The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Congo’s newly reelected government is arresting the opposition. Here’s why.

President Denis Sassou Nguesso, right, receives a flag of the Republic of Congo during his inauguration ceremony on April 16 in Brazzaville. (Guy-Gervais Kitina/AFP/Getty Images)
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Did incumbent President Denis Sassou Nguesso win reelection in Congo?

As reported here in the Monkey Cage, activists claim Nguesso’s total votes were far short of the official government tally. Activists stayed at voting sites across the country to monitor the final counts for the nine candidates on the ballot, and then posted the results on social media despite the government’s Internet blackout. But Nguesso was sworn in as president on April 16. Here is what happened after the elections.

1. Constitutional court rules on the election.

Some opposition candidates turned to Congo’s courts, claiming that Nguesso did not win the majority needed to avoid a runoff. To get the constitutional court to confirm his victory, Nguesso reportedly convened the court at the presidential palace. Court members were then locked up in a room at the palace and intimidated by the Direction General de la Securite Presidentielle, DGSP, which is a special guard unit, headed by the nephew of Nguesso. One of the justices allegedly posted these events via SMS on Facebook. On April 4, the courts upheld the government’s election results, claiming Nguesso won with just over 60 percent of the vote. The state department responded with a statement that “widespread irregularities and arrest of opposition supporters following the elections marred an otherwise peaceful vote.” The European Union urged restraint and peaceful resolution of election disputes.

2. Opposition groups are fighting with government forces.

Opposition groups clashed with government troops in Brazzaville after the election, with 17 deaths reported. Further violence broke out after the April 4 court decision with heavy fighting in the south of Brazzaville, where support for the opposition candidates is strongest. Government spokesman Thierry Moungalla claimed security forces were fighting against Ninja terrorist groups that had infiltrated the southern parts of the city and the Pool regions. The Ninja were a rebel group headed by Pastor Frederic Bintsamou, a.k.a. Ntumi. But the group had long ago disbanded.

Government helicopters reportedly attacked villages in the southeastern Pool region, dropping over 30 bombs on residential areas on April 5. The alleged target, according to Amnesty International, was Ntumi’s residence. Also hit was a center in the village of Mayama with 700 people, including children, women and elderly. No exact numbers of casualties are known because government militias have cordoned off the area. In the village of Vindza, helicopters bombed a public primary school, with unknown numbers of casualties.

Some people with information also reveal that all public schools have been closed since April 4 in the southern parts of Brazzaville and in the Pool region. Many villages (Mayama, Goma Tsetse, Vindza and Soumouna) now stand empty as people have fled into the forest. Some villagers fleeing the conflict in Soumouna for Kinkala, the regional capital, report being attacked by helicopters that circled over them for a while before firing on them. Some 30 casualties were reported. Other reports describe bombed buildings and armed militias in the streets.

3. Government is arresting opposition leaders.

The government arrested several pro-democracy activists and opposition party leaders. Gen. Jean Marie Michel Mokoko, who came in third in the elections, according to government figures, and second, according to the opposition, is under unofficial house arrest. Two other opposition leaders, Okombi Salissa and Claudine Munari, are also under house arrest.

The government claims its troops in Brazzaville and Pool are fighting against terrorist groups but has not specified which groups. Some opponents see this claim as an attempt to gain support from the United States and other Western powers that are concerned about the expansion of terrorism in the region.

4. What next?

Nguesso has been ruling Congo since 1979, except for a five-year hiatus from 1992 to 1997. Constitutional changes carried out in late 2015 allowed him to run again by overthrowing earlier term and age limits. Nguesso claims to be fighting against terrorists. However, what is happening in Congo might destroy the fragile unity of the already divided nation. What is happening in Congo also has the making of a humanitarian crisis.

Elie Smith, Cameroonian journalist, reporter and translator, is a  visiting fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy. He served most recently as director of the MNTV television station in Congo.