President Nguesso Seeks Extension to His 36-year Rule


President Denis Sassou Nguesso, 77, is seeking re-election to a new five-year term. On Sunday, voters in the Republic of the Congo will go to the polls to elect a president in a ballot snubbed by the nation’s dominant opposition party. President Denis Sassou Nguesso, who has ruled the oil-producing nation of five million citizens for the past 36 years, seeks re-election for a new five-year term. The 77-year-old incumbent is up against six opponents but is widely predicted to win. Nguesso was president from 1979 to 1992, when he came third in the Congo’s first multi-party election.

After a short-lived civil conflict in which his opposition fighters deposed then-President Pascal Lissouba, Nguesso seized power in 1997 and has ruled since then. He was first nominated in 2002 and then again in 2009 for his second and final seven-year term. However, in 2015, Nguesso campaigned for constitutional amendments that repealed the 70-year age limit that prevented him from running for office the next year. The amendment also abolished the two seven-year term limits and replaced them with three five-year terms. 

Following the 2016 elections, violence erupted, killing at least 17 people after the resistance accused Nguesso, who received 67 percent of the vote, of rigging elections. Jean-Marie Michel Mokoko and Andre Okombi Salissa, two opposition leaders, were eventually found guilty of “sabotaging the nation’s intelligence operations.”

“The lessons learned from the 2016 presidential election have led the authorities to protect themselves against any unpleasant surprise,” Alphonse Ndongo, a Brazzaville-based analyst, told Al Jazeera. “Nguesso will be re-elected, but the problems that people face daily will remain.”

President Nguesso Denis’ Challengers

The country’s major opposition party, the Pan-African Union for Social Democracy (UPADS), announced in late January that it would not put up a candidate in Sunday’s election, claiming that the circumstances were not favorable to polling and that a presidential race would only exacerbate the country’s conflicts. Alternatively, UPADS—the late Lissouba’s party, which won the 1992 elections—proposed a transitional phase and elections in 2023, without the long-serving Nguesso in the election. Over 2.5 million people have enrolled to vote in the election. Polling stations will open at 7 a.m. (06:00 GMT) and close at 5 p.m. (16:00 GMT). On Wednesday, representatives of the security personnel voted.

Guy Brice Parfait Kolelas, the chairperson of the Union of Humanists Democrats, is attempting to overthrow Nguesso. Kolelas, a 61-year-old economist by profession and former minister, came a close third in the 2016 election with 15% of the vote. During the Congolese civil war in 1997, his grandson, Bernard Kolelas, was momentarily Prime Minister. Mathias Dzon, a former finance minister under Nguesso, is also running for the Patriotic Union on a National Renewal ticket. The 73-year-old qualified to participate in the 2009 election but withdrew days before the election because of voter registration problems. Dzon refused to participate in the 2016 election, claiming that it would not be open and democratic.

Albert Oniangue, an evangelical preacher, is also running for the country’s highest office. The former military colonel is a rookie to the political arena, running for president for the first time, and has positioned himself as the transformation candidate. Three other candidates are on the ballot: Joseph Kignoumbi Kia Mbougou, a former UPADS member; Anguios Nganguia Engambe and Dave Mafoula, 38 years old. However, experts and human rights leaders believe that the six nominees have no chance of defeating Nguesso.

“The Independent National Elections Commission, which is anything but independent, organizes the election,” Fonteh Akum, executive director at the Institute for Security Studies, told Al Jazeera. “The ruling [Labour] party will continue to be in power and will govern by divide and rule tactic which it has perfected over 36 years,” he added. “This election is not seen as one that could usher in a change. Since 2016, there has been a consolidation of power by the ruling Labour Party. The political space, especially for human rights activists, has shrunk.”

Human rights activist Joe Ebina also stated that the vote’s aftermath is already predetermined.

“Congo is a dictatorship. It is impossible to have a free and fair election. Two former presidential candidates are in prison. Journalists and civil society leaders have also been jailed,” Ebina told Al Jazeera. “There is no credibility in this election. Everyone knows the president will win,” he added.

Africa’s Incurable Disease: Corruption

The elections come when the coronavirus disease outbreak and a slump in fuel prices have pounded the oil-dependent Congolese economy, which declined by 8% last year, as per the International Monetary Fund. Congo’s ever-rising debt burden is now putting a strain on the country’s economy. The IMF forecast the debt to be almost $9.5 billion in 2019. All the presidential contenders have pledged to boost the economy and pull more people out of the economic recession. According to the World Bank, 72 percent of the country subsists on less than $1.90 a day in 2018.

“Factories have shut down, and unemployment has shot up. Also, the scars of the civil war are still being felt in the country’s breadbasket region,” Akum said. “But Nguesso learned his lesson when the struggling economy, trade unions, and the dissenting army forced his hand in 1992. Many trade unions and civil groups are thought to have been compromised by now. Force and repression are also another way he will continue to keep power,” he added.

Another key concern is corruption—with Transparency International ranking, Congo is 165th out of 180 nations in its 2020 Corruption Perceptions Index. In 2019, the anti-corruption advocacy organization Global Witness implicated the president’s son, Denis Christel Sassou-Nguesso, in looting $50 million in 2013 and 2014. The organization also criticized the president’s daughter, Claudia Sassou-Nguesso, for using state money to purchase a luxurious apartment in New York’s Trump International Hotel and Tower. The Nguesso family denied the charges. All candidates, including Nguesso, have pledged to combat corruption. 

“It’s hard to think that he [Nguesso] will change things in five years after he has been managing the Congo for 36 years,” Ndongo, the analyst in Brazzaville, said.

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