Today, Gabon appears as the country that has everything but is unable to take advantage of its rich resources. The country has large oil revenues, which could have been used to a greater extent on infrastructure, schools and health services. They have vast forest areas and forestry that should generate income that could drive the country’s living standards upwards. The country’s beautiful nature should be a magnet for tourists if the sector was well developed.

Steadfast stability?

On August 17, 2010, Gabon celebrated that it was 50 years since they broke away from French rule. Unlike some other countries that have been French colonies, Gabon has a very close diplomatic relationship with France. The first President of Gabon, Léon M’ba, was strongly supported by France, which in turn benefited from good trade agreements. M’ba’s dictatorship became increasingly oppressive, and in 1964 he also dissolved the National Assembly. This led to a military coup where the stated goal was to introduce a democratic government. France wanted to protect its interests, and before a day after the coup, they were in Gabon and reinstated dictator M’ba. He ruled until his death in 1967, when his Vice President Omar Bongo Ondimba took power in the country.

Until 1990, Gabon was a one-party state. In the wake of civil unrest as a result of growing dissatisfaction with the country’s government, Omar Bongo Ondimba opened in 1990 to several political parties. The elections that have been after 1990 have, without exception, been criticized by the opposition for not being open and fair, while international reports have been somewhat more varied.

In Gabon, the people can vote with confidence in a relatively safe way. Still, there is room to question how democratic Gabon’s government actually is, because several national factors limit the information and options of the country’s voters. The country has no freedom of the press, the judiciary is corrupt and those in power control most of the country’s sources of income. The opposition’s repeated defeat is also due to the fact that they have been divided in the face of the country’s rulers.

Omar Bongo Ondimba came to power in Gabon in 1967. He was elected president until his death on June 8, 2009. His son, Ali Bongo Ondimba, came to power through a contested election on August 30 of that year. With his 42 years as president, Omar Bongo Ondimba was the world’s longest-serving president.

Gabon has only 1.5 million inhabitants, but the small population is made up of as many as 40 different ethnic groups, and the country has no clear ethnic majority. The president comes from a small ethnic group in the southern part of the country. There has been very little ethnic-based conflict in the country, although Omar Bongo Ondimba in some contexts prioritized his own ethnic group and region.

With son Ali Bongo Ondimba, ethnicity has emerged as a more central part of politics. The new president shows the utmost confidence in his own ethnic group, including in central positions. Ali Bongo Ondimba has worked as both Foreign Minister and Minister of Defense before becoming President. Even then, he showed the utmost confidence in people from his own regional and ethnic group. This is especially expressed in the ethnic composition of the army. The political opposition, largely led by Pierre Mamboundou and André Mba Obame, represents to a greater extent than before ethnic groups and regions. Finding a political balance in relation to ethnic and regional contradictions is central to maintaining the peaceful conditions in Gabon.

Regionally, this country is the most stable in Central Africa and it has increasingly been given a role as a resource in peacekeeping work in the region, and as a driving force for regional cooperation.

Oil and ecotourism

Although much seems to be going in the right direction for Gabon, this stable Central African country needs changes or at least progress in the change processes already underway. In cooperation with, among others, the World Bank, Gabon has put in place a number of plans to diversify its economy as well as get a better distribution of financial goods.

One of the biggest challenges is to distribute the benefits of the country and reduce the number of people living in poverty. Although the country has a gross domestic product (GDP) per capita that is far higher than most African countries, their ranking on the United Nations Human Development Index (HDI) is largely no higher than the average in sub-Saharan Africa. But improvement has happened, and in 2009 the country went from number 124 to 103 on the HDI index. Basic education has become available to almost everyone. Enrollment in elementary school has increased from 88 percent in 1990 to 91 percent in 2009. However, raising the quality of education still remains a major challenge.

The position of women has been strengthened through the recruitment of more girls to primary school, women have greater access to property and health services, and institutions are in place to secure women’s rights.

Gabon’s economy is largely dependent on oil and has little to fall back on when oil and commodity prices fall. For 2009, it is estimated that Gabon had a 1 percent economic decline. This was a result of lower oil prices and lower demand for raw materials emptying due to the global financial crisis. The forecasts for 2010 are increased oil prices, and increased economic growth globally, and therefore a somewhat better economic growth for Gabon.

This economy is unsustainable, and there is limited political will to take concrete measures to ensure that the country has a more diverse economic platform. Gabon’s board is not streamlined and changes are slow. Expanding cooperation with the World Bank to improve the country’s economy can bring results, but the World Bank’s previous interference with the African country’s economy has often proved to be worse, especially for the poorest. It remains to be seen how the new reforms will affect the lives of the people of Gabon.

One of the plans for a more diverse economy in Gabon is to focus on tourism. The national tourism strategy, written in collaboration with The Wildlife Conservation Society, aims to have around 100,000 visitors annually.

Ecotourism is an attractive industry for a country like Gabon. Gabon has a very low population density, while most of the country is covered by rainforest. They also have mangrove forests and savannas, which provide an environmental variation that is perfect for rich wildlife. The country has a population of about 20,000 lowland gorillas and 60,000 forest elephants, as well as a rich bird life and beautiful beaches along the coast. Developing the tourism sector in the country will provide opportunities for new sources of income while providing an opportunity to help preserve the diverse nature of Gabon.

Gabon is rich in timber, but timber exports have provided limited revenue. Political efforts are now underway to change this industry so that timber will no longer be exported to the same extent as before, but that industry will be built and timber refined in Gabon before further export. Large parts of timber exports were therefore stopped at the beginning of 2010. This has led to demonstrations among the workers, as the industry that would take over raw material exports is not yet in place and workers are left without labor and wages.

There is hope for improvement in the living conditions of the people of Gabon, but efforts to develop infrastructure and more varied sources of income must be intensified in the future.

Country facts:

Area: 267 667 km2 (29th largest)

Population: 1.5 million

Population density per km2: 5.4

Urban population: 85 percent

Largest city: Libreville – 576,000

Per capita GDP: $ 9888

Economic growth: 1.8 percent

HDI location: 103

Source: DigoPaul