Gabon is one of the most important countries in Africa, but not very much is known about the country’s history before the arrival of Europeans. Migrants of the Bantu affiliation are believed to have settled in the region starting from the 14th century. It was explorers and commodity traders from Portugal that arrived there towards the end of the 15th century.
The communities of local Pygmies experienced displacement from around 1000AD with migrating Bantu groups from the north, with the Fang as a good example. The art from the tribes shows a sophisticated cultural heritage. As the first Portuguese traders and explorers arrived in Gabon towards the end of the 15th century, the coast in the southern region was under the influence of the Kingdom of Loango.
The offshore islands of Fernando Po, Principe, and Sao Tome became the Portuguese settlement areas. They were the ones that named the area Gabon after the word ‘gabao’, meaning a sleeved and hooded coat in Portuguese describing the shape of the estuary of the Komo River.
Colonization by France
Starting from 1838 to 1841, France saw the establishment of a protectorate over the areas along the coasts of Gabon alongside treaties with local chiefs. In 1842, missionaries from the United States formed a mission at the mouth of the Komo River. By 1849, the French colonial authorities captured an illegal slave ship and set all the slaves free. These freed slaves were released close to the mission station, and it was there that they established a settlement named Libreville, which means ‘free town’ in French.
Explorers from France penetrated the thick forests of Gabon from 1862 to 1887. One of the best known of these explorers was Savorgnan de Brazza, and with the assistance of local Gabonese guides, he was able to search for the headwaters of the Congo River. Even though Gabon was under France’s occupation in 1885, it did not fall under its administration until 1903. In the year 1910, Gabon was named one of the four territories of French Equatorial Africa.
As Gabon became an independent nation in 1960, there were two main political parties in existence. These include the Gabonese Democratic Bloc (BDG), which was headed by Leon M’Ba, and then the Gabonese Democratic and Social Union, which was directed by Jean-Hilaire Aubame. There was an election after independence, but no party was able to get a majority. There was a new presidential system in February 1961 with an election, and Leon Mba emerged President and Aubame assumed the position as foreign minister.
The system prevailed until early 1963, when there was another political evolution that eventually led to the overthrowing military Mba in a bloodless coup in February 1964. France intervened militarily and restored its government the following day.
April 1964 came, and elections were held with several opposition parties taking part. By the end of 1966, there was an amendment of the constitution that made room for automatic succession to office in case the President dies. Leon Mba and Omar Bongo became President and vice President respectively in March 1967, and following the death of Mba later in the year, Omar Bongo emerged President.
The new President Bongo made a declaration in March 1968 stating that the country had become a one-party state with the Gabonese Democratic Party’s establishment. He invited everyone to join irrespective of the political affiliation that they had. Bongo was elected as the President in 1973 and he had the office of the vice president abolished with the office of the prime minister as the replacement. He would face re-elections until he became the longest-serving President in Africa.
But problems with the economy and demand for greater political rights led to serious demonstrations and industrial actions at the beginning of 1990. President Bongo used his diplomatic skills to bring calm and allowed for both sides to win. He introduced reforms, and there were more policies aimed at liberalization.
Gabon in the Modern Era
President Omar Bongo consolidated his grip on power as he kept winning re-elections until he died in office in June 2009 at a hospital in Spain. His son, in the person of Ali Bongo Ondimba, became President following his victory in the elections of August 2009. He would be re-elected into office in August 2016 even if the opposition said it was rigged.
President Ali Bongo Ondimba would be admitted to the hospital in Saudi Arabia following an undisclosed illness, but he remains firm. Not even an attempt by soldiers in Gabon to launch a coup had any effect. The country remains dominated by the Bongo clan.