Libreville Gabon Africa by Annelies HickendorffIt's easy to forget that Libreville is only a short distance from the beach © Annelies Hickendorff

Soak up the atmosphere along the palm-fringed seafront of Gabon’s capital.

Gabon’s capital lies in the far northwest of the country, spread along the Atlantic Ocean for some 15km. Libreville – or Elbévé, as the locals call their home town (just pronounce LBV in French) – is a calm, pleasant place with luxurious hotels and trendy restaurants along the palm-fringed seafront. Libreville is French for ‘free town’. The French lieutenant Bouët-Willaumez chose the name – inspired by the example of Freetown in Sierra Leone – when slaves freed from the captured Brazilian slave ship L’Elizia settled here in 1849. The shore on which they first set foot, just opposite the current Presidential Palace, is marked by an impressive monument by the Gabonese sculptor and painter Marcelin Minkoe Minzé. The statue, inaugurated in 2007, represents a half-male, half-female slave breaking free from chains and reminds all of the passing past.

The day on which the freed slaves arrived in Gabon is generally regarded as the founding date of the city, although people, mostly the Mpongwé, had been living in this area long before. In fact, in preceding years the French had been making great efforts to increase their power on this part of the coast. In 1839 the local Mpongwé chief Rapontchombo put his mark to a treaty placing his territory under the French flag, the first of many such treaties signed with local chiefs.

Today Libreville has an official population of over 700,000, which accounts for 40% of the country’s inhabitants. Former president Omar Bongo had big ideas for his capital back in the days when the coffers were overflowing with petrol money. For most of the 1970s the city resembled a massive building site. A new presidential palace was built, the first skyscrapers, wide roads, new ministries, luxury hotels, plus the futuristic buildings of Boulevard Triomphal Omar Bongo, the boulevard he named after himself. Since he came to power in 2009, his son Ali Bongo has also been heavily investing in public works but thus far he seems to be a little less megalomaniacal than his father.

To meet the city’s increasing demand, hundreds of social housing units have been constructed and almost 30,000 more are in the pipeline. In addition, more kilometres of road have been surfaced during the last four years than under Omar Bongo’s entire 41-year reign. The Africa Cup of Nations (Coupe d’Afrique des Nations, CAN) that Gabon co-hosted in 2012 accelerated large-scale construction activities such as the Chinese-funded 40,000-seat Stadium of Friendship (friendship between China and Gabon, that is). During the months leading up to this high-profile football event, workers were brought in to work both day and night shifts in a frantic attempt to complete the works on time. It is thanks to this 28th CAN that (most of) the city’s roads are in good shape today.

Libreville’s current flagship is the transformation of old Port Môle and the coastal area around Boulevard Triomphal into a prestigious new centre adding to the city’s international allure. The project involves 34ha of land reclamation (corresponding to a volume of 2.1 million cubic metres) and the new site will, it is said, host a shopping centre with restaurants, a yacht basin, a waterfront hotel, offices and cultural centres, a residential marina and a monument. Underground parking facilities will guarantee a car-free and pedestrian-friendly area, a novelty in Libreville.

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