Only two autocratic presidents have ruled Gabon since independence from France in 1960. The current president of Gabon, El Hadj Omar Bongo Ondimba - one of the longest-serving heads of state in the world - has dominated the contry's political scene for almost four decades.
President Bongo introduced a nominal multiparty system and a new constitution in the early 1990s. However, allegations of electoral fraud during local elections in 2002-03 and the presidential elections in 2005 have exposed the weaknesses of formal political structures in Gabon.
Gabon's political opposition remains weak, divided, and financially dependent on the current regime. Despite political conditions, a small population, abundant natural resources, and considerable foreign support have helped make Gabon one of the more prosperous and stable African countries.
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Libreville, the capital of Gabon is just a short flight away from Sao Tomé in this sturdy Twin Otter. DHC-6 Twin Otter turboprop planes were quite successful when introduced in Canada by the De Haviland company in 1964. Many are still flying all over the world. I have flown in them from from Honiara to Gizo in the Solomon Islands in 2002, from Malabo in Equatorial Guinea to Douala in Cameroon in 1980 and on a number of other occasions. It's a great little plane.
Accommodations are expensive in Libreville. It is difficult to find a hotel room for less than 50 $US but, like in many African cities, lodgings can be found in Catholic "missions" for backpacker prices.
I took a cab from the airport to the Mission Sainte-Marie complex adjoining the Cathedral shown here.
The well located Mission Sainte-Marie would have been ideal but they now hosted only members of the clergy. Maybe this place had become too popular with backpackers, some of which might have ruined it for the rest.
The large compound included several buildings of which this one and the church in the previous photo.
Not being of the clergy, I was directed to the Maison Lieberman managed by a Swiss religious order.
Here I found a nice room with private bathroom and ventilator for 20 $US.
Air conditioning was available for an additional 5 $US but I found the ventilator sufficient to sleep comfortably.
The room next to mine was occupied by Ken and Judy, anthropologists from Oxford specialized in the study of "forest people" (pygmies). We talked about my spending a week with them in the bush but it finally did not work out. What a pity, I would have loved the experience and would have brought back great photos to show you.
Boris Maryot, my internet contact in Libreville had just entered into a partnership to operate a cyber cafe in this modern French Cultural Centre on Omar Bongo Blvd.
Gabon is by far the most stable and successful country in sub-saharan Africa. Oil revenues, well managed by the president's family and friends have created a prosperous middle class of which Boris is an ambitious and enterprising member.
This large air conditioned Mbolo Hypermarché and the equally impressive Score supermarket in the business centre cater to those who can afford to be consumers of quality goods and services.
That privileged minority occupy the parts of Libreville close to the ocean front that almost look european with their great boulevards. The quality level of the habitat however falls sharply as one moves inland towards the crowded poor suburbs.
Looking north along the four lane Boulevard Georges Pompidou leading to the fashionable Gué-Gué and Haut Gué-Gué districts.
Everything is closed on Sundays so I took a cab to this taxi-brousse station at the Okala intersection where I boarded a crowded minibus going to Cap Estérias, a favourite getaway of the expat community.
In many tropical countries, granites and gneiss have been alternately burnt by intense sunlight and leached by frequent rains leaving behind this red mixture of iron and aluminium oxides called "laterite" from the latin word for "brick".
It had rained heavily all night and the road to Cap Estérias was in a terrible shape.
The weather was still miserable with the result that the Cap Estérias beach was empty. It was however easy to imagine how pleasant this place must be on a bright sunny day.
European expats from Libreville own or rent secondary homes like this one in Cap Estérias to get away from the heat and noise of the city and to socialize with their peers. The bad weather must have kept them away today.
The popular Kojukolub Restaurant was also empty, I had the place to myself.
And so were smaller "maquis" (small African restaurants), like this one.
In the absence of their regular customers, the maquis' personnel were available to engage in idle conversation about their way of life and customs with a curious backpacker.
This talkative anglophone sculptor from Cameroon was particularly interesting as he chatted with me while setting up his wares hoping that some expats would come in the afternoon.
There was nothing more to see so I went back to town arriving at the busy Gare routière centrale not far from the Lieberman Mission. I had been told to avoid this place for safety reasons so I did not linger and did not take out my tempting digital camera. That is unfortunate because the teeming crowd and roadside maquis were quite colourful.
After a week, I got up at 5 AM and took a cab to the PK8 taxi-brousse station eight km north of town. After asking around for a while I finally found a minibus going all the way to Oyem in northern Gabon.
The 14 of us including the driver left around 7:30. We were a good bunch, 9 women and 4 men. The conversation soon drifted to sex, faithfulness and conflicts between men and women. We all split our sides laughing.
Three hours later a terrible noise in the back made us stop and we gladly stretched our limbs while the driver tried to find what was wrong. Everything looked alright so the four men offered their own diagnosis while the women watched. We left and had to stop again before discovering that the noise came from the partially detached tread of a tire.
We met many such trucks loaded with these huge okoume logs. More than 90% of the 1 500 000 cubic meter annual production is exported as logs, 35% to Europe and 65% to Asia (mostly to China that re-exports them as plywood and finished products).
The okoume trade is a monopoly. The logs have to be sold to the "Société Nationale des Bois du Gabon" that exports most of them along with the opportunity of industrial jobs better than that of truck driver.
We entered Ndjolé around noon and stopped 30 minutes for lunch.
There was a wide variety of maquis. The one I chose offered bush meat (possibly monkey) and cayman (alligator). I found the white cayman meat delicately tasty and similar to snake. A glass of exquisitely dry Muscadet would have been the perfect accompaniement!
After another 4 hours of driving, we finally made it to Oyem, the largest city in the north and the centre of the Fang community.
The following morning I took this picture of students going to the lyceum from the window of my room in the Breton hotel. Then, I took a cab to the gare routière where I found a taxi-brousse heading for Bitam.
The road to Bitam was shrouded with mist that I found beautiful while the other passengers did not. We had a friendly discussion on beauty with myself favouring pristine nature and my opponents preferring modern buildings, airplanes and other man made artifacts.
I rode in front with the driver, the tall one on the right, with the three others in the back. It was pleasant and much more comfortable than the previous 8.5 hour minibus trip.
Bitam is much smaller than Oyem but it has a huge market that also serves customers from nearby Cameroon and Equatorial Guinea.
I just cannot resist the vivid colours and interesting faces that markets offer to my camera lens. Not only did the people not mind being photographed, some visibly loved it.
One last picture of the Bitam market before taking a taxi to the Cameroon border that I crossed on foot to catch a minibus to Ambam on the other side.