TThe result of last month’s presidential elections in Congo-Brazzaville brought no surprises. After 36 years in power, Denis Sassou Nguesso, 77, won 88% of the votes with a turnout of more than 67%. Accusations of voting irregularities, including the filling of the ballot boxes, were widespread. His closest rival, who had called for a “vote for change,” died of Covid on the day of the vote.
Television showed a triumphant Sassou at home with his smiling henchmen, while Interior Minister Raymond Zéphirin Mboulou, instead of the head of the electoral commission, announced victory. The question now is whether the African Union, the US, the EU, the UK and the former colonial power France will simply turn a blind eye to another disputed election result as Congolese die of extreme poverty.
Sassou delivered the shortest of victory speeches: “With this vote, the majority of the people responded and said that we had the ability to recover, recover our economy and move towards development.”
I wonder how this country can rally and rebound when Sassou rules it as an emperor.
First elected in 1979, Sassou has been in power for 36 of the 61 years that this oil-rich Central African country has been independent. This victory extends his government until 2026. Sassou has met six French presidents, from Valéry Giscard d’Estaing to Emmanuel Macron. By the end of 2026, he will have been in power longer than Joseph Stalin and Central African Republic dictator Jean-Bédel Bokassa combined.
From his days in the Soviet Union, Congo-Brazzaville, a country of 5.5 million souls with a average age of 17It has never been a democracy, nor a republic in liberal terms. Sassou rules it with an iron fist. His 2016 electoral “victory” sparked violence across the country.
During the 2021 campaign, Sassou ordered the shutdown of internet services for nearly a week, including on Election Day.
Democracy watchdog Freedom House, which rates countries on their political and civic freedoms, lists Sassou’s Congo as “not free”. The UN Human Development Index ranks the country in 149 of 189, two points above war-torn Syria. Yet, The Congo is the sixth largest oil producer in Africa, earning huge income. Yet amid the Sassou kleptocracy, the country remains paradoxically poor, with almost half of the population lives below the poverty line.
The economy is also stagnant. Officials go months without salaries or pensions. Hospitals go months without basic drugs. Transparency International Corruption Perception Index ranks Congo-Brazzaville among the 20 most corrupt countries in the world.
Sassou’s mismanagement is a family affair. His daughter Julienne Sassou Nguesso and her husband, Guy Johnson, have been accused of corruption and money laundering in France. Global witness alleged in April 2019 that his other daughter Claudia Sassou Nguesso, who is the president’s MP and communications chief, received nearly $ 20 million (£ 15 million) of apparently stolen state funds and used it to buy a luxury flat in Trump Tower, New York, allegations which she denied.
His son, Denis Christel Sassou Nguesso, also an elected member of the Congolese parliament, is being groomed to succeed his father. He also supposedly took more than $ 50 million of Congolese treasury funds for personal gain, according to research by Global Witness.
Unsurprisingly, many of Sassou’s most vocal opponents, including his former challenger Jean-Marie Michel Mokoko and his former minister André Okombi Salissa, have been jailed, exiled or are dead. This has not left a credible alternative for his son when Sassou leaves politics.
Shortly before the March 2021 elections, a human rights defender Alexandre Ibacka Dzabana he was arbitrarily arrested by Sassou intelligence officers. He remains in detention in Brazzaville, where he has been denied access to his lawyer and family. However, there is hardly any outrage outside the country.
In 2019, Sassou announced the discovery of new oil deposits that would increase the republic’s daily production from 350,000 barrels per day to 980,000, tripling Congo’s revenues from the oil and natural gas sector. Perhaps that is why power has not changed hands at the polls and serious reforms have not been enacted, while the international community sees nothing, hears nothing and does nothing.
Why, then, you ask, does Sassou bother at all with the charade of a multiple-candidate election? Why has he not yet declared the Congo a personal fiefdom and crowned himself emperor like Bokassa did in the Central African Republic, something his peers, including the President of Guinea, Alpha Condé and Alassane Ouattara of the Ivory Coast, publicly call it? ?
Because, as other kleptocrats have discovered, an election brings legitimacy, even if it is as blatantly transparent an exercise as the emperor in his new clothes. Sassou, the warlord who overthrew democratically elected Pascal Lissouba to reinstate himself as leader, sparking a civil war that left thousands dead and remains an open wound in the country, wants unlimited power, perhaps for his entire life. But Sassou also wants international approval. Surely an opportunity for the international community to seize?
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism