitiveness across the national boundary, as the state’s power to manage national economiy have declined significantly in the ongoing changes in global dynamics (Keating 1997).

Gabonese people challenge the government and seek significant changes in the degree of local autonomy in order to end their subordination to institutions established by national majorities of Myene and Fang representing the central government. The most extreme claim of the Gabonese nation is separation from the parent country, but, for the most part, they mainly seek greater self-determination within the state system (Halperin et al., 1992). While tensions increasing between government and Gabonese people, decentralization is regarded as a practical mechanism to defuse the tensions (Cohen and Peterson, 1999). In other words, decentralization is a principal measure for the state to effectively address pressures from Gabonese people.

While decentralization is a widely accepted and implemented policy measure to deal with the issues of development that had not been addressed successfully in Gabon under the traditional centralized and hierarchical planning represented by the concept of growth poles (Stohr et al. 2001), its definition varies. As a simple definition, Barrett (2000: 34) suggests that:

“decentralization implies movement away from the center and relates to an array of issues including political, administrative and economic power, financial autonomy, local democracy and cultural diversity. The degree of decentralization can be measured on a scale from nominal to radical, with the preferred extent of change conditioned by a number of factors including the ideological perspectives of those pursuing reform and the magnitude of opposition”

For Gabon, the decentralization can be defined as either administrative or political, while related concepts being devolution and localization, deconcentration/delegation and subsidiarity, community participation and empowerment. (Stohr et al., 2001)

Relative Deprivation

Political and economic inequalities have been identified by as a major source of the different conflicts in Gabon. Although relative deprivation is not mutually exclusive from corruption and state/institutional decline, it is however very significant. Relative deprivation is “a group’s perception of (the) discrepancy between…(its) value expectations and…(its) value capabilities.” (Dudley and Ross, 1998, p.80). In other words, relative deprivation is the difference between what the Gabonese people believes it should receive and what they believes they will receive. The most effective indicator of relative deprivation is income inequality. (Lawson, 2001)

Conceptually, income inequality is an inherently objective conception. Relative deprivation refers to the Gabon’s rural-urban disparity in terms of political, economic and social opportunity, and the wide economic gap between those who had great political influence and those who had little. Barnes (1993) did not only emphasize the colonial blame but they consistently maintained that countries like Gabon could have been better had their leaders been more engaged in national development rather than political exclusiveness. He pointed to issues like tribal sentiments, regionalism, nepotism and corruption on the part of the leaders of the newly independent African states.

These factors resulted in economic and political inequality in the country and brewed the feeling of relative deprivation. Ngolet (2000) observed that in this non-affluent society, the struggle for political power was the most effective means to command economic and social resources and often took on a rather desperate quality, with the penalties for losing as severe as the rewards for winning. Therefore, tribal and regional sentiments, and corruption emerged during this period, which later shaped the political history of Gabon. Income and economic inequality strongly took precedent in the new political phase. (Ngolet, 2000).

The foundation for this social and political inequality in Gabon can be strongly attributed to the historical divide of the different tribes of Gabon. As Gabon ‘s sense of common tribal identity eroded, the new political system eventually took shape under a new set of historical constraints after independence that made the creation of a unified polity a difficult task. Therefore, the struggle for power after independence took an added sharpness because of the deep-rooted mutual suspicions between different peoples who had found themselves arbitrarily thrown together under colonial rule (Barnes, 1993). Consequently, conflicts over who should enjoy the largest share of the meager spoils available for sharing frequently became conflicts of “in” and “out”. That is, either one region or tribe is totally “in” government and controls everything, or is totally “out” of it. (Berman, 1998)

 In other words politics became a zero-some game in which the winner took all. These were sharpened by the fact that no one tribe was strong enough to exert its unquestionable predominance. Dudley and Ross report a significant, positive relationship between income inequality and political violence. In essence, “once the control for the level of economic development is introduced the relationship between income inequality and political violence varnishes’ (Dudley and Ross 1998, p.80).

The feeling of relative deprivation in relation to Gabon ‘s neighboring countries also played a significant role in the emergence of the conflict. On the other side of the border (neighboring Cameroon), the standard of living was far better and many Gabonese people had already started going across the border in search of greener pastures. The country’s finest teachers and professionals went to neighboring Cameroon, Nigeria and Congo to seek employment and sent money back home to their relatives. (Ngolet, 2000)

 Those Gabonese people who came back to the country when the Congo conflict broke out were once again exposed to the stark realities of the impoverished way of life in Gabon that they had once fled. While a good number of them were educated, most of them had little or no education (Ngolet, 2000). Therefore, it was very difficult to gain any form of employment in a society where formal education was the only key to gainful employment and they once again settled in the countryside where life was even more precarious and which eventually became an attraction for rebellion. (Ngolet, 2000)

One of the major emphases is the wide marginal gap between those tribes or groups of people who had more representation in government than others with less representation. This theme cannot be overemphasized especially in the light of Barnes’s (1993) description of the various regimes that perpetuated their rule and hegemony of political power. Although some emphasize corruption as the major issue, it is difficult to under-estimate the extent to which relative deprivation contributed to the start of the divergence.

In fact, the major consequence of political corruption as in Gabon was relative deprivation. Relative deprivation in the literature can be examined from two levels. The first arose from tribal sentiments, which socially, economically and politically uplifted a specific tribe or region (Barnes, 2001). The second level of relative deprivation was a result of political centralization and corruption, which totally undermined the development of the rural areas and rid the nation of its professionals (Barnes, 2001).

The marginalization of the foreigners remains an important part of the discourse about redistribution of resources and particularly jobs.  Xenophobia is not a new phenomenon in Gabonese politics. Bongo continued political and social discrimination against those whom he called “Gabonese by adoption”. In 1968 he provided a nice variation on the Leon Mba slogan “Gabon d’abord” (Gabon first) that was aimed at awakening national conscience in the pre-independence Gabonese populace. (Barnes, 1993)

He noted that the non-Gabonese Africans should understand that the original Gabonese come first when it comes to issues of distribution of resources and jobs, practically arguing that the “Gabonese by adoption” are welcome only as long as there are extra resources to provide for their existence. This is consistent with his statement in 1986 blaming the non-Gabonese African expatriates for prostitution and drug addiction. (Barnes, 1993, p.61)

The Paradox of Plenty and Gabon’s Oil Resources

Following hydrocarbon discoveries and price rises, a number of small developing economies, like Gabon, that had been relatively poor found themselves to be relatively wealthy. Despite this “blessing”, resource-rich developing countries have historically performed worse than resource-poor countries when compared in terms of GDP development and some other socio-economic indicators. Therefore, it has been traditionally argued that resources, unless appropriate policies are pursued and measures taken, can be a “curse”, not a “blessing” for the country. (Karl, 1997)

That is the reason why policy makers in resource-rich countries, like Gabon, usually face some issues such as deciding how much resource income to spend now and how much to save for future generations, as well as adjusting government spending so that the negative effects of the sharp and unpredictable variations in resource revenues on the economy can be neutralized. These problems are even more obvious and difficult to tackle when Gabon is in the transition process from central planning to a free-market economy, when the necessary social, economic, and political institutions do not exist, corrupt habits and mentality of central planning still prevail, and political stability is not in place. (Karl, 1997)

Since the 1960s solutions have been proposed to address the aforementioned issues and to cure or avoid the onset of the so-called “the paradox of plenty” in developing countries, the most stressed of which is the creation of a fund where the revenues from hydrocarbon resources will accrue. (Askari et al. 1997)  Referred to as Financial Stabilization Funds, Savings Funds, Mineral Stabilization Funds. Trust Funds, or in oil-rich economies as Oil Funds, such funds are intended as a future cushion to government revenues in the event of economic shocks, to provide an investment vehicle for booming mineral revenues, and to better assure that these revenues are not misspent due to poor administration or corruption, or to make sure that the future generations also benefit from oil income. (Askari et al., 1997) Consequently, Gabon established oil funds with the recommendations of the IMF in order to avoid the potential dangers “the paradox of plenty” can present.

“Oil Funds” are the funds that aim at keeping natural resource revenues separate from other state revenues with the goals of neutralizing the effects of high income inflows on exchange rates, exports and non-mineral sectors of the economy; and/or saving financial sources for future generations that probably will not be able use depleting minerals resources. By taking the oil money out of the economy, exaggerated effects, this money can produce, are intended to be avoided. One other aim of such funds, especially for Gabon, is to prevent corrupt bureaucrats from using mineral resource revenues in their personal interests or for the purposes of political business cycle. (CIA, 2006))

Gabon as capital-deficient country or the ‘high-absorber’ (Karl, 1997, p.18) has relatively larger populations and smaller per capita reserves than do the capital-surplus countries or “low-absorbers” (Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Libya, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates) (Auty, 1995, p.188-189). This is very important, as Gabon being ‘high-absorber’ believe that “shortage” of petroleum means the country has to “sow the petroleum” before its reserves are depleted and make decisions in the short term that has great significance for its future development.


In a short one hundred years Gabon went from a number of disintegrated communities exploited by private companies to a periphery of an organized colonial bureaucracy to an independent state with high economic dependency. During this time, the people of Gabon acquired modern ethnic identities that permitted them to articulate their socio-economic grievances. Under the authoritarian colonial system, the only real way of articulation of their needs was the attachment to chiefs or “big men” that had closer ties with the colonizers and broader access to the goods colonial authorities had to distribute. The modern elite that inherited the state structure from the colonial Gabon attempted, at least in its discourse, to strip people of their ethnic identities in favor of national unity or, perhaps, to discredit potential organized opposition or claims from the communities.

In politics, the fear of the repressive apparatus and the loss of access to state resources rendered post-independence opposition weak and inert. Bribes in the form of money or inclusion in the government also contributed to its passivity. In this paternalistic authoritarian structure patron-client relations continued to flourish and rooted themselves in communal identities, such as belonging to the same region, ethnicity, clan etc. The notions of ethnicity and patron-client networks were intertwined to such an extent that it allowed politicians, both in Gabon and in Europe, to blame “tribalism” emanating from local “customs” for the problems that resulted from the problematic, frail and authoritarian political structure that was shaped by the colonial experience imposed by the French and eventually appropriated by the Gabonese.

The political developments of the 1990s contributed to certain changes in sociopolitical conditions, but did not significantly advance the development of a representative democracy. In fact, popular understanding of the purpose of elections and political activities hinges on the distribution of material wealth rather than participation in power. Thus, any regime change is likely to depend on the extent to which the government is able to stretch withering resources to provide for its clientele rather than the strength of its ideological line. The post-Bongo future of Gabon remains uncertain with potential prospects varying from an armed conflict to the peaceful transfer of power.


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