Background and origins
Gabonese and French military officers, 1959
Gabon gained its independence from France on 17 August 1960. The country had a relatively high standard of living and was considered one of the more stable countries in West Africa, both politically and economically. At the time of the coup, the country had an estimated US$200 average annual income and was one of the few countries in Africa with a positive trade balance, with exports exceeding imports by 30 percent. As of 1964, the country was among the largest producers of uranium and manganese in French Africa, which Time suggested was one of the reasons for France's response to the coup. It also had petroleum, iron, and logging interests stationed in Gabon.
Léon M'ba was one of the most loyal allies to France in Africa, even after the country's independence. In fact, France maintained 600 paratroopers and an air force unit, which included Mirage V and Jaguar jet fighters, at the Camp de Gaulle military base until at least 1987, a warning to any Gabonese coup plotters. M'ba famously commented during a 1961 visit to France that "[a]ll Gabonese have two fatherlands: France and Gabon",[a] and Europeans enjoyed particularly friendly treatment under his regime. French journalist Pierre Péan asserted that M'ba secretly tried to prevent Gabonese independence; instead, he lobbied for it to become an overseas territory of France. He went so far as to say that "Gabon is an extreme case, verging on caricature, of neocolonialism."
M'ba aspired to establish Gabon as a democracy, which he believed was necessary to attract foreign investors. At the same time, he attempted to reconcile the imperatives of democracy with the necessity for a strong and coherent government. In practice, however, M'ba showed a weakness in attaining his goal—by this time he was known as "the old man", or "the boss"—to have a high degree of authority. On 21 February 1961, a new constitution was unanimously adopted, providing for a "hyperpresidential" regime. M'ba now had full executive powers: he could appoint ministers whose functions and responsibilities were decided by him; he could dissolve the National Assembly by choice or prolong its term beyond the normal five years; he could declare a state of emergency when he believed the need arose, though for this amendment he would have to consult the people via a referendum. This was, in fact, very similar to the constitution adopted in favor of Fulbert Youlou at roughly the same time. A report from the French secret service summarized the situation:
He regarded himself as a truly democratic leader; nothing irritated him more than being called a dictator. Still, [M'ba] wasn't happy until he had the constitution rewritten to give him virtually all power and transforming the parliament into high-priced scenery that could be bypassed as needed.[b]
M'ba's chief political opponent had been Jean-Hilaire Aubame, a former protégé and his half-brother's foster son. M'ba was backed by the French forestry interests, while Aubame was supported by the Roman Catholic missions and the French administration. Aubame, a deputy of the opposition party l’Union démocratique et sociale gabonaise (UDSG) in the National Assembly, had few fundamental ideological differences with the M'ba-led Bloc Démocratique Gabonais (BDG), including advocating less economic dependence on France and faster "Africanization" of French political jobs. However, the new constitution and the National Union (a political union they founded) suspended the quarrels between M'ba and Aubame from 1961 to 1963. Despite this, political unrest grew within the population, and many students held demonstrations on the frequent dissolutions of the National Assembly and the general political attitude in the country. The president did not hesitate to enforce the law himself; with a chicotte, he whipped citizens who did not show respect for him, including passersby who "forgot" to salute him.
Aubame served as foreign minister under the coalition government, though in early 1963 he was dropped from the Cabinet for refusing to create a single-party Gabon. To oust Aubame from his legislative seat, M'ba appointed him President of the Supreme Court on 25 February, practically a powerless post. M'ba supporters tried to pass a bill that declared that a member of parliament could only hold a single role in government. The president claimed that Aubame had resigned from the National Assembly, citing incompatibility with the functions of the assembly. Aubame, however, unexpectedly resigned from the Supreme Court on 10 January 1964, complicating matters for M'ba. In a fit of rage, M'ba dissolved the National Assembly on 21 January 1964. The New York Times speculates that this was due to it not supporting M'ba in Aubame's removal.
The electoral conditions were announced as such: The election 67 districts were reduced to 47. M'ba disqualified Aubame by announcing that anyone who had held a post recently was banned. Any party would have to submit 47 candidates who had to pay US$160 or none at all. Thus, over US$7,500 would be deposited without considering campaign expenses. M'ba's idea was that no party other than his would have the money to enter candidates. In response to this, the opposition announced its refusal to participate in elections that they did not consider fair.