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Atlas Gabon

Country (long form)
Gabonese Republic
Total Area
103,346.81 sq mi
267,667.00 sq km
1,208,436 (July 2000 est.) note: estimates for this country explicitly take into account the effects of excess mortality due to AIDS
Estimated Population in 2050
French (official), Fang, Myene, Bateke, Bapounou/Eschira, Bandjabi
63.2% total, 73.7% male, 53.3% female (1995 est.)
Christian 55%-75%, Muslim less than 1%, animist
Life Expectancy
48.94 male, 51.26 female (2000 est.)
Government Type
republic; multiparty presidential regime (opposition parties legalized in 1990)
1 Communaute Financiere Africaine franc (CFAF) = 100 centimes
GDP (per capita)
$6,500 (1999 est.)
Labor Force (by occupation)
agriculture 60%, services and government 25%, industry and commerce 15%
food and beverage; textile; lumbering and plywood; cement; petroleum extraction and refining; manganese, uranium, and gold mining; chemicals; ship repair
cocoa, coffee, sugar, palm oil, rubber; cattle; okoume (a tropical softwood); fish
Arable Land
crude oil 75%, timber, manganese, uranium (1998)
machinery and equipment, foodstuffs, chemicals, petroleum products, construction materials
Natural Resources
petroleum, manganese, uranium, gold, timber, iron ore, hydropower
Current Environmental Issues
deforestation; poaching
Telephones (main lines in use)
32,000 (1995)
Telephones (mobile cellular)
4,000 (1995)
Internet Service Providers (ISPs)
1 (1999)

There are only two things that appear certain about Gabon: the first is that its precolonial history is shrouded in uncertainty; and the second is that whatever its history, it has come a long way in a relatively short period of time. Educated guesses put Pygmies as the original inhabitants but they were quickly displaced in the 16th and 18th centuries by the Fang who migrated south from Cameroon and Equatorial Guinea. Small family units of Pygmies now only survive in the more remote parts of the country.

Contact with Europeans, starting with the arrival of the Portuguese in 1472, set a train of events in motion that had a profound effect on tribal social structures. The Portuguese largely ignored the area, preferring to base their activities on the nearby islands of Bioko and São Tomé. However, British, Dutch and French ships called in along the coast regularly to trade for slaves, ivory and precious tropical woods. The capital, Libreville, was established as a settlement for freed slaves in 1849, and quickly became a mecca for every God-fearing missionary in the western world. It represented an unlimited source of unshriven pagan souls and theological brownie points for the saving thereof. In 1904, the capital of the Congo was transferred from Libreville to Brazzaville in the Congo, and six years later Gabon became a French colony in French Equatorial Africa.

In 1912, Albert Schweitzer, missionary-with-a-difference, ex-theologian, and physician, set off for Gabon, en famille, eventually setting up a hospital in Lambaréné. The original hospital operated out of a converted chicken coop, but over the years grew into a multicomplex health centre. Schweitzer was to maintain close ties with the hospital until his death at 90. Some of his more radical moves included the relaxing of hygiene standards so that families of patients could prepare food on site for their relatives. Schweitzer eventually won the Nobel Peace Prize for his work in Gabon.

During the early years of the 20th century, when colonisation was still seen as an economic rather than a social or ethical issue, French private companies exploited Gabon by forcing Africans to work for them. Having only recently thrown off the shackles of slavery, the Gabonese were understandably bent out of shape by this new form of indentured slavery and, like other Africans in French Equatorial Africa, vented their anger in periodic revolts. Each successive revolt was quelled, and by the time a new broom swept these old regimes out of the country the companies had destroyed the forests, used up most of the other natural resources and sent the country into an economic slump that lasted until after WWI.

In 1960, Leo M'Ba was elected as the first president of the new republic of Gabon and survived a mid-60s coup to remain in office until his death from natural causes in 1967. This was no mean feat given that presidents of other African countries tend to be elected at the pull of a trigger and deposed in much the same way. His successor, the diminutive Albert-Bernard Bongo, made Gabon a one-party state and then converted to Islam, becoming El Hadj Omar Bongo. His appointment fortuitously coincided with the processing of manganese and uranium deposits and a bullish run on oil prices. This ushered in the 'Gabonese Miracle', a decade of untold wealth, champagne and caviar lifestyles, and a spendthrift's mentality. In the year that oil prices peaked, Gabon hosted a summit for the Organisation of African Unity to the staggering tune of US$1 billion.

When oil prices plummeted in the early 80s, so did Gabon's financial standing. Notwithstanding the drastic change in Gabon's fortune, Bongo retained presidential office through a strategy of tough social measures, defensive boundaries, national insularity, tough-mindedness, lucrative ministerial posts for the politically faithful, and a phalanx of Moroccan bodyguards, European mercenaries and French political and military advisors. It's a strategy that worked. Depsite civil unrest in 1990 that led to the legalization of political parties for the purpose of free elections, Bongo continued to defeat other candidates, most recently in 1998 for another 7-year term. He has been in office for over thirty years, a minor miracle in the turbulent atmosphere of African politics.

While Gabon continues to grapple with such issues as substandard health care and schools, Bongo has allegedly used his country's oil riches to purchase large amounts of real estate in Paris. The citizens of Gabon, however, continue to show strong support for their leader, at least in theory. In practice, the elections of December 2001 were boycotted by the opposition on account of alleged irregularities by the National Election Commission. An outbreak of the deadliny Ebola virus was reported on the border with Congo at Mekambo in January, 2002, and accusations persist of a child-trafficking racket from Nigeria to Gabon.