Campaigning for presidential elections in the Republic of Congo officially got underway on Friday, although the opposition have criticised the choice of date since it coincides with deadly explosions in Brazzaville four years ago. President Denis Sassou Nguesso is vying for a third term in office after a controversial modification to the country's constitution. The opposition is calling for the 20 March elections to be delayed, saying they will not be free and fair.
"For us, the campaign doesn't start today, it shows that the government doesn't have any respect for the victims," said Jean-Noël Mabiala, referring to several blasts at an arms depot in Brazzaville that killed nearly 300 people in 2012.
Jean-Marie Michel Mokoko, an opposition candidate, paid tribute to the victims on Friday instead of starting his presidential campaign, according to Mabiala, a close friend of Mokoko and head of his European support committee.
Other potential candidates have already boycotted the presidential race highlighting unsuitable conditions for a credible election.
"The electoral body isn't recognised, the electoral law is bad," said Mathias Dzon, a former finance minister and head of the opposition Alliance for the Republic and Democracy party. "It's rigged, that's why we're not taking part," Dzon told RFI.
Mokoko has been arrested three times, including on Friday morning, since the announcement of his candidacy in February, according to Mabiala. The former general was the country's military chief in the eighties and nineties and had been the president's advisor on peace and security until he handed in his resignation, saying back in February he would challenge his former boss in the elections.
The polls had been originally slated for July, however, Sassou Nguesso said they would be moved to March to speed up "Congo's march on the path of its development", as cited by the AFP news agency.
The main opposition to the 71-year-old's changes to the constitution came from the country's youth who took to the streets in October to demonstrate against a third term.
"The conditions for the elections are not good, there's a lot of intimidation of opponents to Sassou Nguesso," said Andre Ngombet, coordinator of the Sassoufit movement. "On every corner of the city the president has put out all of his guns to intimidate the people," he added.
"The conditions for the elections are not free and transparent," said Paris-based Congolese activist Ngombet, referring to an electoral commission that he says is biased in favour of the incumbent president.
Other Congolese activist groups, such as Ras-Le-Bol, are also calling for the elections to be delayed, citing a problematic electoral list and the lack of a consensual electoral process.
In a statement, Ras-Le-Bol said it strongly condemns the government's "irresponsible attitude" towards the elections, and is fighting "tooth and nail" against an inclusive election.
Sassou Nguesso first came to power in 1979, but lost his position in the country's first multi-party elections in 1992. He returned to power in 1997 following a short civil war and has ruled the Republic of Congo since, winning the last elections in 2009 which were boycotted by the opposition.