History in Gabon

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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 mk'gee--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. GOVERNMENT AND POLITICAL CONDITIONS

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).

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