Congo-Brazzaville’s presidential referendum

Another African president tries to change the rules Denis Sassou-Nguesso wants a third term. He will get it


“CONGO is not a monarchy”, say the protesters; but it is looking a bit like one. The last few days have been gloomy for pro-democracy campaigners in Congo-Brazzaville, the small neighbour of the gigantic Democratic Republic of Congo. Its president, Denis Sassou-Nguesso, called a constitutional referendum for October 25th that would change the rules to allow him a third term; he is also currently barred on account of his age. In the run-up, opposition groups have mobilised in large numbers, staging demonstrations in Brazzaville, the capital, and Pointe Noire, the second biggest city. On social media, the phrase “Sassoufit”—a pun on the French for “that’s enough”—went viral, prompting the reply “Sassoui” from government supporters. On the streets young men burnt vehicles and built barricades in response to calls from opposition leaders for a campaign of civil disobedience across the country. The result was at least four deaths, as police opened fire on protesters, and some of the worst violence seen on Congolese streets since the end of the civil war in the early 2000s.

An earlier demonstration against Mr Sassou-Nguesso’s so-called “constitutional coup” on September 27th, attracted tens of thousands and was, say observers, the biggest anti-government protest since those that helped bring an end to Mr Sassou-Nguesso’s first period in office in 1992. Comparisons have been made with similar uprisings across Africa over the past year, such as the one that dislodged Burkina Faso’s former president, Blaise Compaoré, after 27 years in power last October. Mr Compaoré was attempting the same manoeuvre as his Congolese peer.

But a similarly successful uprising is much less likely in Congo-Brazzaville. On October 10th, supporters of the regime marched in favour of the constitutional changes, in larger numbers than seen at anti-government protests—although the opposition claimed that many were paid by the regime to attend. Mr Sassou-Nguesso, who has ruled Congo for more than 30 of the last 36 years, has civil society firmly under his thumb, and maintains a repressive, and effective, state apparatus. Government forces have pushed demonstrators back with tear gas and live ammunition. Communications—including texts, the internet and Radio France International—were cut, and public gatherings banned. Activists were detained and several were reported missing. In Burkina Faso the army was, largely, on the side of civilians: in Congo, the heads of all the major branches of the security and intelligence services are closely allied with the president, says Jennifer Dunham of Freedom House, an NGO. The result is a jittery public, wary of marching against a regime notorious for its violent past, and fearful of a slide back into civil war.

An opposition victory in the referendum is, therefore, “almost inconceivable”, says Paul Melly of Chatham House, a London-based think-tank. Not only is the government strong, but the opposition is itself divided, and led by figures distrusted by the public. Several, such as Mathias Dzon, a former finance minister, are tainted by association with the regime. The protesters also lack support from the international community: Mr Sassou-Nguesso is seen by many, including France, the former colonial power, as a reliable partner, and the country is regarded as an island of stability in an otherwise troubled region. In staging a referendum, Mr Sassou-Nguesso is simply going through the motions.