Elite unity, political geography, and democratization: The case of Gabon

Dr. Anja Osei
Dr. Christian Wali Wali
Mr. Ekoutiame Ahlonkor Ahlin
Mr. Hervé Akinocho

Elite unity, political geography, and democratization: The case of Gabon
Anja Osei, University of Konstanz; anja.osei@uni-konstanz.de
Christian Wali Wali, Université Omar Bongo Libreville; waliwalichristian@gmail.com
Hervé Akinocho, Center for Research and Opinion Polls (CROP) Togo; herve.akinocho@gmail.com
Ekoutiamé A. Ahlin, Center for Research and Opinion Polls (CROP) Togo; ahlonkor.ahlin@gmail.com
Power structures and elite interactions have been found to substantially influence the political development of a country. A certain degree of cooperation and consensus between crucial elites is usually seen as a precondition for democracy. By contrast, elite divisions are not only believed to present an obstacle to democratization, but also to increase the risk of civil war. Other theories highlight the role of resource dependence, rentierism, and clientelistic politics as negative factors. The empirical evidence underpinning some of these assumptions has however remained weak – partly because elite interactions are difficult to measure.
Gabon is an especially interesting case in this regard: the small, oil-wealthy Central African nation remains controversially classified in various regime typologies. This paper uses unique survey evidence to review the relationship between elite interactions, regime type, and political geography. Our data were collected in the National Assembly of Gabon in 2019 (response rate ≈ 82%) in face-to-face interviews with Members of Parliament. We have thereby gathered comprehensive information about the social and biographical characteristics of political representatives. The dataset allows us to measure elite networks on a number of different dimensions: political discussions, previous contacts, friendships, and family relations.
Despite a dominant party system, we find a comparatively unified political elite that connects MPs across political parties, regions, and ethnic groups. Facilitated by the small population size of the country, this elite unity is the product of social and matrimonial intra-elite relations, as well as coalition-building, consensus politics since independence and also control over resource distribution. While elite consensus has clearly contributed to the absence of violent conflict, the implications for democratic development are less clear. The case of Gabon therefore allows to critically review theories on elite politics in developing countries.