“Congo does not belong to Nguesso” was one of the many slogans held aloft and chanted by protesters in Brazzaville on 27th September 2015. The demonstration was organised by a coalition of opposition groups following President Sassou Nguesso’s announcement of a referendum on proposed amendments to the constitution on 22nd September. The proposed amendments are designed to enable Nguesso to run for a third term in 2016 by removing the term limit and age restrictions currently in the constitution. Although a date has not been set for the referendum, the opposition has vowed to oppose what they have dubbed a “constitutional coup d’état”.
Nguesso, who has ruled Congo-Brazzaville for 31 years across two separate spells in office (1979-1992 & 1997-Present), said that he had “decided to give the people a direct voice” through providing a referendum on the constitution. His supporters argue that this demonstrates that Nguesso is seeking a democratic mandate for the changes and that he is not making a unilateral autocratic decision. This followed the organisation of a “national dialogue” in July 2015, where the government brought together 400 representatives from political groups, trade unions, religious and traditional authorities and war veteran organisations to discuss constitutional change. This “national dialogue” revealed that a large majority of the representatives supported the removal of age and term limits, which seemingly provided Nguesso with much needed legitimacy.
However, as this “national dialogue” did not include Congo’s main opposition parties, it fell short of creating a national consensus and merely provided a veneer of legitimacy. A coalition of opposition parties and campaign groups – The Republic Front for the Respect of the Constitutional Order and Democratic Transition (FROCAD) – refused to take part in the process unless it was led by an independent figure and they were involved in the preparation. A FROCAD spokesperson said that “only if they satisfy these demands could the political and social groups working for respect of the constitution participate in this dialogue”. As the government dismissed these demands, FROCAD boycotted the “national dialogue” and the leader of one of its main constituent parties – the Pan-African Union for Social Democracy (UPADS) – stated that “we will open talks only if the president says clearly and loudly that he is not a candidate for re-election in 2016”. This uncompromising stance was ignored by Nguesso, who, following the “national dialogue”, removed two ministers from his cabinet who had opposed the removal of age and term limits.
Although Nguesso’s supporters have argued that the referendum demonstrates the President’s commitment to democracy, the opposition contend that a referendum, much like elections, would effectively be controlled by Nguesso’s government. This is unsurprising, considering allegations of electoral fraud which have surrounded previous elections in Congo-Brazzaville. As the President of the opposition Union for Democracy and Republic party – Guy Kinfoussia Romain – noted “parliament is not good because elections [in Congo-Brazzaville] are not good. The parliament has been chosen by the president”. Thus, in the opposition’s eyes, just as elections have been rigged by Nguesso, so will the referendum.
It appears that the demonstration on 27th September was only the start of the opposition’s resistance to constitutional change. A former ally of Nguesso and senior opposition figure – Andre Okombi Salissa – told the crowds at the demonstration that “the day President Sassou announces the date of the referendum, we will call upon you and we, ourselves, will be in front of you”. He added that “after Niger, Egypt, Tunisia, Burkina Faso, now it is Congo’s turn”. This sentiment was echoed by Mathias Dzon – a leading figure in FROCAD – who said that “the time of change is upon us”. Thus, it seems likely that the slogans of “Sassoufit” (a French play on words that sounds like “that is enough”) and “Pourqoui toujours toi?” (“Why always you”) will continue to be seen and heard across Brazzaville in the coming weeks and months.
Although the recent demonstration was not a major threat to the government – it was largely peaceful and only lasted roughly two hours – it demonstrated the potential threat which could emerge. Organisers claimed that over 300,000 people filled boulevard Alfred Raoul in Brazzaville and, although the government have not released their own figures, it was reportedly the largest demonstration in the country since Nguesso’s return to power. This is a worrying omen for Nguesso as a similar assessment was made in Burundi following the release of journalist and government critic Bob Rugurika from prison in February 2015. Although it is not clear if Congo-Brazzaville will follow Burundi’s path, more demonstrations and a greater level of unrest is to be expected.
In addition to Congo’s opposition, the international community have also been critical of the proposed constitutional changes. French President François Hollande made his opinion clear during a speech in Benin only days before he met Nguesso in Paris in early July 2015. He stated that “to respect a constitution is to respect citizens”. Following the referendum announcement Hollande’s party – Parti Socialiste – went a step further declaring that the proposed changes would be a violation of the African Union charter and the constitution of the Congo and called on the United Nations, African Union and European Union to intervene to prevent the referendum taking place. This indicates that the French government will take a pro-active stance in dissuading Nguesso from changing the constitution and standing for a third term. However, it is not clear how much pressure they will be willing to exert or whether it will have the desired effect.
Over the coming weeks and months social unrest is highly likely to increase in Congo-Brazzaville. If Nguesso decides to go ahead with the constitutional referendum, this will be the major focal point of opposition protest. As Salissa alluded to, Congo’s opposition will take inspiration from other movements elsewhere and are unlikely to back down. This could potentially create the conditions for violent social upheaval, not unlike what has been seen in Burundi. Nguesso is likely to respond to such protests in a heavy handed manner, exacerbating social tensions. Although it is not clear how much pressure the international community will put on Nguesso not to run for a third term, his decision to will undoubtedly further damage his already blemished international reputation and weaken Congo’s economy, which is struggling to recover from the fall in oil price. Thus, the lead up to Congo’s election next year will be characterised by increased social tension and unrest.