The region that is now Gabon was inhabited in Paleolithic times. By the 16th cent. A.D. the Omiéné were living along the coast, and in the 18th cent. the Fang entered the region from the north. From the 16th to the 18th cent. the area was part of the decentralized Loango empire, which included most of the area between the Ogooué and Congo rivers. In the 1470s, Portuguese navigators found the Ogooué estuary, and shortly thereafter they began to trade with coastal merchants for slaves who had been acquired in the interior. The Portuguese were followed by Dutch, English, and French traders, and by the late 18th cent. the French had gained a dominant position. Despite the abolition of the slave trade (1815) by the Congress of Vienna, slaves continued to be exported from the Gabon coast until the 1880s, although French naval patrols succeeded in reducing the number exported annually.
In the mid-19th cent., several treaties were signed with African rulers of the Ogooué estuary and neighboring territories, and Christian missions were established. In 1849, Libreville was founded by the French as a settlement for freed slaves. Paul B. Du Chaillu (in the 1850s) and A. M. A. Aymes (in the 1860s) explored the lower Ogooué. In the late 1870s, Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza reached the source of the river, and in the 1880s he founded Franceville (near the present-day border with the Republic of the Congo). In 1885 the Conference of Berlin recognized French rights to the region N of the Congo River that included Gabon. In 1886 the French assigned a governor to Gabon, which from 1889 to 1904 was included in the French Congo.
From 1910 to 1957, Gabon was a part of French Equatorial Africa. The Fang and some other African peoples resisted the imposition of French rule until 1911. In 1913, Albert Schweitzer established a hospital at Lambaréné on the Ogooué. During World War II, Free French forces gained control (1940) of Gabon from the Vichy government. In 1946, Gabon became an overseas territory of France, and in 1958 the country became internally self-governing within the French Community.
On Aug. 17, 1960, Gabon became an independent republic. Leon Mba, a Fang, was the country's first president. In Feb., 1964, Mba was ousted by a military coup led by Jean-Hilaire Aubame, but he was restored to power within a day with the help of French troops. Mba died in 1967 and was succeeded by Omar Bongo, who established (1968) the Gabonese Democratic party (PDG) as the country's sole political organization. Bongo was returned to office in the elections of 1973 and 1979.
Gabon was one of the few African countries to recognize and furnish supplies to Biafra during the Nigerian civil war (1967–70). During its first decade of independence, Gabon retained close political and economic ties with France. In the early 1970s, however, the government sought increased influence in the foreign (mainly French) companies active in Gabon, and it generally tried to loosen its ties with France. Disillusionment with Bongo's repressive policies led to the formation of a large opposition movement in the early 1980s and demands for a multiparty government.
Bongo was reelected to a fourth term in 1986. Popular discontent with the regime reached a high point in 1989 with seven days of riots in Port-Gentil, which were put down by the army. In 1990 opposition parties were legalized and multiparty legislative elections were held for the first time in 22 years. Amid charges of fraud, Bongo's party won a majority of seats. The same charges were leveled as Bongo was reelected in Gabon's first multiparty presidential election in 1993.
Despite constitutional reforms (1995) intended to reduce election fraud, the 1998 polls, in which Bongo once again was reelected, were termed unfair by observers. Bongo's party again won a majority of the legislative seats in 2001. The president was elected to a third term in 2005; the election was again criticized by the opposition, which was divided and relatively weak. The Dec., 2006, legislative elections were again solidly won by the president's party, but voter turnout was low.
Bongo died in June, 2009; the head of the senate, Rose Francine Rogombe, became Gabon's interim president. In the Aug., 2009, presidential election, Ali Bongo, the son of the late president, was elected with 42% of the vote. Opposition parties denounced the result as rigged, and opposition supporters rioted in the capital and Port-Gentil, but the constitutional court affirmed the results. In Jan., 2011, André Mba Obame, who had lost to Bongo in 2009, declared himself the rightful president, appointed a cabinet, and attempted to rally his supporters against Bongo. The government accused him of treason and dissolved his party. Opposition parties largely boycotted the elections in Dec., 2011, for the National Assembly, and governing party candidates won all but six of the seats.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.