Freedom in the World 2006 - Congo, Republic of (Brazzaville)

Political Rights: 5
Civil Liberties: 5
Status: Partly Free
Population: 4,000,000
GNI/Capita: $650
Life Expectancy: 52
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

Ratings Change
The Republic of Congo (Brazzaville)'s civil liberties rating declined from 4 to 5 due to a steady erosion of the rule of law, including the failure of the courts to sanction high-ranking military officials for a massacre of refugees.


A fragile peace agreement with rebels in the southern Pool region was threatened by sporadic violence, and legislative elections for the region's eight seats – vacant since the 2002 polls – were indefinitely postponed. President Denis Sassou-Nguesso's government took limited steps to improve transparency in the oil and diamond sectors. The government presented draft legislation on political parties to the National Assembly in late 2005 in response to opposition calls for reform in advance of the 2007 legislative elections. In August 2005, a Brazzaville court cleared 15 top military officers accused of killing 353 Congolese refugees in 1999.

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 Labor Party (PCT). Domestic and international pressure led to the convening of a national conference and multiparty elections in 1992. Former prime minister Pascal Lissouba won a clear victory over Bernard Kolelas in a second-round presidential runoff. Sassou-Nguesso ran third in the first round.

Disputes over the 1993 legislative polls led to armed conflict between rival militia groups that continued sporadically for several years until Sassou-Nguesso, with military support from Angola and political backing from France, overthrew Lissouba in October 1997. Peace agreements signed in late 1999 included an amnesty for combatants who voluntarily disarmed. Lissouba, who fled into exile in 1997, was convicted in absentia on treason and corruption charges in 2001, and sentenced to 30 years' hard labor. Kolelas – who served as mayor of Brazzaville from 1993 to 1996 and founded the Ninja militia from members of his political party, the Congolese Movement for Democracy and Integral Development – also went into exile in 1997 and was sentenced to death in absentia by a Congolese criminal court in May 2000 for war crimes and crimes against humanity.

As part of the peace process, a new constitution adopted by national referendum in January 2002 provided for the return to a multiparty system. The March 2002 presidential poll was marred by irregularities, though international observers hailed their peaceful conduct. Sassou-Nguesso won with 89.4 percent of the vote when his main challenger, former president of the National Assembly Andre Milongo, claimed that the poll was rigged and dropped out of the race. The country's two leading opposition figures, Lissouba and Kolelas, were barred from running for office and remained in exile. Fifteen political parties won seats in the 2002 legislative elections, though an alliance of seven parties known as the Democratic and Patriotic Forces (FDP) led by Sassou-Nguesso's PCT controls approximately 90 percent of them. Balloting for eight seats in the Pool region was postponed in 2002 – and again in 2005 – because of continuing instability.

Since the signing of a ceasefire agreement in 2003 with the Ninja rebels, peace has gradually returned to the Pool region. The government is working with international donors to disarm remaining combatants and rebuild the region's shattered infrastructure. However, rebel mistrust of the government continues and the security situation remains fragile. Sporadic attacks by Ninja members on the vital Brazzaville-Pointe Noire rail line continue to occur, most recently in April 2005. Kolelas returned to the Congo in October 2005 for the burial of his wife, an event that coincided with armed clashes between Ninja rebels and government troops in Brazzaville.

In July 2004, Congo was suspended from the diamond industry's Kimberly Process after identified discrepancies between production and exports raised concerns that Congo was a transshipment point for illicit diamonds from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and other neighboring countries. In response, Congo announced that it had halted all diamond exports, and in 2005 invited scientists from France's Office of Research Studies on Geological Resources to assess diamond output and trade controls. Human rights groups claim, however, that Congo has continued to serve as a conduit for illicit diamond smuggling.

Domestic pressure led to increased transparency in the oil sector, which accounts for more than 60 percent of Congo's gross domestic product and approximately 95 percent of export earnings. In 2003, the government began publishing audited information about oil revenues on the Ministry of Finance's website. The government joined the Extractive Industry Transparency Initiative in 2004, and in 2005, Congolese civic groups organized the country's first round table event on the issue with stakeholders from the government and the oil industry. However, reports of widespread corruption in oil industry persist.

In August 2005, a Brazzaville court cleared 15 top army officers accused of killing 353 Congolese refugees on their return from exile in the DRC in 1999. The court acknowledged that 85 people had disappeared and ordered the relatives of those identified to be paid compensation by the government. A French lawsuit, filed by human rights groups and survivors against Sassou-Nguesso and high-ranking Congolese officials for crimes against humanity, led to the 2004 arrest in France of Congo's chief of police. He was released quickly, however, when a French court ruled that he had diplomatic immunity. The Congolese government has a case before the International Court of Justice to suspend court proceedings in France, claiming that France does not have jurisdiction.

Despite the Congo's natural wealth, 70 percent of its citizens live in poverty. The country ranked 142 of 177 on the UN's 2005 Human Development Index.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties

Citizens of Congo (Brazzaville) cannot change their government democratically. Competitive multiparty elections were held for the first time in 1992 and 1993. Presidential and legislative elections held in 2002 were not deemed fair, in part because of irregularities and the absence of an independent electoral commission. An amended constitution was promulgated in 2002 that limits the elected president to two seven-year terms. The next presidential election will be held in 2009. The bicameral Parliament comprises a 66-seat Senate and 137-seat National Assembly; members of both houses are elected by popular vote for five-year terms. The next legislative election will be held in 2007.

The lifting of the ban on political parties in 1992 saw the creation of personality-driven and ethnically based parties that currently number more than 200. The political opposition is weak and fragmented, and the National Assembly is dominated by the FDP coalition. Opposition demands for legal reform led the government to overhaul the 1901 colonial-era law on contracts of association that governs parties by drafting legislation in 2005 on the creation, financing, and legal status of political parties.

Congo was ranked 130 out of 159 countries surveyed in Transparency International's 2005 Corruption Perceptions Index. There were media reports of government bribery and corruption, particularly regarding oil revenues.

The government's respect for press freedom is limited, despite the abolition of censorship and introduction of sharply reduced penalties for defamation in 2000. Nevertheless, about 10 private newspapers appear weekly in Brazzaville, and they often publish articles and editorials that are critical of the government. The government continues to monopolize the broadcast media, which reach a much larger audience. In November 2004, government officials warned freelance international journalists, including those working for the BBC and Reuters, that their accreditation would be revoked if they published stories reflecting adversely on Congo's image. Also in November, the government detained and interrogated a Radio France International correspondent and asked the BBC to remove the local BBC correspondent from the country. In September 2005, a community radio station in northern Congo was shut down for alleged lack of impartiality, though the radio's managers claimed the move was in response to the station's failure to cover a meeting of the ruling party. There are no restrictions on internet access. Religious and academic freedom is guaranteed and respected.

Freedom of assembly and association is constitutionally guaranteed, and this right is generally respected in practice, although public demonstrations are rare. Nongovernmental organizations generally operate freely. Workers' rights to join trade unions and to strike are legally protected, and collective bargaining is practiced freely. Public school teachers mounted a successful six-week strike from October-November 2005 to press for reforms, including the unfreezing of funds for education in the country's 2006 budget. 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 those of agriculture and retail trade.

Congo's weak judiciary has a backlog of cases and is subject to corruption and political influence, though the court system was generally considered to be politically independent until the civil war. An estimated 40 percent of the prison population were pretrial detainees. In rural areas, traditional courts retain broad jurisdiction, especially in civil matters. 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.

The government does not fully control all members or units of the country's overlapping security forces, and some members have committed human rights abuses. However, violations against the civilian population declined following the 2003 ceasefire between the government and Ninja militias.

Ethnic discrimination persists. Members of President Denis Sassou-Nguesso's northern ethnic group and related clans hold many key posts in government. Pygmy groups suffer discrimination, and many are effectively held in lifetime servitude through customary ties to ethnic Bantu "patrons." According to local human rights groups, rape of Pygmy women by Bantu men is widespread.

Harassment by military personnel and militia groups inhibits travel, though such practices have declined. Members of virtually all ethnic groups discriminate in hiring practices against members of other groups, and urban neighborhoods tend to be segregated.

The Congo's overburdened and underresourced judicial system offers limited protection for business and property rights.

Eight women serve in the 66-seat Senate, and 12 women are members of the National Assembly. Despite the presence of women in government and constitutional safeguards, however, legal and societal discrimination is extensive. Access to education and employment, especially in the countryside, is limited, and civil codes regarding family and marriage formalize women's inferior status. Violence against women is reportedly widespread. Abortion is prohibited.

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