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.
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