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)
Congo received a downward trend arrow due to the government’s refusal to create an independent electoral commission, as well as persistent weaknesses in the electoral framework that effectively prevent voters from changing their leaders democratically.
President Denis Sassou-Nguesso’s Congolese Labor Party (PCT) strengthened its grip on Parliament in legislative elections in 2007 that were boycotted by the opposition.
Congo’s history since independence from France in 1960 has been marked by armed conflict and a series of coups. In 1968, army officer Marien Ngouabi seized power but maintained the country’s Marxist bent. Following Ngouabi’s assassination in 1977, Colonel (later General) Joachim Yhomby-Opango took over. He was overthrown two years later in a “palace coup” by the defense minister, Colonel Denis Sassou-Nguesso, who maintained one-party rule and consolidated power. Domestic and international pressure forced Sassou-Nguesso to convene a national conference and hold multiparty elections in 1992, which he lost, coming in a distant third in the first-round presidential vote. Former prime minister Pascal Lissouba defeated Bernard Kolelas in the runoff.
Disputed parliamentary elections in 1993 triggered violent clashes between rival militia groups that ended only in October 1997, when Sassou-Nguesso ousted Lissouba with the help of Angolan troops and French political support. Lissouba, who fled into exile, was convicted in absentia in 2001 on treason and corruption charges and sentenced to 30 years of hard labor. Kolelas, a former mayor of Brazzaville and founder of the dreaded “Ninja” militia, was accused of war crimes and sentenced to death in absentia in 2000. However, at the president’s request, Parliament granted Kolelas amnesty in December 2005.
Sassou-Nguesso oversaw the adoption of a new constitution by referendum in January 2002. He won the presidential election in March with more than 89 percent of the vote after his main challenger, former National Assembly president Andre Milongo, claimed that the vote was rigged and withdrew. Lissouba and Kolelas were barred from running and remained in exile. The 2002 legislative elections left Sassou-Nguesso’s Congolese Labor Party (PCT) and its allies with about 90 percent of the seats. The polls failed to create the conditions for genuine reconciliation and dialogue, although a March 2003 peace agreement was signed by virtually all of the country’s rebel factions. That enabled the government, with the support of the World Bank, to launch a program aimed at demobilizing the estimated 30,000 combatants and retrieving thousands of illegal weapons that were in circulation.
The 2007 legislative elections were boycotted by the main opposition parties after the government ignored calls to create an independent electoral commission. Irregularities were so widespread that the government dismissed the chief election officer four days after the vote, although it still validated the results. African Union observers called for an independent electoral commission to organize future elections. The PCT and its allies won a commanding majority of 125 out of 137 seats in the National Assembly, Parliament’s lower house. Given the opposition boycott, the participation of Frederic Bintsamou’s National Resistance Council (NRC) was hailed as a major step toward peace. The NRC, better known as the Ninjas, were based in the southern Pool region, and had fought a 10-year civil war against Sassou-Nguesso’s northern-dominated government. The president’s appointment of Bintsamou, also known as Pastor Ntoumi, to the post of delegate general for peace and war reparations in May 2007 was intended to help pacify Pool, but lasting peace remained elusive.
Congo is sub-Saharan Africa’s fifth-largest oil producer. Oil accounts for approximately 52 percent of gross domestic product, more than 85 percent of exports, and 70 percent of public revenue, according to the World Bank. Despite joining the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI) in 2004, there is widespread corruption in the oil industry, and graft disputes have become heavily politicized. The government has failed to hold itself up to the standards of civil society engagement in the EITI implementation and validation process. An eight-month trial of two anticorruption activists—Christian Mounzeo and Brice Mackosso, of the local chapter of the anticorruption watchdog Publish What You Pay—ended in December 2006 with suspended sentences and fines. The defendants argued that the verdict was intimidation designed to stop them from acting as independent experts on two new anticorruption committees and appealed the decision in January 2007. The government itself has been embroiled in legal disputes with creditors who accuse it of hiding oil revenues and refusing to pay its debts.
Despite Congo’s natural wealth, corruption and decades of instability have worsened humanitarian conditions, especially in the rebellious south. Entire provinces lack potable water, and the poverty rate is estimated at 50 percent. Without roads, schools, and basic health-care services, the Pool region has suffered a “humanitarian disaster,” according to the United Nations. Congo ranked 139 out of 177 countries on the 2007 UN Human Development Index.
In August 2007, an inspection team visited Congo to discuss its return to the Kimberly Process—an international initiative aimed at preventing the sale of diamonds from conflict zones—but found that smuggling-control mechanisms remained inadequate. Congo had been expelled from the Kimberly Process in July 2004, after discrepancies between production and exports raised concerns that it was serving as a transshipment point for illicit diamonds.
The Republic of Congo is not an electoral democracy. Elections held in 2002 and 2007 were not deemed fair, in part because of irregularities and the absence of an independent electoral commission. The amended constitution, promulgated in 2002, limits the president to two seven-year terms. The next presidential election will be held in 2009. The bicameral Parliament comprises a 66-seat Senate and a 137-seat National Assembly; members of both houses are elected by popular vote for five-year terms. Most of the over 200 registered political parties are personality driven and ethnically based, and the ruling PCT-led coalition faces a weak and fragmented political opposition.
Corruption in Congo’s extractive industries remains pervasive. According to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank, the government maintains inadequate internal controls and accounting systems. In June 2007, the mining law was revised and the draft law to establish an anticorruption observatory was passed by Parliament.
President Denis Sassou-Nguesso and his family have been beset by allegations of graft. Foreign media and anticorruption groups were able to obtain and publish records of their extravagant personal expenditures in 2006 and 2007, and police in France are investigating how Sassou-Nguesso paid for the property he owns there. Congo was ranked 150 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2007 Corruption Perception Index.
Despite the abolition of censorship and introduction of sharply reduced penalties for defamation in 2000, the government’s respect for press freedom is limited. Speech that incites ethnic hatred, violence, or civil war is illegal in practice. The government monopolizes the broadcast media, which reach a much larger audience than print publications. However, about 10 private newspapers that appear weekly in Brazzaville often publish articles and editorials that are critical of the government. There are no government restrictions on internet access.
Religious and academic freedoms are guaranteed and respected.
Freedoms of assembly and association are generally upheld in practice, although public demonstrations are rare. Nongovernmental organizations operate more or less freely. Workers’ rights to join trade unions and to strike are legally protected, and collective bargaining is practiced freely. Most workers in the formal business sector, including the oil sector, are union members, and unions have made efforts to organize informal sectors, such as agriculture and retail trade.
Congo’s weak judiciary has a backlog of cases and is subject to corruption and political influence. In rural areas, traditional courts retain broad jurisdiction, especially in civil matters. The government does not fully control all members or units of the country’s overlapping and poorly coordinated security forces, which include the police, gendarmerie, and military. Members of these forces act with impunity in committing human rights abuses, and there have been reports of security personnel killing people during apprehension and detainees dying in custody. Prison conditions are life threatening, with reports of beatings, overcrowding, and other ill-treatment. Women and men, as well as juveniles and adults, are incarcerated together, and rape is common.
Ethnic discrimination persists. Members of Sassou-Nguesso’s northern ethnic group and related clans hold key posts in government. Pygmy groups suffer discrimination, and many are effectively held in lifetime servitude through customary ties to ethnic Bantu “patrons.” In a highly publicized incident of anti-Pygmy discrimination in 2007, a group of 20 Pygmy musicians invited to a pan-African musical festival in Brazzaville were housed in a tent at the city’s zoo while other artists were given accommodation in hotels. Members of virtually all ethnicities favor their own groups in hiring practices, and urban neighborhoods tend to be segregated.
Harassment by military personnel and militia groups inhibits travel, though such practices have declined. Congo’s overburdened and underresourced judicial system offers limited protection for business and property rights. The country ranked 175 out of 178 nations surveyed in the World Bank’s 2007 Doing Business index.
Despite constitutional safeguards, legal and societal discrimination against women is extensive. Access to education and employment, especially in the countryside, is limited, and civil codes and traditional practices regarding family and marriage formalize women’s inferior status; for example, adultery is illegal for women but not for men. Under traditional or common-law marriages, widows are often not able to inherit any portion of their spouses’ estates. Excessive bride prices make divorce extremely difficult for women who cannot reimburse the large sums. Violence against women is reportedly widespread. Abortion is prohibited.