Gabon’s August 27 Presidential Election

The 2016 Presidential Election

President Ali Bongo is campaigning for a second seven-year term in a vote scheduled for August 27. A serious challenge from opposition candidate Jean Ping, a respected diplomat who previously served as president of the African Union Commission, may make the election unusually competitive for a country that has known only two presidents since 1967 (Bongo and his father, Omar Bongo, who died in 2009). Several factors nevertheless favor the incumbent—notably, a single-round electoral system that does not require a majority of votes to win, which enabled Bongo to be elected in 2009 with 42% of the vote. The reported use of state resources in ruling party campaigns also suggests an advantage for Bongo.

Gabon is generally viewed as politically stable. Yet, local security forces are reportedly preparing for potential violence in the opposition stronghold of Port Gentil, which saw violent riots and a brutal government crackdown following the last presidential vote in 2009. An electoral dispute could further jeopardize stability and undermine prospects for democracy in Central Africa—which is already facing violent political crises in several nearby states.

Historically weak and fragmented, the opposition has been galvanized since Ping's defection from the ruling Gabonese Democratic Party (PDG) in 2014. The death in 2015 of longtime opposition politician André Mba Obame might also aid Ping's efforts to unify government opponents under a single banner. Ping has sought to capitalize on popular discontent over perceived economic hardships under Bongo, as well as a protest movement challenging Bongo's eligibility by claiming that he is not a Gabonese citizen by birth. These allegations stem from a book by a French journalist alleging that the president was born in Nigeria, was adopted by the late Omar Bongo, and that his birth certificate was falsified.


Gabon is a stable, oil-rich former French colony with a coastline along the geostrategic Gulf of Guinea. Its valuable oil resources and sparse population contribute to a relatively high per-capita gross domestic product (GDP) of $7,530. Gabon ranked 110 out of 188 states on the 2015 U.N. Human Development Index, better than average for Sub-Saharan Africa. Income inequality is high, however, and almost a third of Gabonese live below the national poverty line. The oil-dominated economy has been hamstrung by the global downturn in prices: economic growth, which averaged over 5.7% annually between 2010 and 2014, is expected to fall to 3.2% in 2016.

The PDG, which was the sole legal political party until 1991, is the dominant political force and holds a large parliamentary majority. Constitutional term limits on the presidency were removed in 2003. President Bongo has portrayed himself as an economic reformer, and his "Emerging Gabon" strategy aims to attract more foreign investment and spur new infrastructure, industrial development, sustainable timber production, and the services sector. However, reforms appear to have been hampered by a lack of government capacity and, possibly, conflicting political and economic incentives that weigh against deep changes. The State Department reported this year that despite Bongo's efforts, Gabon "remains a difficult place to do business." Bongo has also reportedly benefited from large-scale state corruption, and some of his foreign assets are the target of a long-running investigation in France.

U.S.-Gabon Relations

U.S. policy interests in Gabon include its role in regional conflict resolution and maritime security, its energy resources, and its leadership on environmental conservation—which is threatened by wildlife poaching. The Obama Administration characterizes U.S.-Gabon relations as "excellent" and has praised Bongo's reform and conservation efforts. President Bongo met with President Obama at the White House in June 2011, at a time when Gabon held the rotating presidency of the U.N. Security Council. In addition to discussing global issues, President Obama urged Bongo to "take bold steps to root out corruption and to reform the judiciary and other key institutions." Gabon makes little use of the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) preference program beyond exports of crude oil, but did host the annual, legislatively mandated AGOA Forum in 2015—a first for Central Africa. U.S. firms such as the multinational company Bechtel are prominent in Gabon's infrastructure sector.

The United States has not provided direct support for Gabon's electoral process, but the State Department is funding a small assessment mission by the National Democratic Institute, using the Department's Human Rights & Democracy Fund. Gabon receives little U.S. bilateral aid—solely an estimated $230,000 in FY2016 funding for military training—but it benefits from additional U.S. regional aid initiatives to counter trafficking in persons, improve health, bolster security in the Gulf of Guinea, and address corruption. Gabon is also a participant in the U.S. Central Africa Regional Program for the Environment (CARPE), which seeks to protect tropical forests in the Congo River basin. Gabon is a partner in the State Department's African Contingency Operations Training & Assistance (ACOTA) program, through which its peacekeepers in the Central African Republic have received U.S. training and other support. Additional security assistance is provided by the Defense Department: for example, U.S. Marines have engaged with Gabon's anti-trafficking "Jungle Brigade."

U.S. policymakers and private firms have arguably benefitted from Bongo's efforts to diversify Gabon's foreign relations, while maintaining historically close diplomatic, military, and commercial ties with France. Ping, a former Foreign Minister under Omar Bongo, has not called for major shifts in Gabon's foreign policy.

Figure 1. Gabon at a Glance



Capital: Libreville

Comparative size: Slightly smaller than Colorado

Independence: 1960, from France


Languages: French (official), Fang, Myene, Nzebi, Bapounou/Eschira, Bandjabi

Religions: Christian 55-75%, Muslim <1%, indigenous beliefs

Population, growth rate: 1.7 million, 1.93%

Literacy: 83.2% (male 85.3%, female 81%)


Median age, life expectancy: 18.6 years, 52.04 years

Infant mortality rate: 46.07 deaths/1,000 live births

Adult HIV/AIDS prevalence: 3.8%


GDP: $14.17 billion, $7,530 per capita (2016 proj.)

GDP growth rate: 3.18% (2016 proj.)

Top Exports/Export Partners: crude oil, timber, manganese, uranium / China 15.5%, Italy 7.3%, Trinidad and Tobago 7.2%, Australia 7%, Spain 6.3%, South Korea 5.4%, Netherlands 5%, United States 4.7%

Top Imports/Import Partners: machinery + equipment, foodstuffs, chemicals, construction materials / China 21.4%, France 19.6%, United States 6.5%, Benin 4.7%