Freedom in the World
Congo, Republic of (Brazzaville)
The Republic of Congo constitution was amended in 2015 to remove age and term-limit restrictions on the presidency, thus allowing President Denis Sassou-Nguesso of the Congolese Labor Party (PCT) to run for a third term in 2016. Although the constitutional referendum was strongly criticized by local opposition groups, the electoral commission reported 92 percent of votes in favor. The result was facilitated by intimidation, violence, and an opposition boycott.
Despite being one of sub-Saharan Africa’s largest oil producers, corruption and decades of political instability have contributed to extreme poverty for most of the population. Congo was ranked 136 out of 188 countries on the 2015 UN Human Development Index.
Political Rights: 6 / 40 (−1) [Key]
A. Electoral Process: 1 / 12
The president is elected to seven-year terms. Congo modified its constitution in 2015 after an October referendum, removing term limits and age restrictions for the presidency in the lead-up to 2016 national elections. Under Congo’s 2002 constitution, the presidency had been limited to two seven-year terms, with an age limit of 70 years. The 2015 changes, which were approved by 92 percent of voters, allow him to run for a third term at the age of 72. Opposition members and international observers noted that the referendum was marred by violence and intimidation.
President Sassou-Nguesso has been in office since 1979 through a combination of elections and a military coup, with the exception of a five-year period in the 1990s. Sassou-Nguesso was elected to his second term in office in 2009 with 78 percent of the vote; his closest challenger took just 7 percent. The election was peaceful and deemed free by African Union observers, but the opposition and a domestic rights group reported fraud. The Pan-African Union for Social Democracy (UPADS) boycotted presidential elections in 2002 and 2009.
Congo’s bicameral parliament consists of a 72-seat Senate and a 139-seat National Assembly. Councilors from every department each elect six senators to six-year terms (with half of the seats up for election every three years); National Assembly members are directly elected to five-year terms. In 2012 elections, the PCT took 89 of the 139 available seats, and its allies won a further 28. The UPADS and the Congolese Movement for Democracy and Integral Development each won seven seats, and 10 parties won 5 seats or less each. Irregularities, opposition boycotts and disqualifications, accusations of fraud, low voter turnout, postelection violence, and the lack of an independent electoral commission tarnish elections in Congo. The amended constitution reestablishes the post of prime minister, which had been eliminated in 2009.
A 2014 electoral law establishing procedures for the next elections was criticized for cementing the regime’s control over the electoral commission. Although party lists for the National Assembly are required to have 15 percent women, this provision is routinely ignored.
B. Political Pluralism and Participation: 2 / 16 (−1)
More than 100 political parties are registered in Congo. Most parties are regional with narrow, ethnically based constituencies and little national power.
Intimidation and repression of political opposition is common. Six members of the UPADS were arrested just before the 2015 referendum. Guy Brice Parfait Kolélas, a minister in the former UPADS government, reported that the military blockaded his home following the vote. In November, the leader of the United for Congo party was arrested for his role in October demonstrations against the referendum. The 2015 referendum consolidated the PCT’s dominance of the political system.
Members of Sassou-Nguesso’s northern Mbochi ethnic group control key government posts. Other groups have some political representation, though the indigenous populations do not.
C. Functioning of Government: 3 / 12
Corruption is pervasive in Congo. The country has several active anticorruption bodies, but domestic prosecutions for corruption are limited and often politically motivated. Although the country became fully compliant with the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI) in 2013, significant funds from Congo’s oil sector are still reportedly lost to corruption. The state oil company is directly under the control of the president’s family and advisers, and investigations have revealed the company has been used to siphon money to the regime’s favored associates. After years of investigating Sassou-Nguesso and his family for the alleged embezzlement of public funds, in October 2015 French judges ordered the seizure of three properties in France belonging to Sassou-Nguesso’s nephew. Congo was ranked 146 out of 168 countries and territories surveyed in Transparency International’s 2015 Corruption Perceptions Index.
Access to information is guaranteed in the constitution but not by law, and is not upheld in practice. There was no public consultation in the drafting of the new constitution.
Civil Liberties: 22 / 16 (−1)
D. Freedom of Expression and Belief: 7 / 16 (−1)
While the constitution provides for freedom of speech and the press, the government’s respect for such freedoms is limited in practice. The government can impose fines for defamation and incitement to violence, and it systematically censors journalists. Self-censorship is common. Journalist Ghys Fortuné Bemba Dombe was briefly arrested in October after publishing an article accusing Sassou-Nguesso of receiving support from armed mercenaries to push forward favorable referendum results.
Internet and text messaging services were cut throughout Congo in the days leading up to the constitutional reform vote, coinciding with a planned opposition demonstration. Radio France Internationale’s signal and internet connection were also blocked during this period. While independent journalists were unable to transmit, progovernment radio stations remained in operation. Certain private media outlets that did not support the government continued to face suspensions in 2015.
Congo has no nationwide radio or television stations, so most civilians receive news from local broadcast sources. Most newspapers are privately owned, though the state publishes the only daily newspaper.
Religious freedom is generally respected. In May 2015, the government banned the wearing of the niqab, the full face veil, in public, citing concerns of security and terrorism.
Academic freedom is tenuous. Most university professors self-censor on politically sensitive topics, and many work as paid consultants for the government. In 2014, two professors at Marien Ngouabi University were arrested and a third was threatened with detention, ostensibly due to their criticisms of the government and affiliation with the opposition.
E. Associational and Organizational Rights: 6 / 12
Freedoms of assembly and association are provided for in the constitution but are restricted in practice. Groups must receive official authorization to hold public assemblies. Galvanized by the president’s push to alter the constitution, thousands of Congolese demonstrated in September and October 2015 in the largest protests that have taken place under Sassou-Nguesso. The government responded by mobilizing pro-Sassou-Nguesso rallies that called for a “Yes” to the new constitution. In advance of the referendum, small groups in public places were arrested and questioned by police. Security forces violently dispersed several gatherings, particularly of the political opposition.
Nongovernmental organizations generally operate without interference as long as they do not challenge the ruling elite.
Workers’ rights to unionize, strike, and bargain collectively are nominally protected by law, but only intermittently upheld. Most workers in the formal business sector belong to unions, which have also made efforts to organize in informal sectors such as agriculture and retail trade. Members of the security forces and other essential services are not allowed to form unions.
F. Rule of Law: 2 / 16
Congo’s judiciary is crippled by lack of resources and is vulnerable to corruption and political influence. In 2015, the Constitutional Court’s confirmation of the national constitutional referendum results was viewed as a rubber-stamp approval of Sassou-Nguesso’s efforts to remain in power. Traditional courts dominate the judicial system in rural Congo, presiding over local property, inheritance, and domestic cases.
The government generally maintains control over security forces, but in some instances members of the security forces violate rights with impunity. The Human Rights Commission (HRC), charged with addressing complaints about abuses committed by security forces, is largely ineffectual. Reports of arbitrary arrests and custodial torture continued in 2015. Prison conditions are life threatening.
Indigenous groups are concentrated in isolated rural areas, and urban neighborhoods tend to be segregated. These groups are actively discriminated against in hiring and other areas.
In 2015, an Amnesty International report found that Congo’s forced deportations of thousands of nationals from neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) the previous year, during which deportees were subjected to police brutality and rape, were akin to crimes against humanity. West African immigrants were targeted with arrest and deportation in May 2015.
While no law specifically prohibits same-sex sexual relations between adults, people found to have committed a “public outrage against decency” face punishments of up to two years in prison. The law prescribes up to three years in prison for same-sex relations if one participant is under the age of 21. These laws are rarely enforced. Two LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) rights groups exist in the country, focusing almost exclusively on the rights of gay men and HIV/AIDS issues.
G. Personal Autonomy and Individual Rights: 7 / 16
In 2015, domestic travel restrictions targeted members of the opposition and unregistered immigrants from the DRC. On two occasions in July, the leader of the UPADS was prevented from boarding a plane to Paris. The judicial system offers few protections for business or property rights.
Despite constitutional safeguards, legal and societal discrimination against women persists. Equal access to education and employment is limited, and civil codes regarding marriage formalize women’s inferior status. Most women work in the informal sector, where they may be subject to abuse. Violence against women is reportedly widespread. Rape, including marital rape, is illegal, but this crime is common and rarely reported. Women are underrepresented in government and decision-making positions, holding just 10 seats each in the National Assembly and Senate.
Most human trafficking in Congo is internal, controlled by armed groups largely in eastern provinces where government control is weak. Human trade in Congo commonly includes laborers for the mining and agricultural industries, workers for the sex trade, and less commonly, servants or soldiers (including some children) for armed militias. According to the U.S. State Department 2015 Report on Trafficking in Persons, Congo took substantial steps in 2015 to prosecute rogue elements of the Congolese national army and police for sex slavery and ceased government recruitment of child soldiers.
X = Score Received
Y = Best Possible Score
Z = Change from Previous Year