Tag Archives: Congo Brazzaville

Congo-Brazzaville – Return to semi-presidentialism

In October 2015 the Republic of Congo – Congo-Brazzaville – held a referendum to ratify a new constitution. In a country with a 2016 Freedom House rating of Not Free, it is unsurprising that the new constitution was overwhelmingly ratified. The official figures show that turnout in the referendum was 72.4% and that 92.3% of those voting supported the new constitution.

The immediate motivation for the reform was to secure the legal position in power of the incumbent president, Denis Sassou Nguesso. Sassou came to power in 1997 following a civil war, which brought an end to Congo-Brazzaville’s brief five-year flirtation with a semi-presidential democracy. In January 2002 a new constitution was passed. This constitution reintroduced direct presidential elections and stipulated a two-term presidential limit. In March 2002 President Sassou was elected president with over 89% of the vote. In 2009 he was re-elected with nearly 79%. With a new presidential election due to be held in March 2016, President Sassou needed to find a way to remain in power in a manner that conformed with the law. The solution was to adopt a new constitution that, if passed, would mean that President Sassou had not served any terms under the new regime. With the counter reset to zero, he was free to stand for election in 2016. As Sophia Moestrup reported in a previous post, with the new constitution in place President Sassou was duly elected at the first round of that election, winning 60.4% of the vote.

While the main motivation for the new constitution was to maintain President Sassou in power, the reforms were quite wide ranging. For example, even though the president is still limited to serving two terms, the presidential term was itself reduced from seven to five years. The age limit for presidential candidates, which had been 70 under the old constitution, was also abolished. President Sassou was born in 1943. The text of the new constitution is available here.

One element of the new constitution was a return to semi-presidentialism. Art. 98 re-established the position of prime minister, which had been present from 1992-1997, but was abolished from the constitution when President Sassou assumed power. In addition, Art. 100 states that the prime minister is responsible to the National Assembly. There is no investiture vote. Indeed, Art. 103 makes this explicit. However, Art. 159 states that the prime minister can call for a motion of confidence. If it fails, then the government has to to resign. The National Assembly can also table a vote of no-confidence, which if passed means that the government has to resign. In short, the new constitution is clearly semi-presidential.

The text of the constitution also makes Congo-Brazzaville an example of a president-parliamentary form of semi-presidentialism, though there is some ambiguity. In the original French, Art. 83 reads “Le Président de la République nomme le Premier Ministre et met fin à ses functions.” This is usually translated into English as: “The President of the Republic shall appoint the Prime Minister and shall terminate his term of office”. This is clearly designed to allow the president to sack the PM if necessary. This point becomes clearer if we compare it with the original wording of the 1958 French constitution, which once again is the model for a francophone country. The French constitution states: “Le Président de la République nomme le Premier ministre. Il met fin à ses fonctions sur la présentation par celui-ci de la démission du Gouvernement.” This is translated as: “The President of the Republic shall appoint the Prime Minister. He shall terminate the appointment of the Prime Minister when the latter tenders the resignation of the Government.” In other words, in France the president merely transacts a decision that has been made elsewhere. In Congo-Brazzaville, the president can act independently.

At this point, such constitutional niceties are unlikely to worry President Sassou. The country may have adopted a semi-presidential constitution, but, as yet, no prime minister has even been appointed. More importantly, there has been violence after the election (or re-election, take your pick) of the president. This left a number of people dead. The opposition still contests the result of the election, though the Constitutional Council, unsurprisingly, has validated the election. Since the election, there have been various arrests of opposition figures. However, the opposition fears that violence is being exaggerated and even manipulated by the regime to justify an even harsher crackdown. President Sassou is still in control, but the situation remains volatile.

Congo Brazzaville – Opposition calls for protests following presidential poll “marred by fraud”

President Denis Sassou Nguesso won reelection in the March 20 presidential election, securing a first round knock-out win with 60.4 percent of the votes, according to official results. The runner-up, Guy-Brice Parfait Kolélas, won 15.1 percent and General Jean-Marie Michel Mokoko came in third with 13.9 percent of the votes; five other candidates split the remainder of the votes. This outcome was not a huge surprise, given the conditions under which the poll took place. To protest against what they perceive as a fraudulent process, opposition leaders have called for a strike.

The election originally scheduled for July 2016, was moved up at Sassou’s Nguesso’s initiative, following the adoption of a new constitution by referendum in October 2015. This constitution “sur mesure,” designed to fit Sassou Nguesso, removes the 70 year age limit (the incumbent turned 70 in November 2013). The new constitution has also changed the duration of presidential terms from 7 to 5 years, for a total of three terms. This is another convenient change for Sassou Nguesso who was coming to the end of his second 7-year term, hitting the two term-limit under the 2002 constitution. Interestingly, the new constitution transitioned Congo Brazzaville from a presidential to a semi-presidential system by providing for a prime minister who can be voted out of office by the National Assembly (Art. 160) – though it requires a two thirds majority of deputies to pass a no-confidence vote and the president can respond by dissolving the legislature and call for new elections (Art. 162).

Voting and counting for the presidential poll took place under a complete telecommunications blackout. Phone and internet providers were asked by the government to shut down service “for reasons of security and tranquility.” The European Union had declined to send a delegation to observe the election, stating that electoral reform adopted in January 2016 did not guarantee a democratic, inclusive and transparent presidential poll.  Also, moving up the election date made it impossible to substantially improve on the quality of the voter registry, threatening the credibility of the election results. The African Union did send an observer delegation headed by former Prime Minister of Djibouti Dileita Mohamed Dileita. The AU delegation found that moving up the date compromised the proper organization of the election, indicating in its preliminary statement that the early election date “didn’t give opposition parties the time necessary to prepare for the polls.” In a press statement, the United States State Department noted “numerous reports of irregularities that have raised concerns about the credibility of the process.” The Socialist Party in France (the party of President Francois Hollande) put it more bluntly: it finds the results published by “a notoriously biased election commission” not credible.

To protest against an election they say was marred by fraud, five of the eight candidates who ran against Sassou Nguesso have called for civil disobedience, asking citizens to stay home to observe a “ville morte” (ghost town). On March 29th, neighborhoods in the southern part of the capital Brazzaville that are known to be opposition strongholds, such as Bacongo and Marché Total, were largely deserted and stores shuttered. In contrast, in the northern suburbs and downtown, it was largely business as usual. In other words, Congo was “half dead” for the day, according to a local news agency.

The secretary general of the ruling Parti congolais du travail (PCT), Pierre Ngolo, has called on the opposition to channel its electoral complaints through the legal process. According to the electoral code this can be done within a 15 day period after the announcement of results – that is until April 7th. This is not necessarily a promising prospect in a country where the rule of law is weak, the judiciary is underfunded and subject to political influence, and where the courts overturned the election of four out of seven candidates belonging to the opposition party UPADS in the 2012 legislative polls.

Congo Brazzaville – To change or not to change the constitution? That’s the question

President Denis Sassou Nguesso cannot stand for reelection in 2016. At least according to the current constitution which caps presidential terms at two seven-year terms in office.  Also, the 2002 constitution has an upper age limit of 70 years for presidential candidates, a limit reached last year by Sassou Nguesso.  Amending the constitution would not seem to be an option, as article 185 mandates that presidential term limits cannot be changed.

So for more than one reason the constitution is clearly ‘outdated’ (depasseé), according to Juste-Desiré Mondelé, secretary general of the Party for Unity and the Republic (PUR), established by Guy Wilfrid Nguesso, Sassou Nguesso’s nephew. The solution proposed by supporters of the incumbent head of state is, therefore, to simply replace the current with a brand new constitution, which would usher in the 8th republic. The 8th republic would, according to the president’s supporters, benefit from a return to semi-presidentialism (as in 1992) from the current presidential constitution. According to Sassou Nguesso himself, the question is whether the constitution should be changed in order to ‘strengthen institutions and democracy,’ or not.

Sassou Nguesso has been around for a while. He first came to power in a 1979 coup. He gave up the presidency in 1992 after losing in the country’s first multiparty presidential poll. After five years, in 1997, he came back through a civil war that split the Congolese military in two: the majority of southern officers stood behind then President Pascal Lissouba, while most northern officers (and Angolan troops) backed Sassou Nguesso. In 2002, Sassou Nguesso was elected for the first of his two presidential terms under the current constitution, in a poll where his chief opponents were hindered from standing. In all, the sitting president has spent more than three decades in the presidential chair. Sassou Nguesso has, like Blaise Compaoré of Burkina Faso, played an important role in the resolution or regional conflicts, most recently in the Central African Republic.

Speaking of Burkina Faso, recent events there have given an energy boost to opponents of constitutional change in Congo Brazzaville which the government has quickly tried to dissipate. On November 4th, four days after Compaoré’s fall in a popular uprising against his attempt at changing constitutional term limits, police broke into the home of Clément Mierassa, chairman of the Social Democratic Party of Congo (PSDC). Mierassa was hosting a meeting of the Citizen Movement for the Protection of the Constitution that the authorities claimed had not been authorized; 32 people were arrested, of whom 20 have since been freed. This clampdown did not discourage the Congolese opposition, however, who see the November 4th incident as proof of Sassou Nguesso’s ‘panic’ in the wake of Compaoré’s fall, according to Mathias Dzon, chairman of the Alliance for the Republic and Democracy (ARD).

The Burkina events may, conversely, have cooled the ardors of the ruling Congolese Labor Party (PCT). The PCT had on October 29 announced the holding of an extraordinary leadership meeting on November 7 to discuss and announce its position on a constitutional change ahead of 2016. The expectation at the time was probably that by then Compaoré’s constitutional amendment would have been adopted by the Burkinabe National Assembly, setting a nice example for the Congolese. Instead, on November 9th, the PCT announced it would set up a committee to ‘engage in further reflection’ on the issue of the 2002 constitution. According to the secretary general of the PCT, Pierre Ngolo, the Burkinabe example should not stifle debate in Congo Brazzaville. Compaoré mistakenly tried to force through a constitutional change, circumventing the will of the people. The PCT would never do that, assures Ngolo – if the constitution were to be modified, it would be through a referendum.

In the already politically charged environment of Brazzaville, a former ally of Sassou Nguesso, Deputy Head of Security Services Col. Marcel Ntsourou, was sentenced to forced labor for life on September 11, 2014. Ntsourou was found guilty of the death of at least 22 people in an incident at his residence last year where his guards resisted his arrest by the police. Ntsourou and more than a 100 others, mostly soldiers, are suspected of plotting a rebellion. So there is more than one reason for Sassou Nguesso and the PCT to tread carefully and avoid a frontal attack on the constitution, however outdated they consider the fundamental text to be.