Freedom in the World
Congo, Republic of (Brazzaville)
With legislative elections scheduled for June 2012, the Republic of Congo’s ruling Congolese Labor Party convened in July 2011 for its Sixth Extraordinary Congress. Notable developments included the election of a new 51-member Political Bureau, as well as a 471-member Central Committee. Among those elected was Denis Christel Sassou-Nguesso, son of President Denis Sassou-Nguesso, a development which many observers regarded as further evidence of Sassou-Nguesso’s aspirations to have his son succeed him.
Since gaining independence from France in 1960, the Republic of Congo has been marked by conflict and military coups. The current president, Denis Sassou-Nguesso, first came to power in 1979 with military support. Domestic and international pressure finally forced him to hold multiparty presidential elections in 1992. He lost, placing third in the first round. In the runoff, Pascal Lissouba defeated the late veteran oppositionist Bernard Kolélas.
In 1993, disputed parliamentary elections triggered violent clashes between rival militia groups. The fighting ended in 1997, when Sassou-Nguesso ousted Lissouba with the help of Angolan troops and French political support. In 2002, voters adopted a new constitution by referendum, which extended the presidential term from five to seven years. Sassou-Nguesso won the presidential election easily that year after his main challenger, former National Assembly president André Milongo, alleged fraud and withdrew. In the 2002 legislative election, Sassou-Nguesso’s Congolese Labor Party (PCT) and its allies captured most of the seats. Although the polls failed to foster genuine reconciliation, most of the country’s rebel factions signed a peace agreement in 2003.
After the government ignored calls to create an independent electoral commission, opposition parties boycotted the 2007 legislative election, in which the PCT and its allies won 125 out of 137 seats in the National Assembly. However, the participation of former rebel leader Frédéric Bintsamou’s National Republican Council was an important step toward peace. Sassou-Nguesso also included members of Kolélas’s Congolese Movement for Democracy and Integral Development in the cabinet for the first time.
In 2008, the PCT and approximately 60 other parties formed a new political coalition, the Rally of the Presidential Majority (RMP), to broaden support for the government ahead of the 2009 presidential election. In August, councilors from seven departments elected members of the national Senate, and the RMP secured 33 out of 42 seats.
The opposition attempted to unify ahead of the July 2009 presidential poll, with 20 parties forming the Front of Congolese Opposition Parties. Six of the original 16 opposition candidates withdrew to protest electoral conditions. The government again refused to establish an independent electoral commission, and the existing commission disqualified four opposition candidates, including Ange Edouard Poungui, leader of the largest opposition party in the National Assembly, the Pan-African Union for Social Democracy. Sassou-Nguesso won another term with 79 percent of the vote; his closest challenger, independent candidate Joseph Kignoumbi Kia Mboungou, took 7 percent of the vote. The government reported voter turnout of 66 percent, while the opposition claimed 10 percent. Following the election, Sassou-Nguesso eliminated the position of prime minister, becoming both head of state and head of government.
Further efforts were made by Sassou-Nguesso in 2011 to strengthen his grip on power. During the PCT’s Sixth Extraordinary Congress in July, Sassou-Nguesso’s son Denis Christel Sassou-Nguesso became a member of both the party’s newly elected 471-member Central Committee and 51-member Political Bureau. Notorious for his lavish lifestyle, Denis Christel’s growing prominence within the PCT is seen as yet another example of his father grooming him for eventual succession to the Congolese presidency. On October 9, indirect elections for half of Congo’s Senate seats resulted in yet another overwhelming victory for Sassou-Nguesso’s political allies.
Congo is one of sub-Saharan Africa’s major oil producers, though corruption and decades of instability have contributed to poor humanitarian conditions. Congo was ranked 137 out of 187 countries on the 2011 UN Human Development Index.
The Republic of Congo is not an electoral democracy. Irregularities, opposition boycotts and disqualifications, and the absence of an independent electoral commission marred recent elections. The 2002 constitution limits the president to two seven-year terms. However, current president Denis Sassou-Nguesso, who ruled from 1979 to 1992, has held office continuously since seizing power in 1997. The Senate, the upper house of Parliament, consists of 72 members, with councilors from each department electing six senators for six-year terms. Half of them come up for election every three years, although 42 seats were at stake in 2008. Members of the 137-seat National Assembly, the lower house, are directly elected for five-year terms. Most of the over 100 registered political parties are personality driven and ethnically based. The ruling RMP coalition faces a weak and fragmented opposition.
Corruption in Congo’s extractive industries remains pervasive. A national Anti-Corruption Commission was created in September 2009. However, the government maintains inadequate internal controls, and Sassou-Nguesso and his family have been beset by allegations of graft. In November 2010, a French court ruled that a case centering on how Sassou-Nguesso obtained assets in France could proceed. Congo was ranked 154 out of 183 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2011 Corruption Perceptions Index.
The government’s respect for press freedom is limited. Speech that incites ethnic hatred, violence, or civil war is illegal. Reports of police harassment and violence against journalists circulated during the 2009 election period. Police attacked foreign journalists and confiscated their equipment during a post-election opposition protest. The government monopolizes the broadcast media, which reach a larger audience than print publications. However, approximately 10 private weekly newspapers in Brazzaville often publish articles and editorials critical of the government. There are no government restrictions on internet access.
Religious and academic freedoms are guaranteed and respected.
Freedoms of assembly and association are generally upheld, although security forces have shown little tolerance for political demonstrations. Police halted the political opposition’s post-election protest aggressively in 2009. Nongovernmental organizations operate more or less without interference so long as they do not challenge the ruling elite. Workers’ rights to join trade unions and to strike are protected, and collective bargaining is practiced freely. Most workers in the formal business sector, including the oil industry, belong to unions, which have also made efforts to organize informal sectors, such as agriculture and retail trade.
Congo’s weak judiciary is subject to corruption and political influence. Members of the security forces act with impunity, and there have been reports of suspects being tortured and dying during apprehension or in custody. Prison conditions are life threatening.
Ethnic discrimination persists. Members of Sassou-Nguesso’s northern Mbochi ethnic group dominate key government posts. Autochthonous Mbendjele Yaka suffer discrimination, with many held in lifetime servitude through customary ties to ethnic Bantu “patrons.” Members of virtually all ethnicities favor their own groups in hiring practices, and urban neighborhoods tend to be segregated. In February 2011, Sassou-Nguesso promulgated a law to protect and promote indigenous rights.
Harassment by military personnel and militia groups inhibits travel, though such practices have declined. The judicial system offers few protections for business and property rights.
Despite constitutional safeguards, legal and societal discrimination against women persists. Equal access to education and employment is limited, and civil codes regarding marriage formalize women’s inferior status. Violence against women is reportedly widespread. Abortion is prohibited in all cases except to save the life of the mother. Women are also underrepresented in government and decision-making positions, holding just 7 percent of seats in the National Assembly and 14 percent of Senate seats.