In the end, Sassou-Nguesso won reelection with approximately 60 percent of the vote. Here are six things you should know about the election:
1. First, how is it that Sassou-Nguesso could rule for so long?
The Congo Republic used to have constitutional term limits on the presidency. The Congolese constitution mandated a two-term maximum and limited the age of a presidential candidate to 70 years. A controversial referendum measure last year allowed Sassou-Nguesso to run in 2016 for a third consecutive term that would extend his 18-year rule.
In the end, 93 percent of voters supported changing the constitution to eliminate term limits in the 2015 referendum, but the opposition estimated that turnout was only 3 percent. Sassou-Nguesso faced eight other candidates in the 2016 election, including Guy Brice Parfait Kolelas, a central figure in October protests surrounding the referendum.
2. Did anyone stand a chance against Sassou-Nguesso?
Many believed Sassou-Nguesso’s greatest competition was Gen. Jean-Marie Mokoko, a former army chief and current special representative of the African Union Commission in the Central African Republic.
Mokoko got a lot of attention during his run for the presidency. Congolese police questioned him last month after a video surfaced in which he discussed overthrowing Sassou-Nguesso, but he asserted the film was from 2003. Later, in a news conference on March 7, Mokoko took an implicit jab at Sassou-Nguesso, stating that his first task as president would be gaining the confidence of the people of the Congo, as “the country has a big problem with questions of ethics and morality.”
According to Interior Minister Raymond Zephirin Mboulou’s announcement of election returns on Thursday, Mokoko came in third, with only 14 percent of the vote. Kolelas, a former civil service minister who was removed from Sassou-Nguesso’s government because of his opposition to the 2015 referendum measure, came in second, having received 15 percent of the vote.
3. Was the election peaceful?
The short answer is no. Congolese police launched tear gas at opposition members and demonstrators shortly after voting ended on Sunday. Similarly, an opposition spokesman claims that government forces hit Kolelas’s campaign offices with tear gas on Tuesday. Police also hurled tear gas at crowds of opposition supporters who congregated in anticipation of election returns. According to Reuters reporter Christian Elion, journalists from Le Monde and Agence France-Presse were assaulted by men who claimed they were police officers as the reporters left an opposition news conference.
But government use of force against the opposition is consistent with Congo’s recent experiences with elections. For example, at least 18 demonstrators died when thousands of people took to the streets to protest the October referendum. Police open fired on a crowd of demonstrators after they refused to disperse, killing four people.
That is not to say all Congolese elections have been violent. The last presidential election was relatively calm. The U.S. State Department declared the 2009 election to have been peaceful, even if “there were instances in which elements of the security forces acted independently of civilian control.”
4. Did the government have other control strategies besides force?
Yes. Sassou-Nguesso’s government deterred the opposition through a number of “security” measures during the election, including a communications blackout. According to Reuters reporter Aaron Ross, two mobile-phone companies operating in the country (MTN Congo and Airtel Congo), were told to disrupt cellular service on Sunday and Monday. This was not unlike the texting ban in the neighboring Democratic Republic of the Congo during the 2011 election, when the government sought to secure order after a heavily contested presidential election.
The communications ban weakened the opposition’s ability to contest results. Amid great levels of distrust, especially after the 2002 and 2009 elections, five parties established a commission with the aim of curbing electoral fraud by placing opposition members at each of the nation’s polling stations. Their actions were fruitless, however, once they lost ability to communicate with each other.
The government also banned motor vehicle usage throughout the central African nation and placed police checkpoints in the capital city of Brazzaville.
5. People still voted for Sassou-Nguesso, right?
Sassou-Nguesso won the election not just because he wielded the power to influence its outcome, but also because some Congolese citizens supported his reelection bid. Many associate Sassou-Nguesso with bringing peace and development to the country. With upheavals and civil wars still recent memories, many citizens preferred an outcome that would not generate a violent response from government.
However, when one looks beyond pro-government strongholds, it is evident that many are deeply upset with the outcome of the election. Opposition leaders rejected partial returns announced Tuesday. Charles Bowao, a leader within the coalition of opposition candidates, stated the results were “partial, extravagant and totally detached from the reality on the ground.”
After Mboulou’s announcement of the final election results, opposition leaders announced that they categorically rejected the allegedly corrupted outcome. Kolelas announced that he will pursue legal options to contest the outcome, while Mokoko encouraged the Congolese to “rise up and end the arbitrariness to reclaim your stolen and confiscated voices.”
6. What will be the major issue facing the president after this election?
First and foremost, Sassou-Nguesso needs to find a way to unite the nation. This is a difficult task because of the widespread distrust of his leadership, particularly among opposition groups who believe they have been disenfranchised in the wake of the election.
Furthermore, the president must address a range of economic issues plaguing the population. The Congo Republic is an oil-producing country that had robust economic growth until 2014, thanks largely to oil and timber. Gross economic disparities, however, have left a sizable gap between the small number of beneficiaries of Congo’s economic growth and the majority of Congolese. The volatility of oil prices in 2015 and the 12-year low in oil prices in early 2016 thrust the Congo Republic into a financial crisis. This crisis disproportionately affects young people ages 15 to 25, whose unemployment rate is around 60 percent. While he could continue to rely on the use of force should these unemployed youths take to the streets, Sassou-Nguesso could also make strides toward strengthening infrastructure and bringing economic security to his fellow 4.5 million Congolese.
Danielle Sanchez is an assistant professor of history at Muhlenberg College.