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Tampering with the constitution, Brazzaville-style

Congolese President Denis Sassou-Nguesso
Congolese President Denis Sassou-Nguesso AFP PHOTO / THIERRY CHARLIER

There are growing fears in the Republic of Congo that President Denis Sassou-Nguesso will again amend the constitution to allow him to stay in power. A coalition of opposition parties and civil society groups in Brazzaville has described plans to scrap the constitutional limit on presidential terms as illegitimate. According to Frocad, allowing Sassou-Nguesso to stay in office beyond 2016 would be harmful to Congo’s “fledgling democracy”.


The opposition has argued that Sassou-Nguesso should be barred from standing because the 2002 constitution bans candidates over the age of 70 and limits presidential terms to two.

“At the time we all thought this – two seven-year terms – gave the president a generous amount of time in power,” said Florida International University political scientist John F. Clark. “We can only conclude that he didn’t anticipate being in power so long – or he thought it would be easy to change the constitution when the time came.”

The 71-year-old former officer first came to power after a military coup in 1979. He ruled the oil-rich nation until 1992, when he lost a presidential poll in the country’s first multi-party elections. He returned to power in 1997 at the end of a bloody civil war.

Sassou-Nguesso has yet to make his political intentions clear. “He is trying to gauge public opinion to try to figure out how much opposition he would face,” said Clark. “I believe it’s probably his preference to change the constitution and to remain in power as long as possible for personal and family reasons but if he can sense a very, very strong public opposition, which could bring him down through force of arms, he may be persuaded to relinquish power.”

But many Congolese citizens are convinced that the presidential entourage – Sassou-Nguesso’s son runs the national petroleum company -- are keen to see the president remain in office.

“I think he will definitely change the constitution and stay in power,” said Ibara, a public servant who declined to give his full name. “The ruling party, especially the top people in the ruling party, want the president to stay.”

Congolese youths nonetheless desire change, he added: “Young people want the president to step down quietly when his term is finished. They don’t want more civil wars. They don’t want people to die.”

In a country still smarting from a civil war that only ended in 1999, it’s unclear if the opposition and civil society groups are ready to take to the streets of Brazzaville like protesters in Burundi have recently taken to the streets of Bujumbura to prevent President Pierre Nkurunziza of amending the constitution.

One article in Congo’s constitution specifically bans rewriting the article setting a cap on presidential terms. “The only way to remove the term limits is to scrap the constitution entirely,” argued Kamissa Camara, senior programme officer for west and central Africa at the National Endowment for Democracy, in an opinion piece.

Analysts believe the president may want to redraft the constitution for legal reasons as well.

“President Sassou and his family fear prosecution if he were to leave power,” said Clark. “He could be prosecuted either for financial crimes -- diversion of oil revenues, in particular -- or for human rights violations.”

He could face charges for his alleged involvement in the murder of former President Marien Ngouabi, assassinated in 1977.

The president could also face charges of crimes against humanity, notably for the Brazzaville Beach killing of more 300 Congolese refugees in 1999.

The president has also been the subject of French judicial investigations for alleged financial improprieties.

Follow Michel Arseneault on Twitter @miko75011

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