On November 6, the Republic of Congo's President Denis Sassou-Nguesso claimed victory in a referendum staged to allow him to stand for election once again, anticipating moves by colleagues in Rwanda, Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), where long-serving presidents are all trying to change constitutions to extend their respective stays in power.
The call for the referendum was strongly contested by the political opposition, leading to several deaths at various protests in the streets of the capital, Brazzaville, during the week of the October 25 referendum.
Sassou-Nguesso was president of the People's Republic of Congo between 1979 and 1992 and has held the office in the renamed Republic of Congo from 1997.
Violent clashes at anti-referendum protests
The constitution of the Republic of Congo (also known as Congo-Brazzaville) limits the number of presidential terms to two, and sets the maximum age to stand for office at 70.
In early 2015, Sassou-Nguesso organised a series of consultations with some of the country's major political players to look into the possibility of modifying a constitution that has been in place since 2002.
This manoeuvre was the subject of severe criticism from a section of the opposition, who saw it as an attempt by the current president to stand for office a third time.
Sassou-Nguesso, nonetheless, went ahead with the referendum, asking the Congolese people if they would grant the amendments necessary for him to hold onto power.
Prior to the vote, the opposition called for a general boycott, and protests broke out against the president in several cities, notably Brazzaville and Pointe-Noire.
The authorities said four died and 10 were injured in violence during referendum week, as hashtags such as #Sassoufit (a play on words with the President's surname and the French for ‘that's enough’) and #Sassoudegage (Sassou out) trended on social media.
Despite a low turnout of 10% the referendum nevertheless returned a ‘yes’ victory, paving the way for Sassou-Nguesso's wished-for constitutional change.
What does the future hold for Congo-Brazzaville?
For the opposition the low turnout signalled the population's opposition to the constitutional reform.
Ismaël Bowend Nabole, a reporter at Brazzaville's Omega FM, noted that the Congolese opposition rejected the result:
Une des deux principales plateformes de l’opposition a qualifié le référendum de « coup d’État constitutionnel », car « le scrutin n’a été ni libre, ni juste, ni équitable, ni transparent » et s’est déroulé « dans un état de siège ».
One of the opposition's two major outlets has called the referendum a “constitutional coup” because the poll was neither free, fair, impartial nor transparent” and took place “under siege conditions”.
The international community and electoral observers were also sceptical of the results.
Michel Taube, Director of the French-language current affairs website “l'Opinion Internationale” explained the position of the French government on the poll:
François Hollande, président de la République française, lâche Denis Sassou-Nguesso. Dans un communiqué tardif, après des propos tenus la veille qui avaient déçu toute l’Afrique, l’Elysée « condamne toute violence et soutient la liberté d’expression. [François Hollande] rappelle qu’il avait souhaité, lors de son discours prononcé à Dakar, le 29 novembre 2014, que les Constitutions soient respectées et que les consultations électorales se tiennent dans des conditions de transparence incontestables. » Or il est clair qu’avec son référendum constitutionnel prévu dimanche, Denis Sassou-Nguesso ne respecte pas la Constitution du Congo et n’offre aucune garantie de transparence incontestable.
François Hollande, the French President, has distanced himself from Sassou-Nguesso. After causing disappointment all over Africa with remarks made to the media the day before, the Elysée released a tardy statement saying that it “condemned any violence and supports freedom of expression. [François Hollande] points out his speech in Dakar on the 29th November 2014 where he expressed his wish for all constitutions to be respected and for consultation of the electorate to take place under conditions of undisputed transparency.” Now it is clear from Sunday's constitutional referendum that Denis Sassou-Nguesso, doesn't respect the constitution nor can he offer undisputed transparency.
Taube added that this position will force government and opposition to dig their heels in as a political crisis continues to simmer in the country:
Rappelons-le : en Tunisie comme au Burkina Faso, quelques heures avant, Ben Ali et Blaise Compaoré ne se doutaient pas qu’ils quitteraient dans la précipitation le pouvoir et que la démocratie l’emporterait enfin sur l’omnipotence d’un seul homme.
Let's not forget: some hours before being ousted, Ben Ali of Tunisia and Blaise Compaoré of Burkina Faso did not suspect that democracy would triumph over an all-powerful statesman.
Young people in the Republic of Congo remain hopeful for the future, if deeply distrustful of the various political interests at play in the country.
A trio of students, Josué Mfutila Kiangata, Aaron Malu Mukeba and Martin Nomapungu gave African news portal Waza Online their views on events in the country.
Certains candidats crient à la victoire avant les élections ; ils insinuent que les dirigeants des institutions chargées d’organiser les élections sont de telle obédience. Or ces institutions doivent être neutres, indépendantes. Cet organe est composé d’hommes politiques ; ils viennent avec leurs tendances politiques.
Some candidates proclaim victory before the elections; they imply that the heads of the institutions which run the elections are obedient. Yet these institutions should be neutral and independent. They are bodies made up of politicians; they come with their political allegiances.
je pense que les principes démocratiques sont universels et que nous sommes censés respecter ces principes. Je ne suis pas de ceux qui pensent que le système héréditaire africain d’hier était un bon système.
I think that democratic principles are universal and that we are supposed to abide by them. I am not with those people who think that the African hereditary system of the olden days was a good system.
La littérature nous enseigne qu’il faut organiser les élections dans un contexte apaisé. Or ici en Afrique, ce n’est pas le cas. Pourquoi ? Parce qu’il s’agit d’une culture empruntée, une culture des Occidentaux qu’on est venue imposer ici en Afrique.
Literature teaches us that we should organise elections against a peaceful backdrop. But here in Africa it doesn't work like that. Why? Because it is a borrowed culture, a culture for Westerners that people have come to impose on Africa.