Gabon straddles the equator on the west coast of Africa. I was posted
in the north at Oyem and lived on the campus of a rural development
school staffed by UNESCO employees (United Nations) along with Gabonese. I
taught one pisciculture course (breeding of fish as a farm product) at the
school and spent the majority of my time in the rural villages. In a 2005 news article concerning Oyem and the surrounding area, it was
stated, the population is about 35,000.
Officially Gabonese Republic, French Gabon, or République
Gabonaise, country lying on the west coast of Africa, astride the Equator,
with a total area estimated at 103,347 square miles (267,667 square kilometres).
It is bordered by Equatorial Guinea and Cameroon to the north, the Republic
of the Congo to the east and south, and the Atlantic Ocean to the west; the
island state of São Tomé and Príncipe is situated off
the coast. Gabon's capital is Libreville. Gabon remains strongly attached
to France, its former colonizer, and to the French language and culture.
Gabon has an equatorial climate, with year-round high temperatures and
humidity. Rainfall varies from an annual average of 120 inches (3,050 millimetres)
at Libreville to 150 inches on the northwest coast, with almost all of it
falling between October and May. In the period from June to September there
is little, if any, rainfall, but humidity remains high. Temperature shows
little seasonal variation, the daily average being about 81° F (27°
Ethnic and linguistic composition
All of Gabon's 40 or so ethnic groups, except the few thousand Pygmies,
speak Bantu languages and, on that basis, can be classified into 10 larger
groups. The Myene group (including the Mpongwe and Orungu), though only a
small part of the population today, has played an important role in the history
of the country as a result of its location along the northern coasts. The
Fang, who belong to the larger Ewondo or Pahouin group also found in southern
Cameroon and Equatorial Guinea, account for one-third of the population; they
live north of the Ogooué River. The largest groups south of the Ogooué
are the Sira (including the Eshira and Punu), the Nzebi (Njabi), and the
Mbete; these groups together form close to half the population. Less numerous
peoples include the Benga and Seke (Sheke) in the far northwest, the Kota
and Teke in the east, and the Vili along the far southern coast.
Many of the Bantu languages do not have written forms. During the 19th
century Christian missionaries transliterated several of them in the Latin
alphabet and prepared Bible translations and catechisms for their followers.
But the French policy of limiting the use of indigenous languages solely to
religious instruction inhibited the growth of other types of literature. Because
of the extensive efforts to teach French, at least one-third of the Gabonese
can speak the language, and more than one-quarter can read it.
A large majority of Gabon's population is Christian, with about three
times as many Roman Catholics as Protestants. Though Gabonese serve as Roman
Catholic bishops, they rely heavily upon foreign clergy, particularly the
French Holy Ghost Fathers. The largest Protestant body, the Evangelical
Church of Gabon, has Gabonese pastors in its parishes throughout the north.
There also exist a small but growing Christian Alliance Church in the southwest
and the tiny Evangelical Pentecostal Church (Assembly of God) in the estuary
and far northern regions. A syncretic religion called Bwiti (based on an
earlier secret society of the same name) came into existence in the early
20th century and later played a role in promoting solidarity among the Fang.
The majority of the few thousand Muslims are immigrants from other African
Gabon's economy has more links with European and American markets than
with those in neighbouring states (with the exception of Cameroon) or elsewhere
in Africa. The economy shares some of the characteristics of those of other
tropical African states: strong links with the former colonial ruler, a
large degree of foreign investment and control, dependence on foreign technicians,
and the decline of agriculture. Gabon differs from these states in its reliance
on thousands of wage earners from other African countries to supplement
its own sparse supply of workers in retailing, artisanship, and domestic
Gabon possesses important resources in woods and minerals and much hydroelectric
potential. But its poor transportation infrastructure and lack of financing,
as well as unfavourable world market conditions, hinder the development
of some of these resources.
Under the frequently revised constitution of 1961, Gabon is a republic
under the executive direction of a president elected by direct universal suffrage
for a period of seven years and a Council of Ministers appointed by the president.
Provision is also made for a prime minister (appointed by the president)
and a National Assembly (elected by direct suffrage) to assume legislative
responsibilities and for an independent Supreme Court. After the French intervention
of 1964, power became concentrated in the presidency. In 1968 the president's
party, the Gabon Democratic Party (Parti Démocratique Gabonais; PDG),
was declared the only one legally permitted. But in May 1990 transitional
constitutional arrangements reestablished a multiparty system. A committee
was appointed to formulate a new constitution.
The judicial system consists of a series of customary law courts at the
lowest level, above which are a criminal court, a court of appeals, and the
Supreme Court (all located in Libreville). The High Court, which is composed
of members elected from the National Assembly, has the power to try the president
and members of government. An audit office (cour des comptes) was created
in 1977 to oversee the government's finances.
Administratively, Gabon is divided into nine provinces, which are further
divided into préfectures and sous-préfectures (subprefectures).
The provincial governors, the prefects, and the subprefects are all appointed
by the president.
The educational system continues to be modeled closely after that of France.
French remains the sole medium of instruction; Bantu languages are studied
as electives at the secondary and higher levels. While education is officially
mandatory from the ages of 6 to 16, the bulk of children do not attend long
enough to achieve literacy or numeracy. The Omar Bongo University, founded
in 1970, has two- and three-year programs in most fields and some advanced
studies. The University of Science and Technology of Masuku, near Franceville,
opened in 1986. Many Gabonese study abroad, particularly in France, at the
university and graduate levels.
Little is known about the history of the Gabon region prior to the arrival
of the first Portuguese navigators in the Gabon Estuary in 1472, for the
Bantu-speaking peoples inhabiting the region lacked writing. At that time
portions of southern Gabon were loosely linked to the state of Loango, which
in turn formed a province of the vast Kongo kingdom. From the offshore islands
of São Tomé and Príncipe, where the Portuguese established
sugar plantations, they developed trade with the mainland. From the late
1500s, Dutch, French, Spanish, and English competitors also exchanged cloth,
iron goods, firearms, and alcoholic beverages for hardwoods, ivory, and a
The slave trade achieved extensive development only between the 1760s
and 1840s, as a result of heightened demand from Brazil and Cuba. Interior
peoples sent undesirables from their own societies and captives from warfare
down the waterways to the coast where they were collected in barracoons
(temporary enclosures) to await the arrival of European ships. The Orungu
clans at Cape Lopez organized a kingdom whose power rested on control of
the slave trade through the mouths of the Ogooué River. The Mpongwe
clans of the estuary, who were already important traders, also profited
from the slave trade, as did the Vili of Loango, whose activities extended
throughout southern Gabon. Only the Fang, who were migrating southward from
Cameroon into the forests north of the Ogooué, ordinarily refused
to hold slaves or engage in warfare to obtain them. The coastward migrations
of the numerous and often warlike Fang nevertheless contributed to the further
decimation and dispersion of many interior peoples, particularly during
the 19th century.
By 1800 the British were becoming the leading traders in manufactures
throughout the Gulf of Guinea. After 1815 the French sought to compete more
actively in the commercial sphere and to join Britain in combating the slave
trade. To these ends, Captain Édouard Bouët-Willaumez negotiated
treaties with the heads of two Mpongwe clans, King Denis (Antchouwe Kowe
Rapontchombo) on the southern bank of the estuary in 1839 and King Louis
(Anguile Dowe) on the northern bank in 1841. They agreed to end the slave
trade and to accept French sovereignty over their lands. The arrival of
American Protestant missionaries on the northern bank in May 1842 to open
a school in the lands of King Glass (R'Ogouarowe)—the centre of British,
American, and German commercial activity—spurred the French to establish
Fort d'Aumale within the territory of King Louis in 1843. In 1844 France
brought in Roman Catholic missionaries to promote French cultural influence
among the Mpongwe and neighbouring peoples. French agents obtained a treaty
from King Glass recognizing French sovereignty. In 1849 Bouët-Willaumez
organized a small settlement of mainly Vili freed slaves called Libreville
(“free town”), which with the fort formed the nucleus of the capital.
During the 1850s and '60s the French gradually extended their control
along the adjacent coast and sent explorers into the interior. The expeditions
of Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza between 1875 and 1885 established French authority
on the upper Ogooué, where Franceville was founded in 1880, and on
the Loango coast. An enlarged Gabon was attached to the French Congo in
1886 under Brazza as governor.
In 1910 Gabon became one of the four colonies within the federation of
French Equatorial Africa. The French delimited the frontier with the Germans
in Cameroon in 1885 and with the Spanish in Río Muni, or Spanish Guinea
(later Equatorial Guinea), in 1900. French occupation of the Gabon interior
brought little opposition; but interference with trade and such exactions
as a head tax, a labour tax for public projects, and forced labour provoked
considerable resistance, as did the French policy from 1898 to 1914 of seeking
to develop the economy through monopolistic concessionary companies, which
devastated settlement, agricultural production, and trade.
The period between the two world wars saw the creation of a pro-French
but anticolonialist elite, mainly from the graduates of the boys' schools
of the Brothers of Saint-Gabriel at Libreville and Lambaréné.
From their ranks came most of the politicians who held office during the
Fourth French Republic (1946–58) when Gabon became an overseas territory
with its own assembly and representation in the French Parliament. In this
era France considerably expanded public investment in the economy, in health
care, and in education. In 1958 Gabon became an autonomous republic within
the French Community and, after concluding cooperation agreements with France,
achieved independence on Aug. 17, 1960.
Copyright © 1994-2002 Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.
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