Gabon: Nunn’s Unexplained Outlier

By Rachel Newstadt

In Nathan Nunn’s article, he argues that slavery and the violence the system depended upon led to increased fractionalization, which led to weaker state-building institutions and eventually to decreased income (Ibid). For the most part, this seems to hold true. In the results of Nunn’s regression analysis, it is clear that most states fall along the line of best fit. However, there are a few notable exceptions, including Gabon. In terms of slave exports, Gabon falls in the center of the global distribution, exporting approximately the same amount of slaves per capita as the Ivory Coast or Cameroon; yet Gabon’s GDP is far better than either of these countries (Nunn 153). All three countries are, upon first glance, fairly similar. Nunn neglects to explain why his theory fails in this instance, mentioning Gabon only to claim that there were fewer exports per capita in Gabon because society there was violent and hostile to the Portuguese traders (Nunn 158).

Gabon does fit into Nunn’s other claim that states that were weaker prior to the arrival of slavers were systematically less likely to be a main source for slaves. However, this claim by Nunn is based on uncontested and relatively weak evidence that population density is a good measure of economic prosperity (Nunn 158). Gabon's exception is further compounded when examining the rest of Nunn’s paper. Nunn further claims that factors contributing to the impacts of slavery included endogenous factors to these states. Ethnic fractionalization was an important determining factor for future economic growth (Nunn 165). Gabon, however, has a relatively high level of ethnic fractionalization. The population includes “40 or so peoples” and the ethnic fractionalization, measured by ELF, is relatively high at 0.69.

While Nunn’s theory is overall strong, certain points are uncertain, and outliers such as the state of Gabon are left totally unexplained.