Bongo Wins Fair Elections in Gabon Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Following the country’s first president, Léon Mba, Omar Bongo tried to forge a political and socioeconomic system that would take advantage of close relations with foreigners without falling prey to excessive foreign influence. Bongo began with more or less “benevolent authoritarian” rule, and his willingness to accept political pluralism was put to the test in 1998.

Summary of Event

Born Albert-Bernard Bongo, Omar Bongo’s identification with Gabon’s politics began in his student days and was marked by his high regard for the man who became the country’s first president. By the time Gabon achieved independence in 1960, Bongo’s dedication to Léon Mba brought an important career opportunity: After brief service in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Bongo became the first assistant director and then director of Mba’s presidential staff. In 1963-1964, Bongo headed the Ministry of Information and Tourism and, after an attempted coup against Mba, the key post of minister of defense. Elections;Gabon Gabon, government [kw]Bongo Wins Fair Elections in Gabon (Dec. 6, 1998) [kw]Elections in Gabon, Bongo Wins Fair (Dec. 6, 1998) [kw]Gabon, Bongo Wins Fair Elections in (Dec. 6, 1998) Elections;Gabon Gabon, government [g]Africa;Dec. 6, 1998: Bongo Wins Fair Elections in Gabon[10240] [g]Gabon;Dec. 6, 1998: Bongo Wins Fair Elections in Gabon[10240] [c]Government and politics;Dec. 6, 1998: Bongo Wins Fair Elections in Gabon[10240] Bongo, Omar Mba, Léon Aubame, Jean-Hilaire

The events of February, 1964, involved a failed military putsch in support of Jean-Hilaire Aubame’s Union Democratique et Sociale Gabonaise (UDSG) party’s effort to oust Mba—a move allegedly supported by U.S. diplomatic intervention. Certainly the internal crisis contained strong indications that the fragility of Gabon’s emerging political situation could cause it to fall prey either to efforts by non-French interests to implant themselves in Gabon or by France to protect their postcolonial position by both direct and indirect means. In the event, Mba’s return to the presidency was assured by the almost immediate arrival of French paratroopers.

Three years later, Bongo’s task upon succession to the presidency clearly contained both internal and international political dimensions. His path from 1967 to the critical elections three decades later reveals a pattern stressing mainly economic and social development issues as part of, not a substitute for, Gabon’s chances of becoming a workable democracy.

Among several publications dealing with Bongo’s long political career before the presidential elections of 1998, one should first consider the particularly laudatory interviews carried out by Paul Bory Bory, Paul in 1971. These are useful guides to understanding the evolution of Bongo’s public image. In “Governing Gabon,” published by Bory’s own press, it was apparent that Bongo felt that a single-party system (and the delay of pluralism in political representation) held the best promise for achieving positive results in both the political and economic domains. Bongo stressed macro-level infrastructural improvements, such as the construction of a trans-Gabon railway to link the productive potential of the interior to improved port facilities on the ocean. He also emphasized the need to supplement Gabon’s important role as a producer of hardwoods by expanding exploitation of its proven petroleum and mineral wealth.

What strikes one most is Bongo’s view, “teased out” by his early interviewers, that the future of Gabon should remain the responsibility of the Gabonese people. Success would come only if they “apply themselves seriously to the work [ahead] and adopt a new set of attitudes, the spirit of national renovation.” This position, of course, posed a key question that would be present over the next thirty years, namely, could a balance be established between Gabon’s dependence on potentially dominant foreign “sponsorship” and the country’s bid to determine its own destiny by means of local democratic development?

When in 1968 Bongo declared Gabon a one-party system and created the Parti Démocratique Gabonais (PDG, or Gabonese Democratic Party), there were few signs ahead that the word “democratic” had any more than symbolic meaning. Elections in 1975, 1979, and 1986 bore the stamp of strong-handed supervision to guarantee Bongo’s succession. Thus, when internal disturbances broke out in 1990 in the form of strikes and student protests, it was difficult to know if the regime’s attempt to compromise (an “all-national” political conference that called for constitutional revisions and recognition of multiparty politics) had any chance of succeeding.

By 1991, signs appeared encouraging: A new constitution, including provisions for an independent judiciary and a bill of rights, was approved by an assembly formed after the first multiparty elections in three decades. However, the 1993 presidential elections proved to be disappointing: Charges of election fraud were followed by acts of violence. Then, another reform agreement, the Paris Accords of 1994, which would include several opposition leaders in the government, prepared the way for Bongo to demonstrate that real progress could be made before testing the legitimacy of his presidency again in 1998.

If one compares Bongo’s early list of priorities in the 1970’s with his highly confident pronouncements in 1998, one still finds references to popular symbolism (for instance, “real riches” are to be found in “unity and a will to live in common,” and, most notably, the key position of Gabonese women both in their families and as active participants in social and economic spheres). These were supplemented, however, by a substantial list of actual accomplishments on what he labeled the “long road of democracy.” In the material domain, Bongo could cite noted success in balanced development of Gabon’s natural resources, especially reduction of dependence on a limited number of export products. He was careful to note that such developments had come with a measured combination of three factors: state sponsorship, foreign investment, and the emergence of local private-sector involvement. Bongo could also point to Gabon’s recognized position as a member of several international African organizations whose goals promised not only political but also economic benefits.

Although such citations seemed far removed from the everyday lives of average Gabonese, by 1998 Bongo seemed to know how to balance a number of issues that he knew would strike a positive note among several levels of the voting population. Educational gains and relative security of employment, for example, were not just goals (as they had been when he became president). Most observers would agree that Gabonese voters’ recognition of these factors of balance in the election of 1998 made Gabon’s chances for healthy multiparty politics much more palpable than they had been in the early years of Bongo’s presidency.

Significance

Gabon’s capital city, Libreville, traces its mid-nineteenth century beginnings (like Freetown, Sierra Leone) to efforts (supported by French and American missionaries) to provide a haven for recently emancipated slaves. The subzone of French Equatorial Africa that became a colony was occupied later, around 1885, and did not become a formal colony until 1903. Thus, when Gabon achieved independence in 1960, its colonial experience spanned only about two generations. During that time, not only French administrators and private investors but also a very limited number of Africans who benefited from (mainly educational) advantages of association with the colonial regime became aware that Gabon offered rather unique prospects for future economic development.

By the 1950’s, traditional sources of export wealth, particularly the valuable hardwoods, promised to be joined by even greater fields for exploitation, notably petroleum and extremely valuable minerals, especially uranium. By the time of independence, corresponding to the height of the Cold War, many foreign parties, not only the French, were anxious to play a role in exploiting such emergent wealth. Such factors nearly guaranteed that—in political terms—Gabon would certainly not be “turned loose” without some form of international “monitoring” to assure that its resources would not be squandered or fall under foreign control.

The fact that Bongo would assume the reins of a more or less authoritarian and precarious government and manage the country economically, socially, and politically without falling prey to foreign intervention or internal turmoil is seen by many as one of Africa’s postcolonial success stories. Bongo was reelected in 2005 with 79 percent of the vote. Elections;Gabon Gabon, government

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bongo, Omar. Les chances du Gabon pour l’an 2000: Le chemin du futur. Libreville, Gabon: Éditions Multipress, 1998. It is clear that Bongo intended this book to be a political, economic, and social policy statement to inform voters prior to the upcoming presidential elections.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bongo, Omar, and Airy Routier. Blanc comme nègre. Paris: Bernard Grasset, 2001. Like Bory’s interviews with Bongo thirty years earlier, this book is a compilation of interview questions posed by Routier, whose other books represent a journalistic investigative style.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bory, Paul. Gouverner le Gabon. Monaco: Éditions Paul Bory, 1971. Essentially a set of consciously complimentary interviews published by the private press of the interviewer.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gardinier, David E. Historical Dictionary of Gabon. 3d ed. Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 2006. From a historian of former French African states, this work is thoroughly cross-referenced.

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