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 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 (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." An American, Paul du Chaillu, was among the first foreigners to explore the interior of the country in the 1850s. 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. 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.
Under the 1961 constitution (revised in 1975 and rewritten in 1991), Gabon became a republic with a presidential form of government. The National Assembly has 120 deputies elected for a 5-year term. The president is elected by universal suffrage for a 7-year term. The president appoints the prime minister, the cabinet, and judges of the independent Supreme Court. In 1990 the government in 1990 made major changes to the political system. A transitional constitution was drafted in May as an outgrowth of a national political conference in March-April and later revised by a constitutional committee. Among its provisions were a Western-style bill of rights; creation of a National Council of Democracy to oversee the guarantee of those rights; a governmental advisory board on economic and social issues; and an independent judiciary. After approval by the National Assembly, the PDG Central Committee and the president, the Assembly unanimously adopted the constitution in March 1991. Multiparty legislative elections were held in 1990-91, despite the fact that opposition parties had not been declared formally legal.
After a peaceful transition, the elections produced the first representative, multiparty National Assembly. In January 1991, the Assembly passed by unanimous vote a law governing the legalization of opposition parties. The president was re-elected in a disputed election in 1993 with 51% of votes cast. Social and political disturbances led to the 1994 Paris Conference and Accords, which provided a framework for the next elections. Local and legislative elections were delayed until 1996-97. In 1997 constitutional amendments were adopted to create an appointed Senate, the position of vice president, and to extend the president's term to 7 years. Facing a divided opposition, President Bongo was re-elected in December 1998, with 66% of the votes cast. Although the main opposition parties claimed the elections had been manipulated, there was none of the civil disturbance that followed the 1993 election. The president retains strong powers, such as authority to dissolve the National Assembly, declare a state of siege, delay legislation, conduct referenda, and appoint and dismiss the prime minister and cabinet members. Peaceful though flawed legislative elections in 2001-02 produced a new National Assembly dominated by the president's party and its allies. For administrative purposes, Gabon is divided into 9 provinces, which are further divided into 36 prefectures and 8 separate subprefectures. The president appoints the provincial governors, the prefects, and the subprefects.
Today, Gabon is a republic dominated by a strong presidency. Although opposition parties have been legal since 1990, a single party, the Gabonese Democratic Party (PDG), has remained in power since 1968 and has circumscribed political choice. Elections for the Presidency and the National Assembly generally have not been free and fair but have varied widely in quality; some suffered chiefly from poor organization, while others were fraudulent. PDG leader El Hadj Omar Bongo has been President since 1967 and was reelected for another 7-year term in 1998. The 1998 presidential and legislative elections were marred by irregularities. Members of the PDG and allied parties hold large majorities of seats in both chambers of the national legislature comprised of the directly elected National Assembly and the Senate, members of which are chosen by municipal and regional government officials. The December legislative elections were marred by numerous irregularities, and international observers reported that the elections were marked by organizational flaws and "insufficient and dysfunctional" application of the electoral law. At year's end, the final outcome of the elections had not been decided; runoff elections were pending for several seats. The judiciary is independent in principle but remained subject to government influence.
The country's economy is underdiversified and heavily dependent on foreign trade; its population is approximately 1.2 million. The State dominates much of the economy through telecommunications, timber export, and oil refinery parastatals; however, the production of wood, oil, and minerals largely was private, and the water, electric, railroad, and sugar parastatals have been privatized. Efforts to privatize the telecommunications monopoly and the national airline have been slow. Government financial mismanagement and corruption have contributed to significant arrears in domestic and external debt payments. The oil industry generated nearly half of recorded gross national product; oil export earnings have allowed the country's citizens to enjoy a relatively high standard of living based on imports of consumer goods and have drawn to the country's capital, Libreville, a third of the country's citizens and many immigrants from poor African countries who work chiefly in the informal and service sectors. Average annual per capita gross domestic product was approximately $3,800 (2,750,000 CFA francs), although income distribution remained heavily skewed in favor of urban dwellers and a small economic elite, while the rural population continued to receive relatively few social services. During the year 2001, increases in oil prices and production boosted export earnings and state revenues; however, there is a downward projection for long-term oil production.
INCIDENCE OF CRIME
The crime rate in Gabon is low compared to industrialized countries. An analysis was done using INTERPOL data for Gabon. For purpose of comparison, data were drawn for six of the seven offenses used to compute the United States FBI's index of crime. Index offenses include murder, forcible rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, larceny, and motor vehicle theft. The combined total of these offenses constitutes the Index used for trend calculation purposes. Gabon will be compared with Japan (country with a low crime rate) and USA (country with a high crime rate). According to the INTERPOL data, for murder, the rate in 1996 was not reported for Gabon. For rape, the rate in 1996 was 105.07 per 100,000 population for Gabon, compared with 1.18 for Japan and 36.10 for USA. For robbery, the rate in 1996 was 123.56 for Gabon, 1.96 for Japan, and 202.44 for USA. For aggravated assault, the rate in 1996 was 134.95 for Gabon, 14.20 for Japan, and 388.19 for USA. For burglary, the rate in 1996 was 148.38 for Gabon, 177.65 for Japan, and 942.96 for USA. The rate of larceny for 1996 was 61.45 for Gabon, 1057.83 for Japan, and 2975.91 for USA. The rate for motor vehicle theft in 1996 was 113.56 for Gabon, compared with 26.79 for Japan and 525.92 for USA. Due to the omission of data on murder for Gabon, the total of these crimes could not be calculated; however, the total of these crimes is 686.97, compared to 1279.61 for Japan and 6351.13 for USA. Though the overall crime rate is low, rape is a crime that Gabon exceeds both Japan and USA in its rate per 100,000 population.
The legal system is based on French civil law system and customary law. Judicial review of legislative acts occurs in Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court.
The national police, which is subordinate to the Interior Ministry, and the Gendarmerie, which is subordinate to the Defense Ministry, are primarily responsible for domestic law enforcement and public security. In addition elements of the armed forces and the "Republican Guard," an elite, heavily armed unit that protects the President, sometimes have performed internal security functions; both the armed forces and the Republican Guard are subordinate to the Defense Ministry. In February the President created a special "anti-gang" police unit, under the Interior and Defense Ministries, to fight rising crime in Libreville. Security forces conducted "sweep" operations intended to detain bandits. Members of the security forces occasionally committed human rights abuses. There was at least one credible report of an extrajudicial killing by a member of the security forces. Outstanding cases of extrajudicial killings committed by the security forces in previous years are unlikely to be resolved. There were no reports of politically motivated disappearances. The Constitution prohibits such practices; however, security forces sometimes beat or torture prisoners and detainees as punishment and to extract confessions. There were unconfirmed reports in the African immigrant community that police and soldiers occasionally beat and raped noncitizen Africans during operations to round up and deport illegal immigrants. The Constitution prohibits such actions; however, the Government does not respect these prohibitions in practice. As part of criminal investigations, police may request search warrants from judges, which they obtain easily, sometimes after the fact. The Government has used them in the past to gain access to the homes of opposition figures and their families. Police and security forces conducted warrantless searches (sweeps) for illegal immigrants and criminals. The sweeps consisted of soldiers stopping and searching vehicles at roadblocks, as well as house-to-house searches conducted by soldiers and police in impoverished neighborhoods. The police conducted the same activity informally on a regular basis and frequently stopped vehicles to extort bribes. Government authorities also routinely monitored private telephone conversations, personal mail, and the movements of citizens.
The Constitution prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention; however, the Government does not observe these prohibitions. The law provides for up to 48 hours of initial preventive detention, during which period police must charge a detainee before a judge. However, in practice police rarely respected this provision. Charges often were not filed expeditiously, and persons often were detained arbitrarily for long periods. Bail may be set if there is to be a further investigation. Pretrial detainees have the right to free access to their attorneys, and this right is respected in practice. Detainees have the right to an expeditious trial, as defined by the law. Pretrial detention is limited to 6 months for a misdemeanor and to 1 year for a felony charge. These periods may be extended for 6 months by the examining magistrate. Prolonged pretrial detention is common. The Attorney General's Office estimated that roughly 40 percent of persons in custody are pretrial detainees.
Members of the security forces frequently detained individuals at roadblocks. Although sometimes designed to locate illegal immigrants or criminals, the security forces generally used such operations to extort money.
The law prohibits forced exile, and the Government does not use it.
The Constitution provides for an independent judiciary; however, while the judiciary is generally independent in principle, it remains subject to government influence.
The judicial system includes the regular courts, a military tribunal, and a civilian State Security Court. The regular court system includes trial courts, appellate courts, and the Supreme Court. The Constitutional Court is a separate body charged with examining constitutional questions, including the certification of elections. In some areas, minor disputes may be taken to a local chief, but the State does not recognize such decisions. The State Security Court, last convened in 1990, is constituted by the Government as required to consider matters of state security.
There were systemic resource and personnel shortages in the judiciary, which often contributed to prolonged pretrial detention. Court clerks went on strike twice during the year 2001 to protest poor working conditions and low salaries; civil court actions largely were brought to a halt due to the strikes.
The Constitution provides for the right to a public trial and the right to legal counsel. These rights generally are respected in criminal cases. Nevertheless, procedural safeguards are lacking, particularly in state security trials, where a judge may deliver an immediate verdict of guilty at the initial hearing if sufficient evidence is presented by the State.
There were no reports of political prisoners.
Conditions in most prisons are harsh and life threatening. Sanitation and ventilation are poor, and medical care is almost nonexistent. Prisons provide inadequate food for inmates. There were no known visits by human rights monitors to prisons during the year 2001, although the Government was not known to have impeded such visits in past years. Women are held separately from men, juveniles are held separately from adults, and pretrial detainees are held separately from convicted prisoners.
Domestic violence against women was common and especially was prevalent in rural areas. While medical authorities have not specifically identified rape to be a chronic problem, religious workers and hospital staff reported that evidence of beatings of women was common. Police rarely intervened in such cases, and women virtually never filed complaints with civil authorities. Only limited medical and legal assistance was available.
Female genital mutilation (FGM), which is condemned widely by international health experts as damaging to both physical and psychological health, occurred among the resident population of expatriate Africans. There are no laws against FGM, but according to local women's groups, it was not practiced on Gabonese girls.
By law couples must stipulate at the time of marriage whether they intend to adhere to a monogynous or a polygynous relationship; according to one local NGO, polygynous marriages are more common. For monogynous married couples, a common property law provides for the equal distribution of assets after divorce. In a polygynous marriage, a husband is obligated to give all wives the same level of financial support; however, he may marry additional wives without permission from his existing wives. Wives who leave polygynous husbands receive half of their existing support as a one-time payment. In inheritance cases, the husband's family must issue a written authorization before his widow can inherit property. Common law marriage, which is accepted socially and practiced widely, affords a woman no property rights.
A regulation requires that a woman obtain her husband's permission to travel abroad; however, this requirement is not enforced consistently.
The country has a relatively high infant mortality rate, and only approximately 17 percent of children have been vaccinated. Although international donors worked to improve the situation, the Government allocated few resources for vaccines and the logistical support necessary to administer them. Traditional beliefs and practices provided numerous safeguards for children, but children remained the responsibility of the extended family--including aunts, grandmothers, and older siblings. There was little evidence of physical abuse of children, although there were some reports that girls were sexually abused by family members after reaching puberty. Protection for children's rights is not codified in law. FGM was performed on girls in the resident population of expatriate Africans. Forced child labor and trafficking in children were problems.
TRAFFICKING IN PERSONS
No law specifically prohibits trafficking in persons. Trafficking in children is a serious problem, and the Government does not actively investigate cases of trafficking and has not prosecuted any cases against traffickers. There were reports that some trafficked women and children were sexually abused.
Children (especially girls) were trafficked into the country, primarily from Benin and Togo, for use as domestic servants or in the informal commercial sector. Some of the children suffered sexual abuse. Nigerian children were trafficked to the country primarily to work in the informal commercial sector.
In previous years, there were reports that children were trafficked to the country to work on plantations; however, these reports were inaccurate. There is very little commercial agricultural activity, and observers believe that all children trafficked to the country are working either as domestic servants or in the informal sector.
In April a Nigerian-registered ship, the MV Etireno, arrived at the port of Owendo in Libreville and was turned away by government authorities who suspected that illegal immigrants were aboard. The international press reported that the ship was carrying up to 250 children trafficked from West Africa to work as laborers and domestic servants in the country. The ship returned to Cotonou, Benin, after approximately 2 weeks at sea. International organizations and their embassies assisted the 23 children aboard (from Benin, Togo, and Mali) when they arrived in Cotonou. In September a ship carrying 130 West African child trafficking victims from Nigeria to the country capsized off the coast of Cameroon. The children were assisted by Cameroon government officials and repatriated to their home countries.
Concerned organizations reported that government officials employed trafficked foreign children as domestic workers, and also alleged that government officials might be involved in facilitating child trafficking.
In August the Council of Ministers proposed a law that would prohibit the trafficking and exploitation of children. At year's end, the National Assembly was considering the proposed law. Traffickers may be prosecuted under laws prohibiting the exploitation, abandonment, and mistreatment of children. The proposed law stipulates that anyone who organizes, facilitates, transports, harbors, sells, or illegally employs trafficked or exploited children, or otherwise benefits from the trafficking or exploitation of children, will face imprisonment and fines of $14,000 to $28,000 (10 million to 20 million CFA francs). Foreigners caught participating in these acts could be expelled from the country under the proposed law. According to the proposed law, all assets used in the commission of these crimes, or acquired as a result of them, will become property of the Government, and child traffickers will be responsible for paying for the repatriation of their victims. No one was prosecuted by year's end. Critics maintained that government efforts were ineffective and hampered by a lack of resources.
An interministerial committee comprised of representatives from the Labor, Justice, Foreign Affairs, and Family Ministries is involved in antitrafficking efforts. The Government did not support programs aimed at the prevention of trafficking, and has neither a policy nor resources to provide assistance to trafficking victims. Trafficking victims were not detained or deported. The Government has an informal cooperative relationship with NGO's providing services to victims. The Government participated in a January conference on child trafficking. In 2000 the Government cohosted a conference on child trafficking and exploitative labor in Central and West Africa as a cooperative effort between the Government, UNICEF, and the ILO.
Internet research assisted by Elizabeth Reader