Freedom in the World
Congo, Republic of (Brazzaville)
Freedom Rating (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Civil Liberties (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Political Rights (1 = best, 7 = worst)
President Denis Sassou-Nguesso’s ruling Congolese Labor Party won the majority of seats in the July 2012 legislative elections, which were marred by fraud, low voter turnout, and postelection violence. In March, an explosion in a munitions depot in a densely populated area caused hundreds of deaths and displaced tens of thousands. Entrenched corruption, especially in the oil industry, continued to stymie the country’s economic growth.
Since gaining independence from France in 1960, the Republic of Congo has been marked by conflict and military coups. Current president Denis Sassou-Nguesso first came to power in 1979 with military support. Domestic and international pressure finally forced him to hold multiparty presidential elections in 1992, in which he was defeated by Pascal Lissouba.
In 1993, disputed parliamentary elections triggered violent clashes between rival militia groups. The fighting ended in 1997, when Sassou-Nguesso ousted Lissouba with the help of Angolan troops and French political support. In 2002, voters adopted a new constitution by referendum, which extended the presidential term from five to seven years. Sassou-Nguesso and his Congolese Labor Party (PCT) and its allies captured the presidency and most legislative seats in 2002 elections. Although the polls failed to foster genuine reconciliation, most of the country’s rebel factions signed a peace agreement in 2003.
The PCT and its allies won a majority again in 2007 legislative elections, which were boycotted by the opposition. Following his electoral victory in July 2009, Sassou-Nguesso eliminated the post of prime minister, becoming both head of state and head of government.
Further efforts were made by Sassou-Nguesso in 2011 to strengthen his grip on power. During the PCT’s congress in July, his son, Denis Christel Sassou-Nguesso, became a member of both the party’s newly elected 471-member Central Committee and the 51-member Political Bureau, fueling rumors that he was being groomed for succession. Sassou-Nguesso’s allies won yet another overwhelming victory in October 2011 indirect elections for half of the 72 Senate seats.
Amid allegations that the PCT was considering constitutional amendments to remove presidential term limits, the party took 89 of the 139 available seats in the July 2012 National Assembly elections. The PCT and its allies now control 117 of the body’s seats. The elections were marred by accusations of fraud, low voter turnout, and postelection violence.
On March 4, 2012, an arms depot exploded in a residential neighborhood of Brazzaville, killing at least 240 people, seriously injuring 2,300, and displacing tens of thousands of families. The emergency response was largely ineffectual and hampered by subsequent, smaller explosions. After a similar disaster in 2009, the government had pledged to remove arms depots from heavily populated areas, but Brazzaville still has at least five repositories for aging munitions. Defense Minister Charles Zacharie Bowao was dismissed for refusing to resign after the explosion, and was charged with criminal negligence in October. He joined 23 others, mainly military personnel, being detained awaiting a January 2013 trial in connection to the blast.
Congo is one of sub-Saharan Africa’s major oil producers, though corruption and decades of instability have contributed to poor humanitarian conditions. Congo was ranked 137 out of 187 countries on the 2011 UN Human Development Index.
The Republic of Congo is not an electoral democracy. Irregularities, opposition boycotts and disqualifications, and the absence of an independent electoral commission consistently tarnish elections. The 2002 constitution limits the president to two seven-year terms. However, President Denis Sassou-Nguesso has held office continuously since seizing power in 1997. The Senate consists of 72 members, with councilors from each department electing six senators for five-year terms. Half of them come up for election every three years. Members of the 139-seat National Assembly are directly elected for five-year terms. Most of the over 100 registered political parties are personality-driven and ethnically based. Members of Sassou-Nguesso’s northern Mbochi ethnic group dominate key government posts, while the opposition remains weak and fragmented.
As a result of the Congo’s oil wealth, economic growth has stabilized, though it has not sufficiently diversified, and the ruling party’s hold on the political system is largely consolidated. The percentage of Congolese living in extreme poverty has increased despite the mineral wealth of the country, and the oil export market is dependent on Chinese demand. Congo is implementing the steps outlined in the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI), though it has not yet fulfilled all of the requirements necessary to become fully compliant. It also cooperates with the African Peer Mechanism Review, and a national Anti-Corruption Commission was created in September 2009. However, corruption, especially in the extractive industries, remains pervasive. The government will not release oil revenue data, and the state oil company is directly under the control of the president’s family and advisers. French authorities are investigating Sassou-Nguesso and his family for the alleged embezzlement of public funds to acquire assets in France, including real estate and bank accounts. Domestic prosecutions for corruption have been limited and are often politically motivated when they do occur. Congo was ranked 144 out of 176 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2012 Corruption Perceptions Index.
While the constitution provides for freedom of speech and of the press, the government’s respect for press freedom is limited. Speech that is perceived as inciting ethnic hatred, violence, or civil war is illegal, and the government can impose fines for defamation and incitement to violence. During the election campaign period, opposition parties reported a lack of access to state media. With no nationwide radio or television stations, most citizens get their news from local broadcast sources, and the state publishes the only daily newspaper. The government systematically censors journalists, and uses government-owned media to counter critical reports in the independent media. However, most of the newspapers published in Brazzaville are privately owned, and some print articles and editorials critical of the government. There are no government restrictions on internet access, though sites that “radically criticize” the government are only permitted to operate outside of the country.
Religious and academic freedoms are guaranteed and respected.
Freedoms of assembly and association are provided for in the constitution, though security forces have shown little tolerance for political demonstrations. Groups must receive official authorization to hold public assemblies. Nongovernmental organizations generally operate without interference, so long as they do not challenge the ruling elite. Workers’ rights to join trade unions and to strike are protected, and collective bargaining is practiced freely, though rarely. Most workers in the formal business sector, including the oil industry, belong to unions, which have also made efforts to organize informal sectors, such as agriculture and retail trade. Members of the security forces and other essential services are not allowed to form unions.
Congo’s underfunded judiciary is subject to corruption and political influence, and crippled by institutional weakness and a lack of technical capability. Traditional courts are the dominant judicial system in rural Congo, presiding over local property, inheritance, and domestic cases. The Human Rights Commission, charged with addressing complaints about abuses committed by security forces, is largely ineffectual and does not enjoy the trust of the people, as most of its members are presidential appointees. Members of the security forces act with impunity, and there have been reports of arbitrary arrests and suspects being tortured and dying during apprehension or in custody. Prison conditions are life threatening. The death penalty is still on the books, though executions are not carried out.
Indigenous groups are often concentrated in isolated rural areas, are not registered to vote, and are actively discriminated against, leaving them politically marginalized. In particular, native Mbendjele Yaka suffer discrimination, with many held in lifetime servitude. Ethnic discrimination is common in hiring practices, and urban neighborhoods tend to be segregated. An indigenous rights law, the first of its kind in Africa, was promulgated in 2011 with the goal of addressing systematic discrimination against indigenous minorities. The National Action Plan on the Improvement of Quality of Life of Indigenous Peoples, introduced in 2009 and set to end in 2013, establishes benchmarks for measures that would improve the lives of the Congolese indigenous population. This was followed by the adoption of Africa’s first law on indigenous rights in February 2011. The Promotion and Protection of Indigenous Populations Act contains provisions on cultural rights, education, and land rights, explicitly prohibiting forced assimilation and discrimination; the enforcement of this law continues to be a challenge.
Harassment by military personnel and militia groups inhibits travel, though such practices have declined. The judicial system offers few protections for business and property rights.
Homosexual acts are punishable by up to two years in prison, though this is rarely enforced. Congo is a destination for and source of human trafficking, and substantial improvements to the prevention and prosecution of the practice have not occurred. 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, and do not receive employment benefits or protection from abusive employers. Violence against women is reportedly widespread. Rape, including marital rape, is illegal, but this common crime is rarely reported or prosecuted. Abortion is prohibited in all cases except to save the life of the mother. Women are underrepresented in government and decision-making positions, holding just 7 percent of seats in the National Assembly and 14 percent of Senate seats.