Primeval rainforest at the Equator on the west coast of Africa, the land we know as Gabon, was settled prehistorically by Pygmies during the late Stone Age, and then by Bantu-speaking migrants during the Iron Age. These culturally diverse peoples did not develop a common language or political system with one another until after their violent conquest by Europeans during the colonial era. The Age of Discovery in the 15th century brought European explorers to the coast. The Atlantic triangle trade, with its slave barracoons and entrepôts, transformed some African communities along the coast into centralized kingdoms, and turned other clan-based societies of the forested interior into hunted peoples suspicious of any and all outsiders, European or African. The Scramble for Africa brought military expeditions into Gabon in the 19th century, when French colonial rule was established. Colonialism bestowed on the ethnic groups of Gabon a protonational identity of being “Gabonese,” although this nationalist impulse was muted in the late 19th and early 20th centuries by the effort of French authorities and missionaries to assimilate black Africans into France’s culture and civilization. Unassimilated colonial subjects in the interior of the newly conquered territory violently resisted French colonial rule until the world wars, by which time the assimilation project had sufficiently fashioned a new coastal French-educated Gabonese elite. The two world wars weakened France and led these assimilated elites to a call for political reforms, at first taking the form of mono-ethnic-based political parties, but eventually coalescing around multiethnic coalitions, largely francophone in outlook, while retaining many elements of older precolonial identities. Independence in 1960 brought to power three authoritarian rulers—Léon Mba, Omar Bongo, and Ali Bongo—as well as consolidation of an oil-rentier state and an oxymoronic dynastic republic. “Gabonese” national identity emerged, an imagined community constructed out of African music, literature, and art, yet incorporating French as its lingua franca.
Douglas A. Yates
Jean Ping (born November 24, 1942) was a leading figure in Gabonese politics from the late 1980s well into the 21st century. His mother belonged to the Nkomi ethnic group and his father was a rare Chinese resident of Gabon. Like most other young Gabonese intellectuals, he studied abroad in France and then became a supporter of the ruling Parti Démocratique Gabonais (PDG) party. After working as the Gabonese representative to UNESCO, Ping returned to Gabon in 1984. He became a close associate of dictator Omar Bongo, had two children with Bongo’s daughter Pascaline, and held a series of top ministerial posts from 1990 to 2014. Ping became Gabon’s most prominent diplomat. African Union delegates voted for Ping to become the president of the African Union in 2008. He held this position until 2012. Perhaps his greatest disappointment was the failure of the African Union to successfully mediate between Libyan president Muammar Qaddafi, Libyan rebels, and Western countries who chose military intervention to overthrow Qaddafi. Although Ping had become a member of Omar Bongo’s inner circle, he pulled away from the PDG party after Omar’s son Ali Bongo Ondimba won the 2009 presidential elections. Ping quit the PDG in 2014 and ran for president in the 2016 elections. Many Gabonese and outside observers believed Ping triumphed in this contest. The official results that proclaimed Ali Bongo as the winner stated Bongo had won 95% of the vote in Haut-Ogooué province, where supposedly 99% of all eligible voters actually cast their ballot. Ping rejected the findings and declared he was the true president of Gabon. Ping’s career, starting as a young Gabonese intellectual and becoming a member of the PDG elite and finally the leader of the Gabonese opposition, is a crucial part of the political history of Gabon after the end of French colonization.