Republic of the Congo

Not Free
PR Political Rights 2 40
CL Civil Liberties 18 60
Last Year's Score & Status
20 100 Not Free
Global freedom statuses are calculated on a weighted scale. See the methodology.

header1 Overview

President Denis Sassou Nguesso has maintained nearly uninterrupted power for over 40 years by severely repressing the opposition. Corruption and decades of political instability have contributed to poor economic performance and high levels of poverty. Abuses by security forces are frequently reported and rarely investigated. While a variety of media operate, independent coverage is limited by widespread self-censorship and the influence of owners. Human rights and governance-related nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) scrutinize state abuses, but also self-censor to avoid reprisals. Religious figures are also known to self-censor.

header2 Key Developments in 2020

  • The Sassou Nguesso government continued detaining members of opposition groups during the year. Four members of the Embody Hope group who were arrested in 2019 remained in detention through at least April.
  • In January, NGO Global Witness reported that the state-run National Petroleum Company of Congo (SNPC) held as much as $3.3 billion in previously undisclosed liabilities, while it was owed nearly $1.2 billion by unidentified debtors.
  • Authorities closed borders in response to the COVID-19 pandemic in March, instituting a nationwide curfew that was lifted outside of Brazzaville and Pointe-Noire in September. The government resisted open discussion of the pandemic, with one journalist being suspended from their post after questioning a minister over Congo’s response in April. The authorities reported 6,200 cases and 100 deaths to the World Health Organization by year’s end.

PR Political Rights

A Electoral Process

A1 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Was the current head of government or other chief national authority elected through free and fair elections? 0.000 4.004

The president is directly elected to five-year terms. The 2002 constitution restricted the president to two terms and set an age limit of 70. However, a 2015 constitutional referendum proposed by President Denis Sassou Nguesso removed those restrictions, allowing him to run again. The referendum passed, amidst widespread protests and claims of fraud.

Sassou Nguesso has held power since 1979, with the exception of a five-year period in the 1990s. In March 2016, he secured a third presidential term since returning to power in 1997, winning 60 percent of the vote in an election marked by fraud, intimidation, and an internet shutdown.

A2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Were the current national legislative representatives elected through free and fair elections? 0.000 4.004

Congo’s parliament consists of a 72-seat Senate and a 151-seat National Assembly. Councilors from every department elect senators to six-year terms. National Assembly members are directly elected to five-year terms.

The July 2017 legislative elections were boycotted by several opposition parties amid credible allegations that the vote would be rigged. Sassou Nguesso’s Congolese Labor Party (PCT) claimed 96 lower-house seats and its allies won 12, in a process tainted by widespread fraud and low voter turnout. Elections were indefinitely postponed in nine districts in the Pool Region, where the military had been engaged in a campaign against a rebel group accused of launching attacks on Brazzaville.

A3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Are the electoral laws and framework fair, and are they implemented impartially by the relevant election management bodies? 0.000 4.004

The 2015 constitutional referendum to increase presidential term limits consolidated the PCT’s dominance of the political system by allowing Sassou Nguesso to run for a third term. Elections are administered by the Independent National Electoral Commission, which was established in 2016 and is widely regarded as an instrument of presidential authority.

B Political Pluralism and Participation

B1 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do the people have the right to organize in different political parties or other competitive political groupings of their choice, and is the system free of undue obstacles to the rise and fall of these competing parties or groupings? 1.001 4.004

Political groupings exist, but the government represses those not aligned with the PCT, including by persecuting their leaders. In 2016, opposition leader Paulin Makaya of the United for Congo party was sentenced to two years’ imprisonment for inciting disorder over his participation in protests against the constitutional referendum. Makaya was released in 2018 but was blocked from boarding international flights on at least two subsequent occasions. Members of groups that oppose the PCT remained in detention for at least part of 2020. Four members of Embody Hope, who were arrested in late 2019 for endangering state security, remained in detention through at least April 2020.

Sassou Nguesso’s two most prominent opponents in the 2016 presidential election received prison terms after that contest. In 2018, retired general Jean-Marie Michel Mokoko was sentenced to 20 years’ imprisonment for threatening state security. Mokoko was allowed to travel to Turkey to seek medical care in July 2020, after his health deteriorated. In 2019, André Okombi Salissa, who had led the opposition Initiative for Democracy in Congo coalition, was sentenced to 20 years of forced labor for the same charge.

Political parties are sometimes denied registration without cause. During the 2017 legislative campaign, the Yuki party was denied official party status, forcing its candidates to run independently.

The government banned private campaign contributions in 2016, leaving opposition parties and candidates dependent on limited public financing.

B2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Is there a realistic opportunity for the opposition to increase its support or gain power through elections? 0.000 4.004

There is little opportunity for the opposition to gain power through elections, and opposition leaders frequently experience harassment, intimidation, and arrest. Two of Sassou Nguesso’s rivals in the 2016 presidential race—Mokoko and Okombi Salissa—were repeatedly harassed during the election campaign, and were subsequently imprisoned.

B3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Are the people’s political choices free from domination by forces that are external to the political sphere, or by political forces that employ extrapolitical means? 0.000 4.004

The Sassou Nguesso government routinely uses military and police forces to intimidate citizens. Employers engage in widespread discrimination in hiring and regarding other decisions, based on political beliefs.

B4 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do various segments of the population (including ethnic, racial, religious, gender, LGBT+, and other relevant groups) have full political rights and electoral opportunities? 1.001 4.004

Although there are no legal restrictions on political participation by religion, gender, sexual identity, or ethnic group, members of Sassou Nguesso’s northern Mbochi ethnic group occupy key government posts. Insofar as the government includes representatives from other regional and ethnic groups, their ability to shape policy is very limited. The government also routinely suppresses political parties that draw support from Congo’s southern regions, which have long opposed Sassou Nguesso.

Women are underrepresented in government, holding just 17 National Assembly seats and 13 Senate seats. Societal constraints limit women’s political participation in practice.

C Functioning of Government

C1 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do the freely elected head of government and national legislative representatives determine the policies of the government? 0.000 4.004

Government policy is set by President Sassou Nguesso, who was reelected in a deeply flawed process in 2016. There is little oversight from the parliament, which is dominated by the ruling PCT and protects the executive from accountability.

C2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Are safeguards against official corruption strong and effective? 0.000 4.004

Corruption is endemic, and domestic prosecutions for corruption are often politically motivated. The president’s family and advisers effectively control the SNPC without meaningful oversight, and offshore companies are allegedly used to embezzle SNPC funds.

Sassou Nguesso’s family has long been dogged by credible allegations of corruption by foreign governments, prominent NGOs, and journalists, prompting demands for accountability from civil society. In February 2020, French news outlet Challenges reported that Denis Christel Sassou Nguesso, the president’s son and a Congolese parliamentarian, was indicted by French authorities over money-laundering allegations in late 2019.

C3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Does the government operate with openness and transparency? 0.000 4.004

Government operations are opaque. Although the constitution guarantees access to information, there is no implementing legislation, nor is there a specific law mandating public access to official information. Public procurement procedures are nontransparent. Authorities generally do not publish draft legislation or regulations.

In January 2020, Global Witness reported that the SNPC held as much as $3.3 billion in undisclosed liabilities, some of which resulted from activities unrelated to oil production, while dividends owed to the government had gone missing. The NGO also reported that the SNPC was owed nearly $1.2 billion by unidentified debtors at the end of 2018.

CL Civil Liberties

D Freedom of Expression and Belief

D1 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Are there free and independent media? 1.001 4.004

While the constitution provides for freedom of speech and press, the government routinely pressures, threatens, and incarcerates journalists. While there are numerous media outlets, many are owned by government allies who influence their coverage. Widespread self-censorship among journalists discourages independent reporting in practice.

Rocil Otouna, a journalist for state broadcaster Télé Congo, was suspended from his post after questioning the justice minister on Congo’s COVID-19 response in late April 2020. In May, the Higher Council for Freedom of Communication, Congo’s media regulator, called for Otouna to be returned to his post.

D2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Are individuals free to practice and express their religious faith or nonbelief in public and private? 3.003 4.004

Although religious freedom is generally respected, pastors are reticent to make statements that could be construed as hostile to the Sassou Nguesso government. In 2015, the government banned the wearing of the niqab, the full face veil, in public, citing security and terrorism concerns.

D3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Is there academic freedom, and is the educational system free from extensive political indoctrination? 1.001 4.004

Academic freedom is tenuous. Most university professors avoid discussions of or research on politically sensitive topics. In 2018, the government announced that it would ban a book, published in Paris, about widespread human rights abuses perpetrated by the military in the Pool Region between 2016 and 2017.

D4 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Are individuals free to express their personal views on political or other sensitive topics without fear of surveillance or retribution? 2.002 4.004

The government reportedly surveils electronic communications of private individuals, and those who speak out against the government are occasionally arrested.

E Associational and Organizational Rights

E1 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Is there freedom of assembly? 1.001 4.004

The government restricts freedom of assembly. Groups must receive official authorization from local and federal authorities to hold public assemblies, and permission is routinely denied. Government forces sometimes employ violence against protesters or disperse assemblies. The government used COVID-19-related measures to ban gatherings of more than 50 people. That ban remained in place through year’s end.

E2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Is there freedom for nongovernmental organizations, particularly those that are engaged in human rights– and governance-related work? 1.001 4.004

Although the constitution guarantees freedom of association, NGOs must register with the Ministry of Interior. Those critical of the government often encounter a more burdensome registration process. Arbitrary arrests of civil society figures have continued in recent years, contributing to a reduction in activity. Groups still operating commonly curtail reporting on human rights abuses, or word criticism of authorities carefully, in order to avoid reprisals or harassment.

E3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Is there freedom for trade unions and similar professional or labor organizations? 2.002 4.004

Although union rights are nominally protected, laws protecting union members are not always enforced. The government has intervened in labor disputes by harassing and arresting laborers and pressuring union leaders, particularly against the country’s largest labor union, the Congolese Trade Union Confederation.

F Rule of Law

F1 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Is there an independent judiciary? 0.000 4.004

Congo’s judiciary is dominated by Sassou Nguesso’s allies, crippled by lack of resources, and vulnerable to corruption and political influence. In 2015, the Constitutional Court’s confirmation of the constitutional referendum results was viewed as a rubber-stamp approval of Sassou Nguesso’s efforts to remain in power.

F2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Does due process prevail in civil and criminal matters? 1.001 4.004

Defendants, including the government’s political opponents, are routinely denied due process. Arbitrary arrests and detentions are common, despite being prohibited by the constitution. Other fair-trial rights guaranteed by law, including the right to legal assistance for those who cannot afford it, are not always honored in practice.

F3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Is there protection from the illegitimate use of physical force and freedom from war and insurgencies? 0.000 4.004

Citizens in some neighborhoods are at risk of intimidation and violent crime by groups of young men known as bébés noirs. There have also been reports of arbitrary arrests and physical abuses by police attempting to curb the activities of such groups. Reports of human rights violations by security forces are generally not investigated by the government.

In May 2020, video emerged of security forces physically attacking individuals who did not wear face masks as they enforced COVID-19-related measures.

F4 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do laws, policies, and practices guarantee equal treatment of various segments of the population? 0.000 4.004

Employment discrimination against women persists. The government prevents refugees and other foreign workers from holding certain jobs, and refugees sometimes face harassment and arrest by authorities.

While no law specifically prohibits same-sex sexual relations between adults, LGBT+ people experience occasional police harassment.

Minority ethnic groups experience severe discrimination in employment, housing, and education. Some communities often live in substandard housing on the outskirts of villages, and occasionally are targeted in acts of violence committed by members of the majority Bantu population.

The government exhibits widespread discrimination against residents of Congo’s southern regions. They are routinely denied high-paying public-sector jobs, as well as admission to the public university. By contrast, residents of Congo’s northern regions are disproportionately appointed to key government positions and the civil service.

G Personal Autonomy and Individual Rights

G1 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do individuals enjoy freedom of movement, including the ability to change their place of residence, employment, or education? 2.002 4.004

Although private citizens generally enjoy freedom of movement, activists and opposition leaders can face restrictions and confiscation of their passports.

The 2016–17 conflict in Pool led to the displacement of many of its residents. An estimated 81,000 people left their homes.

The government imposed a COVID-19-related curfew in late March 2020 and closed the country’s borders except for cargo traffic. Authorities also restricted nonessential travel in and out of Brazzaville and Pointe-Noire in May. Movement restrictions were loosened outside of those areas that month, as interregional travel resumed. Curfews were lifted outside of Brazzaville and Pointe-Noire in late September. Only Brazzaville and Pointe-Noire were subject to overnight curfews by December.

G2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Are individuals able to exercise the right to own property and establish private businesses without undue interference from state or nonstate actors? 2.002 4.004

Legal protections for business and property rights can be undermined by bureaucracy, poor judicial safeguards, and corruption. The government directly or indirectly controls property in key industries such as oil, minerals, and aviation.

G3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do individuals enjoy personal social freedoms, including choice of marriage partner and size of family, protection from domestic violence, and control over appearance? 1.001 4.004

Violence against women, including domestic violence and rape, is widespread, but rarely reported. There are no specific laws forbidding domestic violence other than general assault statutes.

Men are legally considered the head of the household, and divorce settlements are thus skewed against women. Adultery is illegal for both men and women, but women convicted of the crime face a potential prison sentence, while the penalty for men is a fine.

G4 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do individuals enjoy equality of opportunity and freedom from economic exploitation? 1.001 4.004

Congo is a source and destination country for human trafficking, and allegations of complicity have been lodged against government officials. However, the US State Department reported in its 2020 Trafficking in Persons Report that authorities strengthened their efforts to address the problem by providing more assistance to victims, adopting broad antitrafficking laws, and prosecuting more alleged traffickers.

According to local NGOs, members of minority groups have been conscripted into forced farm labor by members of the Bantu ethnic majority. Child labor laws are reportedly not effectively enforced.

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  • Global Freedom Score

    17 100 not free