During the last seven centuries, Bantu ethnic groups arrived in the area from several directions to escape enemies or find new land. Little is known of tribal life before European contact, but tribal art suggests rich cultural heritages. 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 Komo River estuary. The coast became 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 (now Libreville) in 1842. In 1849, the French captured a slave ship and released the passengers at the mouth of the Komo River. The slaves named their settlement Libreville-"free town." French explorers penetrated Gabon's dense jungles between 1862 and 1887. The most famous, Savorgnan de Brazza, used Gabonese bearers and guides in his search for the headwaters of the Congo River.
In 1854 Gabon was united with Gorée and other French settlements to form the Colony of Gorée and Dependencies, headed by the Commandant of the Naval Division of the Western Coasts of Africa. When Gorée was reincorporated into Senegal in 1858, the other settlements continued to be subordinated to the Naval Division with its centre at Gabon.
France occupied Gabon in 1885 but did not administer it until 1903. In 1889 Gabon became part of the French Congo and was a province of French Equatorial Africa from 1908. In 1910, Gabon became one of the four territories of French Equatorial Africa, a federation that survived until 1959. The territories became independent on August 17, 1960 as the Central African Republic, Chad, Congo-Brazzaville, and Gabon.
When French Equatorial Africa was dissolved in 1958 Gabon received autonomy as the Gabonese Republic, followed in 1960 with independence. Gabon achieved full independence in 1960. There were then two main political parties, the Gabonese Democratic Bloc (BDG), led by Léon M'ba, and the Gabonese Democratic and Social Union (UDSG), led by Jean-Hilaire Aubame. Although the two parties were evenly matched in popular support, on independence M'ba became president, and Aubame foreign minister.
In 1964 the BDG wanted the two parties to merge, but the UDSG resisted, and M'ba called a general election. Before the elections M'ba was deposed in a military coup by supporters of Aubame but was restored to office with French help. Aubame was tried and imprisoned for treason. The UDSG was outlawed, and most of its members joined the BDG.
In 1964 M'ba, although in failing health, was re-elected. He died in 1967 and was succeeded by Albert-Bernard Bongo who established the Parti Démocratique Gabonais (PDG; Gabonese Democratic Party) as the only legal party. Bongo was re-elected in 1973 and was converted to Islam, changing his first name to Omar. In 1979 Bongo, as the sole presidential candidate, was re-elected.
Gabon's reserves of uranium, manganese, and iron make it the richest country per head in Black Africa, and both M'ba and Bongo successfully exploited these resources, gaining control of the iron-ore ventures once half-owned by the Bethlehem Steel Corporation of the USA, and concluding economic and technical agreements with China as well as maintaining ties with France.
Although President Bongo operated an authoritarian regime, Gabon's prosperity diluted any serious opposition to him. He was re-elected in November 1986, and a coup attempt against him in 1989 was defeated by loyal troops. In 1990 the first multiparty elections since 1964 were won by the PDG despite claims of widespread fraud. Bongo was re-elected for a further term in 1993. In 1997 the ruling PDG won a large majority in the assembly; Paulin Obame-Nguema was appointed prime minister in February 1997.
In January 1998 a new political party, the Rassemblement des Gaullois (RDG), committed to Gabon being an integral part of France, was recognized. In December 1998 President Bongo was re-elected for another seven years. In January 1999 Prime Minister Obame-Nguema resigned and was replaced by Jean-François Ntoutoume-Emane.
In December 2001, the authoritarian PDG retained its majority in parliamentary elections, winning 85 of the 120 seats.
Since the 1970s the Gabonese economy has been centered on the oil industry, which has provided it with the highest per capita income in sub-Saharan Africa and accounts for 80% of its export income. Gabon's economy is subject to fluctuating oil prices, and it must contend with diminishing reserves. Decreases in production since the mid-1990s have hurt the economy. The exploitation of forest products and the mining of manganese, which formed the backbone of the economy until oil became predominant, remain relatively important today. The country's most significant forest products are okume (a softwood used in making plywood), mahogany, and ebony. Other minerals extracted are uranium ores, gold, and iron.
The chief manufactures of Gabon's industrial sector include refined petroleum, food and beverages, timber and plywood, cement, and textiles. Despite this economic activity, the majority of Gabonese workers are engaged in subsistence farming, with cassava, plantains, taro, and sugarcane the chief crops. However, food must be imported to meet the country's needs. Cocoa, coffee, and palm products are produced for export. Few animals are raised, partly because of the prevalence of the tsetse fly.
Gabon's main exports are crude petroleum, forest products, manganese and uranium ores, and cocoa; the principal imports are foodstuffs, chemical and petroleum products, construction materials, and machinery. Gabon's limited transportation network was improved with the construction of the Trans-Gabon railway in 1986, which links the new deepwater port of Owendo with iron ore and manganese deposits. Gabon is a member of the Franc Zone.
Below is an analysis of Democratic Republic of Gabon according to The 2005 Index of Economic Freedom, The Heritage Foundation Heritage and The Wall Street Journal:
Category: Mostly Unfree
Total area: 267,667 sq. km
GDP: $5.6 billion
GDP growth rate: 3.0 %
GDP per capita: $4,323
Major exports: petroleum, timber, manganese
Exports of goods and services: $2.7 billion
Major export trading partners: US 44.6%, France 11.1%, China 7.4%
Major imports: machinery and mechanical appliances, prepared foodstuffs
Imports of goods and services: $2.1 billion
Major import trading partners: France 50.9%, US 6.2%, Begium 3.6%, Netherlands 3.6%
Foreign direct investment (net): $123 million
The Heritage Foundation Heritage and The Wall Street Journal
By Purity Njeru
Ms. Njeru is an African Executive staff writer
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