Discoveries of tools from the end of the Old Stone Age and the New Stone Age indicate early settlements in what is now Gabon, but little is known about the first inhabitants. By the 13th century ad the Mpongwe people were established in the country. The first contact with Europeans was with the Portuguese in the 1470s. During the following 350 years, first the Portuguese and later the French, Dutch, and English carried on a lucrative trade in slaves. The first permanent European settlement was made by the French, with the agreement of the Mpongwe ruler, in 1839. Libreville was founded a decade later by freed slaves. Over the next several years the French extended their rule inland, and in 1866 they appointed a governor to Gabon, which was then attached to the French Congo; it became part of French Equatorial Africa in 1910.
During World War II (1939-1945) Gabon was held by the Free French, and in 1946 it became an overseas territory of France. The first Gabonese government council was formed in 1957, and Leon Mba became president of the council in 1958. Also in 1958, Gabon voted to become an autonomous republic in the French Community. Mba then became prime minister. The country declared its independence on August 17, 1960, and in 1961 Mba was elected president.
A military coup overthrew President Mba’s government in 1964, but French troops, in accordance with a Franco-Gabonese defense agreement, intervened and restored him to power; he was reelected president in 1967. Upon Mba’s death later that year, Vice President Albert-Bernard Bongo succeeded to the presidency. Bongo, who later assumed the Islamic first name Omar, was reelected in 1973. During the mid-1970s Gabon began to loosen its ties with France and the French-speaking regional organizations. With Gabonization, the government became a partner in many foreign firms, and native Gabonese filled management positions once held by foreigners. Favorable markets for Gabonese exports, especially oil, natural gas, uranium, and manganese, contributed to rapid economic expansion during the 1970s, but the economy cooled during the following decade.
Reelected to seven-year terms in December 1979 and November 1986, President Bongo faced rising opposition as the 1990s began. Tentative steps toward a multiparty system were taken in 1990, but the newly legalized opposition parties accused the government of fraud in legislative elections held in September and October. The National Assembly enacted a new constitution in March 1991 formalizing the multiparty system. In December 1993 Bongo received 51.1 percent of the vote in the first presidential elections held under the new constitution. Opposition parties again accused the government of election fraud.
Shortly after the elections a state of alert was declared, banning all demonstrations. Paul Mba Abessole, one of the presidential candidates of the opposition, formed an alternate government called the High Council of the Republic, which was later renamed the High Council for Resistance. In August 1994 the opposition agreed to participate in a transitional coalition government until new legislative elections could be held. These occurred in 1996, and the ruling Gabonese Democratic Party won a significant majority. Bongo was reelected in December 1998 to a seven-year term.