Congo heading to polls as Nguesso seeks to extend 36-year reign

Longtime president expected to see off challenge from six other candidates and win Sunday’s vote.

President Denis Sassou Nguesso, 77, is seeking a new five-year mandate [Benoit Tessier/Reuters]

Voters in the Republic of Congo will head to the polls on Sunday to elect a president in a vote boycotted by the country’s leading opposition party.

President Denis Sassou Nguesso, who has ruled the oil-producing country of five million people for 36 years, is seeking a new five-year mandate. The 77-year-old incumbent faces six opposition challengers but is widely expected to win.

Nguesso first served as president from 1979 until 1992, when he finished third in the Congo’s first multiparty vote. But he retook power in 1997, following a brief civil war in which his rebel forces removed then-President Pascal Lissouba, and has ruled ever since.

He was elected in 2002 and then again in 2009, for what was to be his second and final seven-year term. But in 2015, Nguesso pushed through constitutional reforms that removed the 70-year age limit that would have barred him from contesting polls the following year. The referendum also removed the two seven-year term limit and introduced three five-year terms.

The 2016 polls were then followed by violence leading to the deaths of at least 17 people after the opposition accused Nguesso, who garnered 67 percent of the votes cast, of rigging the poll. Two opposition figures, Jean-Marie Michel Mokoko and Andre Okombi Salissa, were later found guilty of “undermining the internal security of the state”.

“The lessons learnt 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 on a daily basis will remain.”

The challengers

In late January, the Pan-African Union for Social Democracy (UPADS), the country’s main opposition party, said it had decided not to field a candidate in Sunday’s vote, arguing conditions were not conducive for polls and that an election would only lead to more divisions in the country.

Instead, UPADS – the party of the late Lissouba, the winner of the 1992 elections – proposed a transitional period and polls in 2023, with long-serving Nguesso not on the ballot.

More than 2.5 million people have registered to take part in the election. Polls will open at 7am (06:00 GMT) and close at 5pm (16:00 GMT). Members of the security forces cast their ballots on Wednesday.

Hoping to unseat Nguesso is Guy Brice Parfait Kolelas, leader of the Union of Humanists Democrats. A 61-year-old economist by training and former minister, Kolelas finished a distant second with 15 percent of the vote in the 2016 election. His father, Bernard Kolelas, was briefly Congo’s prime minister in 1997 during the civil war.

Mathias Dzon, a former finance minister under Nguesso, is also contesting the election on the Patriotic Union for National Renewal ticket. The 73-year-old registered to take part in the 2009 poll but pulled out days before the election day alleging issues with the voter register. Dzon boycotted the 2016 vote, claiming it would not be free and fair.

Albert Oniangue, an evangelical pastor, is also seeking the country’s top seat. The former army colonel is a newcomer to the political scene, contesting the presidency for the first time and has branded himself as the candidate for change.

Three other candidates are also on the ballot: Joseph Kignoumbi Kia Mbougou, a former UPADS member; Anguios Nganguia Engambe and Dave Mafoula, who, at 38, is the youngest challenger.

But analysts and civil society leaders say the six candidates have no chance of beating Nguesso.

“The election is organised by the Independent National Elections Commission, which is anything but independent,” 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.”

Joe Ebina, a human rights campaigner, also said the outcome of the vote is already pre-determined.

“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 whatsoever in this election. Everyone knows the president will win,” he added.

The issues

The election comes at a time when the coronavirus pandemic and a drop in energy prices have battered the oil-reliant Congolese economy, which contracted by 8 percent last year, according to the International Monetary Fund. Congo’s ever-increasing debt burden is also weighing heavily on the economy. In 2019, the IMF estimated the debt at nearly $9.5bn.

The presidential candidates have all promised to improve the economy and lift more people out of poverty. According to the World Bank, 72 percent of the population in 2018 was surviving on less than $1.90 a day.

“Factories have shut down and unemployment has shot up. Also, the scars of the civil war are still been felt in the country’s bread-basket region,” Akum said.

“But Nguesso has learnt his lesson when a struggling economy, trade unions and dissenting army forced his hand in 1992. Many trade unions and civil groups are thought to have been compromised now. Force and repression are also another way he will continue to retain power,” he added.

Corruption is another major problem, with Transparency International ranking Congo 165 out of 180 countries in its 2020 Corruptions Perceptions Index.

In 2019, Global Witness, an anti-corruption campaign group, accused the president’s son, Denis Christel Sassou-Nguesso, of embezzling $50m between 2013 and 2014.

The group also accused the president’s daughter, Claudia Sassou-Nguesso, of spending $7m of state funds to buy a luxury apartment in the Trump International Hotel and Tower in New York. The Nguesso family denies the allegations.

All the candidates, including Nguesso, have promised to tackle 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.

Follow Hamza Mohamed on Twitter: @Hamza_Africa

Source: Al Jazeera