The Dirty Politics of Africa: Congo (Brazzaville)
By Theodore T. Hodge
January 30, 2003
Colonel Denis Sassou-Nguesso
Denis Sassou-Nguesso, who first came to power when the ruling Congolese Labor Party (PCT) designated him, has long played a central role in the political machinations of Congo. He governed this one-party state in an autocratic manner until the early 1990s. A referendum held in the spring of 1992 approved a new constitution which laid the groundwork for the establishment of electoral politics in the Congo. In August of that same year, Sassou- Nguesso was defeated in first round presidential balloting by Pascal Lissouba (UPADS) and Bernard Kolelas (MCDDI). In second round balloting Lissouba was declared the winner over Kolelas. Despite the successful conduct of presidential elections in the Congo, democracy had an uncertain footing in this country.
The electoral process that started in Congo in 1992 was never completed. Because of an electoral dispute in one region, the National Assembly (dissolved in early legislative elections in 1993) was able to sit for a whole term without all its members being elected.
For example, mayors were supposed to be chosen by elected councilors, but the Lissouba government decided to appoint them as "acting" mayors. The constitutional requirements were only completed in July, 1997, at the end of the President Lissouba's five-year term.
A war had broken out at the end of 1993 following results of the 1992 legislative elections which were contested. Peace gradually returned after a period of uncertainty lasting for the whole of 1994 and most of 1995.
In the meantime, it was no secret that the militias of the three leaders were still arming themselves and training. Violence broke out between Sassou- Nguesso's private militia (the "Cobras) and President Lissouba's private militias (the "Zoulous" and "Aubevillois") after President Lissouba attempted to arrest Sassou-Nguesso. Former Prime Minister Bernard Kolelas ordered his private militia ("Ninja") into battle to aid the president. The armed forces split along ethnic lines.
A full-fledged war broke out on June 15, 1997. After over four months of fighting, resulting in between four to ten thousand deaths and the devastation of the capital, which was emptied of its inhabitants, the victorious Mr. Sassou-Nguesso announced on October 16 that the war was over.
Mr. Sassou-Nguesso had foreign help, mainly from Angolan President Eduardo Dos Santos who sent in troops to help restore him to power. He was also helped by President Omar Bongo of Gabon, his son-in-law, and the French President, Jacques Chirac, an old friend.
I must pause to let my readers know that Congo (Brazzaville) is a country of nearly three million people, profoundly poor with severe economic and health-care problems. According to statistics, only about 30 percent of the country has access to proper health care and there are about 120,000 HIV victims. In addition, inflation is high and individual earnings for employees are below those in many neighboring countries. Yet in the name of self-preservation, its leaders surround themselves with private armies!
After toppling the government of Pascal Lissouba, Mr. Sassou-Nguesso went to great length to orchestrate some elaborate electoral manipulations. He forced both of his rivals (Lissouba and Kolelas) into exile. In their absence, he spearheaded an amendment of the constitution to require a "continuous residency of two years in the country for presidential candidates before the elections."
When elections were hitherto held (in August 2002), Mr. Sassou-Nguesso had effectively neutralized his chief rivals; they were constitutionally banned from the elections. Another contender, former Prime Minister Andre Milongo pulled out of the race two days before the elections citing "irregularities" in the electoral process.
Mr. Sassou-Nguesso was ready to announce to the world that "free and fair" elections had been held and that he had won by a "landslide". He claimed to have received about 90 percent of the votes cast. Surprisingly, some members of the international community (mainly France), seemed to have endorsed the gimmickry of "free and fair" elections.
What is puzzling to anyone who takes the time to ponder this claim of a landslide victory is the fact that the country is divided along ethnic lines, with each politician commanding allegiance from his ethnic group: Mbochi for Sassou, Nibolek for Lissouba and Lari for Kolelas. According to census statistics, the largest ethnic group is the Kongo, who constitute the main ethnic group in the southern part of the country and about half the country's population. Within the Kongo group are various subgroups, including the Lari, Vili and Nibolek. Other major ethnic groups include the Teke of the central region, with about 13 percent of the population, and the Mbochi of the northern region, with about 12 percent of the population.
In such an ethnic-conscious country, it is inconceivable that Mr. Sassou could have garnered such a huge electoral majority when his ethnic group comprises only about 12 percent of the general population. Are we to believe that the southerners turned up en masse to cast votes for him?
Although Denis Sassou-Nguesso has seized power twice and obviously rigged an election to hold on to power, he speaks as if he believes in democracy, although it's only a sham. Speaking at a conference of the international Union of Francophone Journalists and the press in Brazzaville, this is what he said: "...I also believe in a free and independent press and that pluralist, democratic communications constitute the strengths of social development and the building blocks of individual character.
"This new legislation [the Bill on freedom of the press] illustrates the strength of my country's commitment to freedom of the press and freedom of communication."
Soon after speaking those empty words, Mr. Richard Ntsana, editor of Le Flambeau, was detained and his newspaper suspended as a "protective measure". The government justified the decision on the basis of the "need to guarantee public order, social peace and the respect of institutions."
But commentators within the country believe the decision to suspend the newspaper was based on an edition of Le Flambeau that published a message by former President Lissouba in which the deposed president called on the population to "mobilize to defeat the dictator", a clear reference to his successor, Denis Sassou-Nguesso. In the same edition, the newspaper published an article describing the new party office of exiled former Prime Minister Bernard Kolelas.
The tug of war among these giants who see themselves as the liberators of the Congolese people while they enrich themselves tirelessly continues. Who knows what chapter of the story awaits us tomorrow? One thing is for certain: "You can fool some of the people all the time and all the people some of the time but you can't fool all the people all the time." One day, the Congolese people will have the last laugh when they dispatch each tyrant from State House to the doghouse and finally get and maintain a democratic system of government. They deserve nothing less.