Republic of Congo: counting the social cost of recent elections and political violence

Published: 18 May 2016
By: David Kigozi

It may not be easy to determine the social cost of the recent presidential elections and ensuing violence in the Republic of Congo (Congo Brazzaville) but it is evident that it was quite high. On 16 April, following his victory in controversial presidential elections held in March, Mr. Denis Sassou-Nguesso, who has held power for over 30 years was, once again, sworn in as president of the country. However, hundreds of the country’s citizens are still reeling from post-election violence that erupted because of controversy around the electoral process, not to mention the human rights violations that took place both in the run up to, and aftermath of, the elections.

Election process contested

The presidential elections, which were due to be held in July 2016, were brought forward by the government and held on 20 March, a move that was seen by some as an attempt to prevent the opposition time to prepare. The incumbent, Denis Sassou-Nguesso of the Congolese Labour Party won with 60% of the vote.

However, the opposition political platform – Front républicain pour le respect de l’ordre constitutionnel et l’alternance démocratique et de l’Initiative pour la démocratie au Congo (Frocad/IDC) “rejected the outcome [of the elections], alleging fraud and calling for civil disobedience.”Despite calling on his supporters to accept the final election results, for the sake of peace, runner-up, Guy-Brice Parfait Kolélas of the Congolese Movement for Democracy and Integral Development, stated that he remained convinced that the elections were grossly flawed and the results dubious. In a statement, the European Union said that the post-electoral process, tainted by violations of human rights, arrests and intimidation of the opposition and the media, put “into question the credibility of the results.” However, they called on all parties to show restraint and desist from all acts of violence and manipulation. The US State Department also said in a statement that that it was profoundly disappointed by the flawed electoral process and that “[w]idespread irregularities and the arrests of opposition supporters following the elections marred an otherwise peaceful vote.” In its preliminary statement, the African Union’s observer mission to the elections stated that the government’s change of election dates compromised the proper organisation of the election and did not give opposition parties the time necessary to prepare for the polls.

Deteriorating political and security climate

The political climate in Congo Brazzaville began deteriorating towards the end of 2015 after a referendum that created a new constitution scrapping the presidential age limit and changing presidential term limits from two terms of seven years to three terms of five years, opened the way for Mr. Sassou-Nguesso to run for a third term, making it clear that he was determined to retain his position at all costs. According to the government, the new constitution was adopted by a 94% vote and with a 71% voter turnout, however, the opposition claimed that the true voter turnout was less than 10%.

In the build up to the referendum, Amnesty International reported that the violence started on the 17 October, in Pointe-Noire, when “a plainclothes police officer fired live ammunition into a crowd demonstrating against the referendum, wounding 13 people.” The violence continued on the 20 October when “security forces fired tear gas and live ammunition at protesters in Brazzaville demonstrating against the proposed constitutional changes. Six people were reported to have been killed.” Amnesty went onto report that “[o]n the same day, opposition groups reported that at least 12 protesters and bystanders had been killed by military police and several others wounded in protests organized in Pointe-Noire.”

Consequently, the European Union did not send an election observer mission to the March elections stating that the revised constitution could create “judicial insecurity and therefore [did] not appear to [guarantee] a democratic, inclusive and transparent presidential election.”

It is against this background that presidential elections were held.

Post-election violence

On 4 April, just before the Constitutional Court announced the final election results, heavy gunfire by unidentified assailants rocked the southern districts of Makélékélé and Mayana, with the attackers hitting at least one police station and setting a government office on fire. The government blamed the attack on Pastor Frédéric Ntumi Bintsamou, the leader of the Conseil national des républicains (CNR) and his Ninja militia group which was a major anti-government force in the 1997-99 civil war, however Ntumi denied the allegations.

Responding to the Brazzaville attacks, government forces bombed the villages of Soumouna and Mayuma in the region of Pool, in the south-east of the country, where it is believed that Ntumi has schools, dispensaries and churches, some of which were hit in the bomb raids. On 8 April, government helicopters also pounded the Goma Tsé Tsé area “where Ntumi has buildings or activities.” The bombing began on the day the Constitutional Court published the final results of the elections and continued until Sassou-Nguesso’s investiture on 16 April. Access to the region was restricted but the country’s political opposition claimed that at least 600 civilians may have been killed and more than 2,000 displaced due to the air strikes.

According to a statement on 13 April, the United Nations Secretary General was “deeply concerned” about reports of the government’s repression and called on all parties to show restraint and to engage in constructive and inclusive dialogue. However, the government continues to insist that Ntumi orchestrated a significant level of violence that took place post-election and issued an arrest warrant against him for “terrorist attacks” and for undermining state security, among other things. This was followed by a series of arrests of individuals suspected of being linked to the Ninjas or engaged in “terrorism” including dozens of young people from the Kinkala and Kindamba areas of Brazzaville.

In an April 26 position paper, the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and the Observatoire Congolais des Droits de l’Homme (OCDH), among others, stated, “The manipulation of the fight against terrorism for the purpose of political repression against entire groups of the population could degenerate into a real crisis or even plunge the country into a civil war.”

Violation of fundamental freedoms

This recent spate of violence follows on from last year, when the government’s record in terms of respect for human rights deteriorated significantly. Since then there have been targeted arrests of (and at times shooting of) peaceful protesters, mass arrests; torture; disappearances; detentions; shooting and intimidation of the government’s political opponents.

During the election period, the government cut off all communications, including telephone, text messaging and internet, initially beginning with a 48-hour ban before this was extended for at least five days. The media reported that the government instructed the country’s two main telecommunications providers to block all telephone, internet and SMS services for “reasons of security and national safety.” Similar measures had been taken in October 2015 at the time of the referendum when the government restricted media freedom by disrupting mobile internet, text messaging services and some radio broadcast signals in Brazzaville mainly in anticipation of opposition protests.

National dialogue and the respect for regional and international instruments

It is in the interests of all Congolese to pursue the path of dialogue to restore genuine peace, unity and stability to a violence-ridden and divided nation. Violence from any side of the political spectrum is an unsustainable option. Irrespective of where political power lies, every citizen of Congo Brazzaville deserves peace, tranquillity and human dignity. The government must respect regional and international instruments against the violation of human rights, including freedom of expression, freedom from torture and others. It follows then that peaceful and unarmed protesters should not be shot, killed, tortured or illegally arrested and detained and those who are believed to have committed crimes should be subjected to the due process of justice.

There are a number of ways the Congo Brazzaville government could demonstrate that it is no longer business as usual and show its commitment to the relevant human rights regional instruments.

In the first instance it should ratify and implement the African Union’s Charter on Democracy, Elections and Good Governance which was adopted almost ten years ago, on 30 January 2007. Contained in Chapter 2, Article 2 (13) is the promotion of best practices in the management of elections for purposes of political stability and good governance. Chapter 3, Article 3 (1) provides for respect for human rights and democratic principles while the whole of Chapter 4 (Articles 4-10) is dedicated to democracy, rule of law and human rights. The whole of Chapter 5 (Articles 11-13) is dedicated to the culture of democracy and peace, where Article 13 actually highlights the importance of “political and social dialogue, as well as public trust and transparency between political leaders and the people, in order to consolidate democracy and peace.”

In addition, the government of the Republic of Congo is signatory to the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region’s founding instrument, the Pact on Security, Stability and Development in the Great Lakes Region. Among other things, the Pact promotes good governance, rule of law and respect for human rights. Therefore, being a signatory to this Pact, the government should make serious efforts to uphold the values of the Pact, including respect for human rights.

It is important that the government stops all operations of the security forces in the Pool region, Brazzaville, and other areas of the country; facilitates the return of displaced persons and the lifts of the blockade of the Pool region, in addition to allowing an independent investigation into allegations of serious human rights violations there and in other areas of the country.

All these measures, accompanied by the goodwill of all political actors, could ensure peace, stability and national reconciliation; open the way for zero tolerance to pre- and post-election violence in the future; and reduce, mitigate or eradicate the accompanying social cost. Critical to all this is an inclusive political process for reaching consensus among all political actors on the future of the Republic of Congo, including amendments to the Constitution and/or electoral laws.

Programmes: Resolving Displacement, Justice and Accountability
Regions: Great Lakes Region
Type: IRRI Blog