Freedom in the World
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Congo, Republic of (Brazzaville)
Freedom Rating (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Civil Liberties (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Political Rights (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Political rights improved from 6 to 5 following the adoption of a new constitution by the transitional parliament.
Congo’s transitional parliament in September 2001 adopted a draft constitution which was to be voted on in a referendum in December. The constitution, which was drawn up by a national forum for political reconciliation, provides for a multi-party system and establishes wide-ranging powers for the president. He would be directly elected for a seven-year term without the possibility of a second term. The constitution also guarantees basic rights for women and children, the press, ethnic groups, and the judiciary, among others. Presidential and parliamentary elections are expected to be held in 2002.
A decade after its independence from France, a 1970 coup established a Marxist state in Congo. In 1979, General Denis Sassou-Nguesso seized power and maintained one-party rule as head of the Congolese Workers’ Party. Domestic and international pressure forced his acceptance of a national conference leading to open, multiparty elections in 1992. Pascal Lissouba won a clear victory over Bernard Kolelas in a second-round presidential runoff that excluded Sassou-Nguesso, who had run third in the first round.
Disputes over 1993 legislative polls led to armed conflict. The fighting subsided but flared once again among ethnic-based militias in 1997. Sassou-Nguesso had built a private army in his native northern Congo and forcibly retook the presidency in October that year. Peace agreements were signed in late 1999 that included an amnesty for combatants who voluntarily disarmed. More than 10,000 weapons have been collected.
Sassou-Nguesso has had military support from Angola and political backing from France. Civil wars in the neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo and nearby Angola made large numbers of weapons and fighters available to fuel the conflict, which displaced one-third of the country’s population. A small number of Angolan troops remain in Brazzaville to provide security for the government.
Congo has made significant efforts at rehabilitation and security has improved markedly. Many weapons, however, remain in circulation. Although many allies of Lissouba and Kolelas have returned to the country without hindrance, it remains to be seen whether the transition to democracy will be inclusive and legitimate.
Economic reforms are underway. The World Bank has restored the country’s credit eligibility, and with high world oil prices Congo’s GDP was expected to soar in 2001. But the International Monetary Fund has warned the government about massive customs fraud, rampant spending, and the slow pace of privatization. Dozens of people connected to the oil industry were charged in January 2001 after authorities said they had uncovered a vast network of illegal sales of oil products. Government ministers were also implicated. Congo is the fourth largest producer of oil in sub-Saharan Africa.
Congolese have not had the right to change their leaders through elections since civil war broke out in 1997. They elected their president and national assembly deputies to five-year terms of office through competitive multiparty elections for the first time in 1992 and 1993, respectively. Lissouba’s 1992 victory at the polls was widely considered to be free and fair. Presidential polls set for July 1997 were preempted by the war that returned Sassou-Nguesso to power. Sassou-Nguesso, who received only 17 percent of the vote in the 1992 presidential elections, has promised to conduct open, multiparty elections in 2002. Most of the country’s dozens of political parties are formed along ethnic lines.
Legislative elections in 1992 produced no clear majority. After an anti-Lissouba coalition formed, the president dissolved the assembly and called for fresh polls. Legislative elections in 1993 produced a presidential majority, but were marred by numerous irregularities. Several parties boycotted the second round. Sassou-Nguesso appointed a 75-member transitional assembly, the National Transition Council, in 1997, but it does not have a broad political base and exercises no real power.
Scarce resources and understaffing create a backlog of court cases and long periods of pretrial detention. The judiciary is subject to corruption and political influence. The three-tier formal court system of local courts, courts of appeals, and the supreme court was generally considered to be politically independent until the civil war. In rural areas, traditional courts retain broad jurisdiction, especially in civil matters.
Atrocities against civilians committed by government soldiers and rogue militia members diminished in 2001, but reports of arbitrary detentions and other abuses were reported. Prison conditions are life threatening, with reports of beatings, overcrowding, and other ill-treatment. Local human rights groups, however, as well as the International Committee of the Red Cross, have been allowed access. Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) generally operate freely.
Freedom of assembly and association is constitutionally guaranteed, and this right is generally respected in practice. Public demonstrations are rare. The government generally respects press freedom, but continues to monopolize the broadcast media. The government, in 2000, approved a freedom-of-information bill, which confirmed the abolition of censorship and sharply reduced penalties for defamation. About 10 private newspapers appear weekly in Brazzaville, and these sometimes print articles or letters that are unflattering to the government.
Religious freedom is guaranteed and respected. Ethnic discrimination persists. Pygmy groups suffer discrimination, and many are effectively held in lifetime servitude through customary ties to Bantu "patrons."
There is extensive legal and societal discrimination against women despite constitutional protections. Access to education and employment opportunities, especially in the countryside, are limited, and civil codes regarding family and marriage formalize women’s inferior status. Violence against women reportedly is widespread, but incidents of rape have diminished considerably since the end of the war. NGOs have drawn attention to the issue and provided counseling and assistance to victims.
Workers’ rights to join trade unions and to strike are legally protected. Collective bargaining is practiced freely. Most workers in the formal (wage) sector are union members, and unions have made efforts to organize informal sectors such as those of agriculture and retail trade.