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Gabon

gaGabon (1960- ) is a Colorado-sized country on the west coast of Africa right on the equator, not far north of the Congo River. Compared to most of black Africa it is stable and well-to-do. The reason: oil and French power.

In the cities the people are about as well-off as those in Iran, though most who live in the countryside are poor. Those at the top may be on the take (the president was worth at least $130 million), but it seems that enough of it spreads down to ordinary people.

It is also very stable: it had the same president, Omar Bongo, for 42 years. Only a handful of countries anywhere in the world can beat that.

Gabon was a colony of the French Empire from the middle 1880s to 1960. In 1960 it became independent, on paper at least. In practice it is a banana republic, a vassal state of the French. The French will overthrow the government when necessary and put in power who they please. In 1967 it was Bongo.

The French have a military base there with about 1,000 soldiers. A big French oil company is there too, Total, which pumps out the oil and sells it to China. A billion tonnes of Gabon’s iron ore is also being sent to China. So is the hardwood from its ancient forests. Think the Lorax.

Bongo put Gabon’s relationship with France this way:

Gabon without France is like a car with no driver.
France without Gabon is a like a car with no fuel.

Bongo had 1,500 soldiers in his personal guard. But he mainly sweetened his enemies with money rather than frighten them with guns.

Bongo died in June 2009. For days a long line led to his $800-million marble palace where people walked up a red carpet strewn with white rose petals to kneel before his coffin to pay their last respects. A dozen African leaders came to his funeral. So did the French president. He was booed.

Until the early 1990s, when France started to push for democracy in Africa, only one party could stand for office: Bongo’s. Even after he allowed other parties, his always managed to win the elections somehow. In 2005 Bongo won 80% of the vote. Hard to believe, but outside observers said the election was free and fair. It has a free press too, though the state-run press, backed by oil money, speaks with the loudest voice.

Most people live near the coast where the land is flat and open. To the east are mountains and huge forests. A third of the country lives in the capital, Libreville, right on the sea.

There are 10,000 French people living in Gabon but most of the country’s 1.5 million people are Bantus. They speak dozens of different languages but 80% know French. In fact, Libreville is one of the places in Africa where French has taken root as a native language: at least 200,000 speak French as their first language.

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