Congo-Brazzaville: Congo Brazzaville's 'Emperor' Consolidating Power in Presidential Polls

The Republic of the Congo's President Denis Sassou Nguesso at the first plenary session of the 2019 Russia-Africa Summit at the Sirius Park of Science and Art in Sochi, Russia, 24 October 2019.

Described by some of his African counterparts as "The Emperor", Denis Sassou-Nguesso, president of the Republic of Congo, will attempt to further extend his time in office on Sunday, as voters go for presidential elections that are widely expected to prolong his 36 years in power.

Sassou-Nguesso faces seven other candidates in 21 March elections, notably 73-year-old former finance minister Mathias Dzon, and Guy-Brice Parfait Kolélas, another former minister-turned opposition politician.

Congo Brazzaville's main opposition party, the Pan-African Union for Social Democracy, is boycotting the elections, saying in January that the country's electoral system lacks credibility.

"The key reason why there aren't really very many strong challengers, is that the two strongest challengers remain in prison," said Brett Carter, an expert on the Republic of Congo at the University of Southern California.

Former army chief Jean-Marie Michel Mokoko was arrested after challenging the incumbent in the last polls and charged with breaching state security.

André Okombi Salissa previously served in government, but then ran against Sassou-Nguesso, and was detained in 2017 in for possession of weapons.

The arrest and detention of Mokoko and Salissa was politically motivated, rather than for legitimate crimes, according to Fonteh Akum, executive director of the Institute for Security Studies, a South African think-tank.

"The only two who could potentially challenge Sassou-Nguesso are Guy-Brice Parfait Kolélas, who was a former minister of his, and his former minister of finance Mathias Dzon," said Akum, describing how neither really has a support base potent enough to challenge the veteran leader.

'King of Congo'

Sassou-Nguesso, who came to power in a coup in 1979, was affectionately referred to as "The Emperor" by Alassane Ouattara, Cote d'Ivoire's president, in December, as he was sworn-in for a third term in office.

Likewise, Guinea's President Alpha Condé, who also secured a third term in office at the end of last year, joked during his inauguration that everyone knew who the "The Emperor" was, welcoming the long-standing Congolese leader, using a title usually reserved for a monarch or imperial leader.

In this context, Congo Brazzaville's 2021 polls are more about consolidation of power for Sassou-Nguesso, rather than an opportunity for change, according to Akum, who has written several publications on Congo Brazzaville.

"I think we should expect quite a high degree of voter apathy," said the ISS expert, explaining how the 2016 polls were framed as the end of Sassou-Nguesso's tenure. But this time, many Congolese are resigned to the fact that the incumbent will secure another term in office.

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The country's 2015 referendum was a "watershed moment" in Congolese history, according to Carter, referring to the changes to the constitution enabling Sassou-Nguesso to stay in power until 2031.

"Citizens knew that they confronted enormous risks in protesting against it, but nonetheless thousands did," said Carter, who was written extensively on Sassou-Nguesso's efforts to maintain his grip on power.

"There isn't that same sense that people are willing to do anything to force Sassou-Nguesso from power, so in a way this is Sassou-Nguesso's easiest election since he reclaimed power in 1997," Carter added.

Plus ça change

The last elections in 2016 were marked by post-election violence and conflict in the country's southeastern Pool region, with clashes between security forces and the Ninjas rebel group.

Thousands of people were forced to flee the fighting, and at least 100 people were killed, although the exact death toll was unclear given restrictions on access.

There will not be the same risk of prolonged conflict this time, given a peace agreement with the Ninjas was signed in late 2017, according to political analysts, although some clashes cannot be ruled out.

"There has been a lot more stability in the region - we've seen some investment coming in, restoration of transport links," said Nathan Hayes at the Economist Intelligence Unit, a London-based research company.

"So there's not likely to be large-scale violence in the same way we saw five years ago, but I think we're likely to see small incidents of violence, probably around suppression of opposition voters," Hayes added.

Could France weigh in?

Congolese human rights and civil society groups this week called on France, a long-standing supporter of Sassou-Nguesso, to condemn the deteriorating political and civic space in the country, in an open letter published in Le Monde.

Paris provides significant aid to Brazzaville, and Total, the French oil multinational, has been active in the central African country since 1968.

"At this point I think most citizens expect very little from the French government, but given what they're facing at home, what other recourse do they have," said Carter, when asked about the likelihood of condemnation by France.

ISS analyst Akum highlights Sassou-Nguesso's efforts to build stronger relationships with China and Russia since his 2016 re-election, and less public support from Paris.

"There hasn't been that kind of overt political backing for Sassou-Nguesso from France that we have seen traditionally," he added, saying he expects France to sit back and neither publicly support the Congolese strongman, nor make critical statements.

"They're unlikely to seek to particularly influence anything going on ahead of the election," said Hayes. "But we could see maybe a drawdown of investment afterwards if there is a lot of violence and a lot of questions around fairness of the election," the EIU analyst added.

Sassou-Nguesso was on the campaign trail earlier this week in the central Cuvette region, telling voters about development projects his government was pursuing.

"We'll continue to endow the country and Cuvette with infrastructure if we win a new mandate," the incumbent said, according to the Central Africa News Agency.

The Republic of Congo is sub-Saharan Africa's third largest oil producer, however, many people still live below the poverty line.

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