Cyclical pressure creates political challenges in Gabon

Over the past five decades, Gabon has proven itself to be one of the most politically stable countries on the continent, in spite of the challenges it shares with so many of its neighbours, such as a dependence on commodities.

Relatively smooth transitions of power, a modest population size, high per-capita income levels, and a lack of major social or political rifts have provided a favourable environment for growth. However, the government now faces trying times as short-term cyclical pressures linked to the decline in international oil prices constrain spending and bring about a slowdown in growth.

History

Portuguese navigators were the first representatives of the European colonial powers to reach the coastline of what is present-day Gabon, in the 1400s. The area was named Gabão, the Portuguese word describing a coat traditionally worn by sailors that reportedly came to mind when they saw the Komo estuary.

The Dutch and French settlers followed during the 1500s, keeping trading posts along this part of the Atlantic coast. French protectorate status was granted in the 19th century, after the signing of agreements with other trading posts along the coast. With several expeditions into the territory’s interior allowing for the recognition of the area and its vast natural resources, the region become part of France’s colonial possessions in Africa in 1886. French colonial rule lasted until 1960.

Under French colonial administration, Gabon and neighbouring Congo were part of the same territory, which was divided under the still-existing border line in 1904, leading to the establishment of Brazzaville as the capital of Congo. The area became a useful maritime trading base and an important source of timber, while the building of the Congo-Océan railway line opened the way for the exploitation of nearby mineral resources.

Independence

In 1958, during the twilight of colonial rule, the country’s first constitution was drafted, forming the basis for the subsequent government that was established upon independence. However, the structure of the new state was hotly debated, with the existing political parties – primarily the Gabonese Democratic Bloc, led by Léon M’ba, and the Gabonese Social and Democratic Union, led by Jean-Hilaire Aubame – of split opinion as to whether the existing parliamentary system would best fit the country, or if it would be better adapted to a presidential one.

The back-and-forth characterised the early debates of the nascent country, and under Prime Minister M’ba Cabinets were repeatedly reshuffled. However, following the elections held in 1961, the government successfully established a presidential system, with M’ba at its helm. Following his death in 1967, M’ba was succeeded by Omar Bongo Ondimba, who had been his vice-president and Cabinet director during his terms of office.

A year later, in 1968, Omar Bongo Ondimba established the Gabonese Democratic Party (Parti Démocratique Gabonais, PDG), which held power uncontested for two decades under a single-party system. From the time of independence up until the late 1980s, the system was supported by steady economic growth, driven mainly by the export of natural resources.

Economy

Timber, oil and mineral reserves became the backbone of the country’s economy. Oil exports in particular took a prominent role, leading Gabon to become the third-largest sub-Saharan oil producer in the final decades of the 20th century, before production began to fall.

Hydrocarbons exports also allowed for the establishment of a relatively large public administration, leading the state to become the country’s main employer. Nevertheless, the overdependence on oil reserves left other sectors of the economy largely undeveloped, which meant the country was hard hit when oil prices fell in the 1980s.

Reforming the System

The challenging economic environment brought about by lower oil prices and years of a tightly run governing system eventually led to growing public discontent, and in the late 1980s Omar Bongo Ondimba responded by implementing populist policies, such as raising public salaries, and amending the political system.

On the political front, an upper house of parliament – the Senate – was established, followed by a move towards increased decentralisation of financial management. Restrictions on assembly and free press were loosened, and exit visas for Gabonese citizens were abolished. These steps were enshrined in a revised constitution in 1991, which also sought to increase judicial independence, although the system retained a strong presidency with considerable authority.

Gradual political openness was also helped by the first multi-party elections in 1990. Despite the added competition and a total of 13 parties competing, the PDG gained a majority, which it has since kept in repeated elections.

Although the political spectrum has benefitted from greater participation from other political forces such as trade unions, opposition parties such as the National Union party (Union Nationale, UN) and the Union of the Gabonese People have yet to gain a sizable foothold amongst the population – impacted in part by internal political turmoil and restrictive rules governing partisan activity.

When Omar Bongo Ondimba passed away in 2009, he was the longest-serving president on the continent, having held the office for 42 years. He was succeeded by his son, Ali Bongo Ondimba, who won the presidential election in August 2009 after successfully securing 42% of the vote against candidates Pierre Mamboundou of the Union of the Gabonese People and independent André M’ba Obame, both of whom received 25% of the vote.

Although the results were contested by opponents, sparking protests, the transition proved fairly calm. The new government moved rapidly to address some of the more pressing problems faced by the country, including a poorly governed bureaucracy and a rentier economy.

The chief guiding policy in the years since has been the country’s capital-intensive economic development programme, the Emerging Gabon plan, which favours the strengthening of industry and service industries such as manufacturing and tourism, and a move away from hydrocarbons as the engine of economic growth by 2025.

Political System

The president heads the executive branch and serves as the country’s head of state over the course of seven-year terms, without any limits on the number of terms he or she can serve. The prime minister serves as the deputy executive and the head of government. Under the 1991 constitution, the presidency maintains considerable powers, such as the ability to dissolve the National Assembly and dismiss and appoint the prime minister and remaining Cabinet members.

The bicameral legislature is made up of a 91-seat upper house, the Senate, as well as a 120-seat lower house, the National Assembly. Representatives in the National Assembly are elected by universal adult suffrage to serve five-year terms. Senators, on the other hand, are elected through municipal and regional elective councils for six-year terms.

The Constitutional Court maintains judicial authority, presiding over key institutional bodies such as the Council of State; the Court of Accounts, which manages public finances; and the Court of Cassation, which is the country’s most important civil, criminal and commercial court.

Elections in View

With indirect elections for the Senate and direct elections for the presidency set for 2015 and 2016, respectively, the PDG will be aiming to maintain its current position amid an adverse economic environment, with the government being forced to curtail spending in order to address the steep decline in oil revenues.

Currently, the PDG maintains a firm hold on the legislature, having triumphed at the last poll for the National Assembly. A boycott by opposition parties during the most recent assembly elections in 2011 – prompted by allegations of voter fraud – paved the way for the PDG to win 118 of the 120 seats in the National Assembly.

In the subsequent regional and municipal elections in 2013, the PDG was able to win 1517 of the 2404 council seats, according to the National Observatory for Democracy. The PDG faced increased competition from independent candidates in Libreville, securing 61 out of 151 seats, as opposed to the 48 garnered by independents. An additional 41 seats went to the Circle of Liberal Reformers (Cercle des Libéraux Réformateurs, CLR), a member of the PDG ruling coalition.

As was clear in the 2013 municipal elections, votes are increasingly being dispersed throughout different parties, a move that suggests that in the future electoral processes might prove more difficult to navigate for the ruling party.

The increasingly diverse political dynamics will benefit from more accurate voting procedures. The 2013 municipal election also saw the introduction of a digital biometric registration system, which is expected to boost participation in future polls and help establish a more comprehensive and reliable electoral system.

Political Parties

Throughout the decades, and even within a comparably more diverse political system, the PDG has been able to maintain its dominance. Following a largely centrist set of policies, including market-oriented reforms and support for trade unions, the party remains the largest party in the country by far, enjoying stable support from a number of affiliated parties like the CLR, which serves as part of the current PDG ruling majority coalition.

The party’s dominance has been helped by its long lineage and favourable rules, but it has also been aided by a still largely fragmented opposition. The most notable opposition party was the UN, which was established in 2009 following the presidential elections. However, it ended up being dissolved in 2011, after opposition figure M’ba Obame – a former member of the PDG – declared himself the winner of the 2009 elections on television, before eventually leaving for Cameroon. This led the government to dissolve the UN.

Unbanning

Members of the UN party have continued to play an active role in Gabon’s political process, often participating in polls as independent candidates. In early 2015, however, the Ministry of Interior announced the lifting of the ban on the opposition party, meaning that the UN will be able to present a candidate for the upcoming 2016 presidential elections.

However, M’ba Obame will not be contesting the elections; following a long illness, he died in Cameroon in April 2015. Large crowds gathered at the Libreville airport to receive his body, and in certain areas of the country his death led to minor clashes involving crowds of mourners.

Created in September 2012, the Union of Forces of Change (Union des Forces du Changement, UFC) was established after a national opposition conference, initially bringing together 26 different opposition parties. However, internal disputes soon led to fragmentation. The Ministry of Interior eventually granted recognition to a group of 14 of the initial opposition parties as the official UFC in April 2013. The remaining factions of the initial UFC, consisting of 12 political groups, were organised under the Union of Force of Alternation.

Labour Movement

Among the more salient political forces at play in Gabon is a long-established labour movement. A legacy of industrial organisation under the French colonial administration, the country’s trade unions are particularly active, aided by a large membership of employees from the public sector, which is the largest employer in the country, and the oil industry, which is the largest export earner.

The clout of Gabon’s labour unions is significant and visible, with industrial action a not-unusual occurrence. In the first quarter of 2014, multiple labour unions went on strike to protest reforms to public sector compensation mechanisms. Another strike by Customs workers affected import procedures at the port of Owendo. In late 2014, a strike by oil sector workers impacted the whole sector, from production to transportation.

Despite the economic disturbances caused by these strikes, labour unions have generally been able to secure both employment and compensation benefits for their organisation’s members, and the government’s attention to labour demands remains high, even under the current, more challenging economic conditions.

Inclusiveness

Although there have been some noticeable improvements in social indicators in recent years, Gabon still battles with inequality. Official unemployment remains high at over 20%, while 30% of the country’s population is considered economically vulnerable, according to figures from the African Development Bank.

Reducing poverty within the country has become a key government priority, which was underlined in a human development strategy introduced in early 2014. The new Social Pact puts more emphasis on social issues to expand revenue-generating activities. A key goal of the new pact will also be to establish universal access to basic services, such as health care, especially in Gabon’s rural areas and smaller urban centres.

Governance

Despite considerable earnings from oil exports over the years, the battle against social inequality in the country has faced obstacles, some of which have been related to structural weaknesses in the public sector.

To address this problem, several key reforms are being implemented to enable the government to improve the effectiveness of public spending programmes. Part of the process has involved a major audit of public expenditure practices, launched in January 2014 by the government.

The audit had the unfortunate effect of delaying a considerable number of government payments to suppliers, leading to an accumulation of arrears for 2013 and 2014, although authorities have started to pay back debts to private companies. The government announced in late 2014 that $700m in arrears had been settled.

The investigation has found several irregularities in government payment procedures, including irregular invoicing of products and services for the state, payment of contracts to non-existent entities, and overall misuse of government funds – in line with similar results following an overhaul of the government’s compensation system in 2010, where a number of phantom employees and duplicated salaries were identified and eliminated.

Wages

Government salaries have been a common point of contention in recent years. In 2014 the authorities scrapped the quarterly salary supplement for public sector workers, replacing it instead with a new bonus system. While the new performance incentive is expected to disburse financial resources more equitably amongst workers in the public sector, the exact implementation of the new system has been somewhat unclear, resulting in protests by unions.

Furthermore, early 2015 saw a general strike over the minimum wage, which public workers were demanding be tripled. These demands have put added strain on the government’s negotiation ability as it sets out to reduce expenditure while also placating union demands.

Outlook

Gabon’s reputation is founded on a stable political regime and a set of favourable macroeconomic advantages, including a wealth of natural resources; however, exogenous pressures, including a drop in commodity prices, and limited domestic momentum have made the short-term outlook somewhat more difficult to discern.

The lower oil prices have prompted budgetary revisions, which will slow down the economy and limit the state’s ability to spur job creation, capital formation and fund populist programmes, including wage increases and subsidies.

While both the country and the PDG are well placed to ride out these challenges over the long term, such obstacles may well have an impact in the lead-up to the 2016 presidential elections.

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