Freedom in the World 2011 - Congo, Republic of (Brazzaville)
|Publication Date||12 May 2011|
|Cite as||Freedom House, Freedom in the World 2011 - Congo, Republic of (Brazzaville), 12 May 2011, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/4dcbf51c2.html [accessed 3 May 2016]|
Political Rights Score: 6 *
Civil Liberties Score: 5 *
Status: Not Free
As the Republic of Congo celebrated 50 years of independence in August 2010, opposition parties refused to participate in official ceremonies, highlighting the country's continuing economic and human rights problems. During the year, the government announced initiatives to improve the rights and health of women and children, including adopting a new child protection framework. Meanwhile, a humanitarian crisis developed in the north following an influx of refugees fleeing violence in the neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo.
Since gaining independence from France in 1960, the Republic of Congo has been marked by conflict and military coups. The current president, Denis Sassou-Nguesso, first came to power in 1979 when the military installed him as president. Domestic and international pressure finally forced him to hold multiparty presidential elections in 1992. He lost, placing third in the first round. In the runoff, Pascal Lissouba defeated the late veteran oppositionist Bernard Kolelas.
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 won the presidential election easily that year after his main challenger, former National Assembly president André Milongo, alleged fraud and withdrew. In the 2002 legislative election, Sassou-Nguesso's Congolese Labor Party (PCT) and its allies captured 90 percent of the seats. Although the polls failed to foster genuine reconciliation, most of the country's rebel factions signed a peace agreement in 2003.
After the government ignored calls to create an independent electoral commission, opposition parties boycotted the 2007 legislative election, in which the PCT and its allies won 125 out of 137 seats in the National Assembly. The participation of former rebel leader Frédéric Bitsangou's National Resistance Council (CNR) was an important step toward peace. Sassou-Nguesso also included members of Kolelas's Congolese Movement for Democracy and Integral Development (MCDDI) in the cabinet for the first time.
In 2008, the PCT and approximately 60 other parties formed a new political coalition, the Rally of the Presidential Majority (RMP), to broaden support for the government ahead of the 2009 presidential election. In August, councilors from seven departments elected members of the national Senate, and the RMP secured 34 out of 42 seats.
The opposition attempted to unify ahead of the July 2009 presidential election, with 20 parties forming the Front of Congolese Opposition Parties (FPOC). Six of the original 16 opposition candidates withdrew to protest electoral conditions. The government again refused to establish an independent electoral commission, and the existing commission disqualified four opposition candidates, including Ange Edouard Poungui, leader of the largest opposition party in the National Assembly, the Pan-African Union for Social Democracy (UPADS). Sassou-Nguesso won another term with 79 percent of the vote; his closest challenger, independent candidate Joseph Kignoumbi Kia Mboungou, took 7 percent of the vote. The government reported voter turnout of 66 percent, while the opposition claimed 10 percent. Following the election, Sassou-Nguesso eliminated the position of prime minister, becoming both head of state and government.
In August 2010, Congo celebrated 50 years of independence. The FPOC refused to participate in official ceremonies, highlighting continuing poverty and injustice.
Congo is one of sub-Saharan Africa's major oil producers, though corruption and decades of instability have contributed to poor humanitarian conditions. Congo ranked 136 out of 182 countries on the 2009 UN Human Development Index. In late 2009, a humanitarian crisis developed in the north following armed conflict in the neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo. In February 2010, the authorities recorded over 100,000 refugees in the area, though the number had declined considerably by year's end.
Political Rights and Civil Liberties
The Republic of Congo is not an electoral democracy. Irregularities, opposition boycotts and disqualifications, and the absence of an independent electoral commission marred recent elections. The 2002 constitution limits the president to two seven-year terms. However, current president Denis Sassou-Nguesso, who ruled from 1979 to 1992, has held office continuously since seizing power in 1997. The Senate, the upper house of Parliament, consists of 72 members, with councilors from each department electing six senators for six-year terms. Half of them come up for election every three years, although 42 seats were at stake in 2008. Members of the 137-seat National Assembly, the lower house, are directly elected for five-year terms. Most of the over 100 registered political parties are personality driven and ethnically based. The ruling RMP coalition faces a weak and fragmented opposition.
Corruption in Congo's extractive industries remains pervasive. The country's Anti-Corruption Observatory became operational in 2008, but the government maintains inadequate internal controls, and Sassou-Nguesso and his family have been beset by allegations of graft. In November 2010, a French court ruled that a case centering on how Sassou-Nguesso obtained assets in France could proceed. In January 2010, Congo fulfilled its obligations under a joint IMF-World Bank Highly Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) Initiative, which reduced debt-service payments significantly. However, the government appeared to accrue more debt when it entered a new loan agreement with China in April 2010, though the terms of the loan were not made public. Congo was ranked 154 out of 178 countries surveyed in Transparency International's 2010 Corruption Perceptions Index.
The government's respect for press freedom is limited. Speech that incites ethnic hatred, violence, or civil war is illegal. Police harassment and violence against journalists was reported during the 2009 election period. Police attacked foreign journalists and confiscated their equipment during a post-election opposition protest. The government monopolizes the broadcast media, which reach a larger audience than print publications. However, approximately 10 private weekly newspapers in Brazzaville often publish articles and editorials 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, although public demonstrations are rare. Police halted the political opposition's post-election protest aggressively in 2009. Nongovernmental organizations operate more or less without interference as 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. Most workers in the formal business sector, including the oil industry, are union members, and unions have made efforts to organize informal sectors, such as agriculture and retail trade.
Congo's weak judiciary is subject to corruption and political influence. Members of the security forces act with impunity and there have been reports of suspects dying during apprehension or in custody. Prison conditions are life threatening. 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 dominate key government posts. Pygmy groups suffer discrimination, and many are held in lifetime servitude through customary ties to ethnic Bantu "patrons." Members of virtually all ethnicities favor their own groups in hiring practices, and urban neighborhoods tend to be segregated. In December 2010, both houses of the legislature passed a bill to protect and promote indigenous rights, though the president had not signed the bill by year's end.
Harassment by military personnel and militia groups inhibits travel, though such practices have declined. Following the 2009 election, the government restricted the movements of several opposition leaders while investigating their links to election violence. The government lifted these restrictions in November 2009, but it continued to question FPOC members, and it detained several leaders briefly in January 2010. Former army colonel Ferdinand Mbaou returned from a 10-year exile in July 2009 and was held without charge until February 2010. The government pardoned former president Pascal Lissouba in December 2009, but Lissouba refused to return without a broader amnesty for political exiles. The judicial system offers few protections for business and property rights. Congo ranked 179 out of 183 countries surveyed in the World Bank's 2010 Doing Business index.
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; for example, adultery is illegal for women but not for men. In traditional marriages, widows often do not inherit any portion of their spouses' estates and divorce is difficult for women. Violence against women is reportedly widespread. Abortion is prohibited. In June 2010, the government adopted a new child protection framework. In August, the government announced that it would provide free emergency obstetric care to reduce the country's high maternal mortality rate.
* Countries are ranked on a scale of 1-7, with 1 representing the highest level of freedom and 7 representing the lowest level of freedom.