THE colourful Bongo Ondimba, with his platform, ruled the central African nation for 41 years, so long that when he died in 2009 more people probably knew him than they knew his country.
Though he was succeeded by son, the one good thing is that a bit of Gabon has emerged from under the Bongo dynasty.
Tuesday August 17 marked 55 years of Gabon’s independence from France, a 1960 date that made it the 25th African country to attain internal self rule. It is also one of 17 African countries that trace their first birthday in 1960—by far the most of any year.
The Central African state would be a candidate for your typical Africa country—but as we found out, there is little that is ordinary in this nation of 1.7 million:
1: GABON perhaps best of any other African country typified “Francafrique”—the special relation that France had with its former colonies. Just four years into independence, French troops scrambled into the country to successfully reinstate first president Léon M’ba who had been deposed in a coup after he attempted one-party rule—one of the 9 times Paris intervened militarily in Africa between 1962 and 1995.
Thirty years on, the Paris Accords stabilised the country after a disputed election kept M’ba’s successor Omar Bongo in power. Bongo’s son and successor Ali Ben has sought to widen the country’s geopolitical sphere—in 2009 during the 50th independence celebrations he declared that the relationship was not “exclusive”, and went on to sign big infrastructure projects with India and Singapore, but it was not lost on observers that ties had been frosty after Paris opened a probe into suspected presidential corrupt spending. France retains a military base in Gabon, but as the arrest of Ali Bongo’s chief-of-staff in Paris early this month showed, ties remain off-colour.
2: ONLY in 2009 did a competitive election that did not feature the elder Bongo take place in the country. Léon M’ba was the only candidate in the country’s first election in 1961, taking 100% of the vote, and would die in office seven years later, after his close shave with putschists.
3: OMAR Bongo’s wife, Patience Dabany, born Marie Joséphine Kama, went fully into music after their 1986 divorce following 30 years of marriage, moving to the US to hone her skills. She had already been the lead singer for the “Superstars” musical group created by her husband to extol the ruling party’s virtues.
Now one of the country’s best known musicians, she draws huge crowds whenever she performs, and has at least 10 albums to her name, including collaborations with the likes of the late James Brown and Quincy Jones.
4: YOU wouldn’t think it, but Gabon is a rapper’s delight. CNN has reported the country has a strong hip hop culture modelled around American culture, despite its history with France. French and indigenous languages like Fang are mixed together to the thrill of thousands.
Even current leader Ali Bongo in the late 1970s released an album, described as funky and having the influence of James Brown, who had helped him record. Bongo can be spotted on the campaign trail rapping with other Gabonese rappers, a sure youth vote earner.
5: THE country is the most urbanised in mainland Africa, according to the UN’s 2014 World Urbanisation Prospects. This translates to 87% of its population living in urban areas—more than double the regional average of 40%, and expected to grow four percentage points by 2050.
6: OIL accounts for 52% of government revenue, and as much as a quarter of its gross domestic product. This has meant it has one of the continent’s highest per capita nominal incomes, at about $13,000 last year, according to the IMF.
This is the third highest in Africa and theoretically makes it a middle income country. However, it struggles with inequality—just about a fifth account for over 80% of the country’s income, while for its raw revenues, it has one of the lower Human Development Indices, ranking 112th in 2014.
Gabon is rich in biodiversity. (Photo/Axel Rouvin/Flickr)
7: BEFORE oil, logging was the biggest revenue earner, with 85% of the country covered by forests. To conserve the natural resource, its president in 2002 declared that 10% of the country’s territory would be part of its national parks system, of which there are 13 in total, making the system one of the largest proportions of natural parkland in the world.
8: GABON last year became one of the first African nations to conserve its marine resources, declaring nearly a quarter of its territorial sea, over 46,000 square kilometres, as off limits to commercial fishing, helping protect its threatened if abundant marine life. Adding to the conservation effort, the lion made a surprise comeback to the country after disappearing for decades.
9: WHILE it takes a comparably respectable but-still-stifling 141 days in Gabon for a business to obtain a permanent electricity connection for a new warehouse according to the World Bank (it takes 18 days in Korea, and 257 in Nigeria), some 89.3% of Gabonese have access to electricity—the highest in mainland sub-Saharan Africa and only second to, you guessed it, Mauritius and Seychelles.
10: THE country has one of the best medical systems in West and Central Africa, spending an average $441 on every citizen in 2013, only exceeded by its oil-rich neighbour Equatorial Guinea, and the southern African countries of South Africa, and Mauritius and Seychelles. The lowest spender, the Central African Republic, could only afford $13 for each citizen, according to World Health Organisation figures.
11: GABON is home to Africa’s largest international cycling race—the La Tropicale Amissa Bongo— named for Omar Bongo’s late daughter and now in its ninth year, and the region’s highest ranked cycling event for all that time. The race’s patron is Bernard Hinault, a five time Tour de France winner.
12: IT is also home to the International Association of Athletics Federation-certified Marathon of Gabon, one of the few such events in West and Central Africa. Run at the end of every year since inception in 2013, it attracts an international field, with a Kenyan and Ethiopian winning the first two editions, and close to 6,000 running last year.
13: THE country is home to the Curvy Women of Gabon Association, which has been fighting the stereotype that only the Western slender look is beautiful. We could find no other such association in the region, but France also has one, with most other countries only dabbling in one-off “Miss Curvy” beauty pageants.
14: GABON has been successful in the integration of its 40-plus ethnic groups, a feat that has eluded many other African countries. Most of its ethnicities are well dispersed in the country, with intermarriage common. Integration runs deep—one of its three official religions is Bwiti, which blends Christianity, animism and ancestor worship.
15: IT’S PR-savvy administration is big on showcasing the country, as the cycling and marathon races would suggest. But the rather odd visit of Lionel Messi last July was one of the government’s more memorable coups.
The Barcelona star laid one of the first stones for a planned stadium that will host the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations, in addition to visiting a hospital and the president’s restaurant. President Bongo denied paying him millions of dollars to show up, and said Messi had only kept a promise to him that he would visit Libreville, the Gabonese capital. The foundation stones Messi laid however vanished.