Freedom in the World 2003 - Congo, Republic of (Brazzaville)

Polity: Military (transitional)
Population: 3,200,000
GNI/Capita: $825
Life Expectancy: 51
Religious Groups: Christian (50 percent), animist (48 percent), Muslim (2 percent)
Ethnic Groups: Kongo (48 percent), Sangha (20 percent), Teke (17 percent), M'Bochi (12 percent), other (3 percent)
Capital: Brazzaville

Political Rights Score: 6
Civil Liberties Score: 4
Status: Partly Free

Ratings Change
Congo's (Brazzaville's) political rights rating declined from 5 to 6 due to the resumption of fighting in March and presidential and legislative elections that were not fair.


Overview

Congo was getting back on its feet after years of sporadic warfare, but fighting erupted again in March 2002, exposing weaknesses in a peace agreement that was signed at the end of 1999. The peace process was controlled by President Denis Sassou-Nguesso and excluded key members of Congo's political class. Presidential and legislative elections held in 2002 were not deemed fair, in part because of irregularities and the absence of an independent electoral commission.

A decade after Congo's independence from France, a 1970 coup established a Marxist state in the country. In 1979, General 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 former Prime Minister Bernard Kolelas in a second-round presidential runoff that excluded Sassou-Nguesso, who had run third in the first round.

Disputes over the 1993 legislative polls led to armed conflict. The fighting subsided but flared once again among ethnic-based militias in 1997. Sassou-Nguesso, who has had military support from Angola and political backing from France, built a private army in his native northern Congo and forcibly retook the presidency in October 1997. Peace agreements signed in late 1999 included an amnesty for combatants who voluntarily disarmed. A new constitution was adopted by referendum in January 2002, providing for a multiparty system and establishing wide-ranging powers for the president, who would be directly elected for a seven-year term.

The renewed outbreak of hostilities in combination with contraction of the oil sector hurt Congo's growth in 2002. Congo is the fourth largest producer of oil in sub-Saharan Africa.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties

Since the outbreak of civil war in 1997, Congolese have been only partly able to exercise their constitutional right to change their leaders through democratic elections. Competitive multiparty elections were held for the first time in 1992 and 1993. Presidential elections held in March 2002 were marred by irregularities and there was no independent electoral commission, but international observers hailed the peaceful nature of the vote. Denis Sassou-Nguesso was virtually assured a victory when his main challenger, former Prime Minister Andre Milongo, dropped out of the race just before the election, claiming irregularities. Sassou-Nguesso won the election with 89 percent of the vote.

Elections for the 137-member National Assembly in May and June 2002 were dominated by Sassou-Nguesso's Congolese Workers' Party and other parties affiliated with it.

Scarce resources and understaffing have created a backlog of court cases and long periods of pretrial detention. The judiciary is subject to corruption and political influence. The court system 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 mainly by militia members increased in 2002. Fighting broke out in March in the southern Pool region after members of the Ninja militia responded to reports that security forces were attempting to arrest their leader. At least 60,000 people were displaced. There were also reports of arbitrary detentions, beatings, and other abuses committed by security forces. Local and international human rights groups have petitioned the government to explain the disappearance of more than 350 Congolese refugees who returned from exile in the Democratic Republic of Congo (Kinshana) in 1999. The UN Development Program, in conjunction with the Congolese government, was engaged in human rights training for hundreds of local authorities, police officers, and members of civil society in 2002 to help promote peace.

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. Human rights groups and 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, although public demonstrations are rare. The government generally respects press freedom, but continues to monopolize the broadcast media. The government, in 2000, abolished censorship and sharply reduced penalties for defamation. About ten private newspapers appear weekly in Brazzaville, and they often publish articles and editorials that are critical of 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." Members of virtually all ethnic groups practice discrimination in hiring practices.

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 is reportedly widespread. After declining in 2000 and 2001, incidents of rape increased in 2002 with the renewed outbreak of hostilities. 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 (business) sector are union members, and unions have made efforts to organize informal sectors such as those of agriculture and retail trade.

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