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GABON

 
 
           
 
Flag of Gabon
The equator runs through this country, just as the yellow stripe divides the flag. Green is for the forests of Gabon, blue for its dependence on the sea. The flag dates from 1960.

Gabon {gah-bohn'} is a country on the west coast of Africa that straddles the equator (see map). It is bounded on the south and east by Congo-Brazzaville, on the north by Cameroon, and on the northwest by Equatorial Guinea. Located on its 885-km (550-mi) Atlantic coastline is the capital and principal port, Libreville.

LAND AND RESOURCES

Gabon has a coastal plain that varies from 32 to 160 km (20 to 100 mi) in width. In the north and east are rugged plateaus, 300-610 m (1,000-2,000 ft) in elevation. Beyond the plateaus, to the east, mountain ranges rise to over 914 m (3,000 ft), with Mount Iboundji of the Chaillu Mountains, the highest point in the country, reaching 1,575 m (5,167 ft).

Gabon has an equatorial climate with continually high humidity and an average annual temperature of about 27° C (81° F). Rainfall occurs all year, except along the coast, where the cold Benguela Current cools and dries the air to produce two dry seasons – one from May to September, when almost no rain falls, and one from mid-December to mid-January. In the north, about 3,810 mm (150 in) of rain falls annually; about 2,540 mm (100 in) falls at Libreville in the northwest.

The rough terrain and heavy rainfall produce many rivers that have the potential for hydroelectric development. The largest is the Ogooué, which is navigable for 354 km (220 mi) upstream and has a catchment basin of 220,000 km2 (84,942 mi.2), draining the southern half of the country. More than 75% of Gabon is covered by dense tropical rain forests with many species of trees, including mahogany, ebony, and okoume. Occasional areas of savanna interrupt the forest along the coast and in the south. There are significant deposits of petroleum, manganese, uranium, iron ore, and other minerals.

PEOPLE

Waves of migrating Negroid peoples from the northeast displaced much of the earlier Pygmy population, and today the major groups are the Fang, Eshira, Bapounou, and Bateke. The European minority is predominantly French. French, the official language, is widely spoken, although numerous tribal languages are also used. Most of the people are nominally Christian, but traditional African religions prevail outside the larger towns.

Gabon is sparsely populated; most of the people live near the coast or along the riverbanks. Libreville is the largest city. Other urban centers include Port-Gentil, Lambaréné (the site of Albert Schweitzer's famous mission hospital), the mining centers of Franceville and Moamba, and the new port at Owedo, near Libreville. Education is free and compulsory between the ages of 6 and 16. Improved medical facilities have lowered the very high death rate that, until recently, caused Gabon's population to decline.

ECONOMIC ACTIVITY

In recent decades Gabon has experienced rapid economic growth, primarily because of its extensive mineral resources. It now has one of the highest per-capita incomes in Africa. Petroleum production represents about 80% of the country's export earnings, and the Rabi-Kounga field in southern Gabon, which began production in 1989, substantially increased the nation's export potential. The country's oil revenues declined in the late 1990s due to falling world oil prices, however, and its oil reserves were nearing exhaustion by the turn of the century. Gabon has about 25% of the world's known deposits of manganese, particularly in the Moamba region. Uranium, iron ore, and gold are also mined, and there are deposits of niobium, talc, barytes, phosphates, rare earths, titanium, and cadmium.

Much of the workforce is engaged in subsistence farming, growing primarily manioc, bananas, yams, peanuts, and maize. Only about 1% of the land is cultivated, and much food must be imported. Palm oil is the leading commercial agricultural product. Forest products, which once provided more than 75% of export earnings, now provide about 12%. Manufacturing is limited and consists primarily of petroleum refining, timber processing, and chemicals.

Rivers remain important means of internal transportation. The first two stages of the Trans-Gabon railroad, opened in 1983 and 1986, link Libreville to Franceville and open the interior jungle to logging, mining, and other activities, but plans for an extension to facilitate exploitation of the huge high-grade iron-ore deposits at Mekambo have been suspended indefinitely. Despite a continuing foreign trade surplus, the nation is burdened with a large foreign debt and has introduced reforms to reduce public spending.

HISTORY AND GOVERNMENT

In 1839, France signed a treaty with local chiefs that gave it powers over the southern coastal regions of Gabon. The Berlin Conference of 1885 awarded all of the territory discovered by Pierre de Brazza to France. This area was organized (1910) into French Equatorial Africa, and the separate colonies of Gabon, Congo, Chad, and Ubangi-Shari were formed. Gabon achieved its independence from France in 1960.

According to the constitution of 1961, Gabon is a republic with a presidential form of government. Both the president and members of the legislature are directly elected. Leon M'ba, the first president of the republic, died in office in 1967 and was succeeded by Omar Bongo. Bongo introduced a one-party system in 1968. In 1990 popular protests forced constitutional revisions to legalize multiple parties and reduce the term of office for president from 7 to 5 years. Bongo, who had been the sole candidate in 1973, 1979, and 1986, was reelected president amid charges of fraud in multiparty elections held in December 1993. His party won a clear majority in legislative elections held in December 1996, but political strife continued. In 1997 the constitution was revised to reextend the presidential term to 7 years, renewable once, beginning with the 1998 elections, when Bongo won yet another term. In 1999 and 2000 the country received an influx of tens of thousands of refugees fleeing civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo.


John W. Snaden, Kenyatta University College, Nairobi, Kenya.
Source: 2001 Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia, ©2000 Grolier Interactive Inc. — All Rights Reserved.
Bibliography: Caroline Alexander, One Dry Season: In the Footsteps of Mary Kingsley (1990). James F. Barnes, Gabon: Beyond the Colonial Legacy (1992). Marc Aicardi de Sainte-Paul, Gabon: The Development of a Nation (1989). David E. Gardinier, Historical Dictionary of Gabon, 2d ed. (1993). Brian Weinstein, Gabon: Nation Building on the Ogooye (1967). Douglas Andrew Yates, The Rentier State in Africa: Oil Rent Dependency and Neocolonialism in the Republic of Gabon (1996).
Relevant publications: International Business Publications, Gabon Country Study Guide (2002). Albert Schweitzer, African Notebook (2002). Christopher J. Gray, Colonial Rule and Crisis in Equatorial Africa: Southern Gabon, ca. 1850-1940 (Rochester Studies in African History and the Diaspora, July 2002)

Appended Material

Information Highlights

Total Area(land and inland water) 103,319 square miles (267,667 sq km).
Boundaries North, Equatorial Guinea, Cameroon; east, south, Republic of the Congo; west, Atlantic Ocean.
Population 1,640,286 (July 2013 est.).
Capital and Largest City Libreville.
Major Languages French (official), Fang, Bantu dialects.
Major Religions Roman Catholicism, indigenous local systems, Islam.

 
 

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