Freedom in the World 1998-99: Gabon
Freedom House Survey 1999
In December, President Omar Bongo was returned to office for a seven-year term. The polling, which was partially boycotted by the opposition, was marked by serious irregularities. The nominally independent National Election Commission, which was created under the new constitution approved by referendum in 1995, proved neither autonomous nor competent. Behind a facade of democratic institutions, Bongo used patronage, manipulation, and intimidation to retain power. In Libreville in May, student riots prompted by deteriorating economic conditions were quickly suppressed. At least ten students were seriously hurt. Three decades of autocratic rule have made Bongo among the world's richest men and left the vast majority of oil-rich Gabon's 1.4 million people mired in poverty. Bongo is strongly backed by the army and by France. The highly profitable French ELF oil company plays a dominant role in the country's economic and political life.
Straddling the equator on central Africa's west coast, Gabon gained independence from France in 1960. Bongo, whom France raised from soldier to president in 1967, completed his predecessor's consolidation of power by officially outlawing the opposition. France, which maintains 600 marines in Gabon, has intervened twice to preserve Bongo's regime. In 1990, protests prompted by economic duress forced Bongo to accept a conference that opposition leaders hoped would promote a peaceful democratic transition. Bongo retained power, however, in rigged 1993 elections that sparked violent protests and repression led by his Presidential Guard. The 1994 Paris Accords claimed to institute true democratic reforms. Municipal elections in 1996 saw major opposition gains, including the election of Paul Mba Abbesole, the leader of the largest opposition party, as mayor of Libreville. Legislative polls delayed by decree until December 1996 were again beset by fraud as Bongo's Gabon Democratic Party won an overwhelming, but unconvincing victory.
Political Rights and Civil Liberties
Despite a gradual political opening since 1990, Gabon's citizens have never been able to exercise their constitutional right to change their government democratically. Bongo's 1998 electoral victory with 61 percent of the vote followed a campaign that made profligate use of state resources and state media to promote his incumbency. Legislative elections have also been seriously flawed.
State institutions are influenced or controlled by Bongo and a small elite around him. The judiciary suffers from political interference. Rights to legal counsel and public criminal trials are generally respected, but the law presumes guilt. Judges may deliver summary verdicts, and torture remains a standard route to produce confessions. Prison conditions are marked by beatings and insufficient food, water, and medical care. The government often detains refugees without charge, and there are reports of forced labor by detainees. Rights of assembly and association are constitutionally guaranteed, but permits required for public gatherings are sometimes refused. Freedom to form and join political parties is generally respected, but civil servants may face harassment based on their associations. Nongovernmental organizations operate openly, although the Gabonese League of Human Rights has reported threats and harassment.
A government daily and approximately one dozen private weeklies, which are primarily controlled by opposition parties, are published. The government overwhelmingly dominates the broadcast media, which reach a far larger audience. Only a few private broadcasters have been licensed, and their viability is tenuous. A 1998 crackdown on private media has raised serious concerns for free expression. In February, Radio Soleil, which was associated with the main Bucherons opposition party, was closed. In January, a cartoonist was sentenced to six months imprisonment for lampooning Bongo. Publication of his newspaper was suspended for one month. The president of the journalists' union was jailed for eight months. In August, the opposition newspaper La Griffe was closed, and three of its staff received eight-month suspended sentences after publishing allegations of ivory smuggling by the national airline. Soldiers raided La Griffe offices and seized equipment. Foreign newspapers, magazines, and broadcasts are usually widely available, but editions criticizing Bongo have been seized.
Most of the small formal sector work force is unionized, although unions must register with the government in order to be officially recognized. Despite legal protections, the government has taken action against numerous strikers and unions and used force to suppress illegal demonstrations. While no legal restrictions on travel exist, harassment on political and ethnic bases has been reported. Religious freedom is constitutionally guaranteed and respected. An official ban on Jehovah's Witnesses is not enforced.
Legal protections for women include equal access laws for education, business, and investment. In addition to owning property and businesses, women constitute more than 50 percent of the salaried workforce in the health and trade sectors. At the same time, there are only six women in the 120-member National Assembly and one woman in the cabinet. Women continue to face legal and cultural discrimination, particularly in rural areas, and are reportedly subject to widespread domestic violence.
Little wealth from Gabon's oil revenues reaches the broad populace, most of which is engaged in subsistence farming. Corruption is endemic.