Freedom in the World 2007 - Congo, Republic of (Brazzaville)

Population: 3,700,000
Capital: Brazzaville

Political Rights Score: 6
Civil Liberties Score: 5
Status: Not Free

Ratings Change

Status Change

Congo (Brazzaville's) political rights rating declined from 5 to 6, and its status from Partly Free to Not Free, due to decreased openness and transparency in government.


Despite limited progress on improving transparency in the oil sector, Congo qualified conditionally for debt relief under the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries Initiative in 2006. A coalition of opposition political groups pressed the government to create an independent electoral commission in advance of scheduled parliamentary elections in 2007. Stepped-up efforts began during the year to confiscate illicit weapons and demobilize former rebel and progovernment fighters.

A decade after Congo's independence from France, a 1970 coup established a Marxist state in the country. In 1979, General Denis 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. Lissouba fled into exile following the coup and was convicted in absentia in 2001 on treason and corruption charges 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 – was sentenced to death in absentia in May 2000 for war crimes and crimes against humanity. At Sassou-Nguesso's request, the National Assembly granted Kolelas amnesty in December 2005, even though his return for the funeral of his wife in October of that year had sparked armed clashes between Ninja rebels and government troops in Brazzaville.

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. 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. A coalition of 21 political opposition groups formed in 2006 and called on the government to create a new independent electoral commission to administer parliamentary elections scheduled for 2007 as well as presidential elections in 2009. The new coalition criticized the current commission, established in 2005, for its lack of independence and threatened to boycott the election if their request was not met. The government countered with a defense of the current commission and did not take action.

Civil war in the Pool region between 1998 and 2002 ended in 2003 with the signing of a ceasefire agreement between the government and Ninja rebels, but the massive displacement of civilians and destruction of the region's infrastructure have stymied recovery and stabilization efforts. In September 2006, the World Bank-funded National Demobilization, Disarmament and Reintegration Bureau extended to new regions of the country its program to demobilize the estimated 30,000 former fighters from both rebel- and government-supported groups, alongside a parallel effort to retrieve the thousands of illicit weapons believed still to be in circulation.

In July 2004, Congo was suspended from the diamond industry's Kimberly Process – a joint initiative of governments, civic groups, and the private sector to limit the unregulated sale of rough diamonds as a source of funding for conflict – 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, the country invited scientists from France's Office of Research Studies on Geological Resources to assess diamond output and trade controls. According to human rights groups, Congo continues to serve as a conduit for illicit diamond smuggling.

Congo is one of Africa's major producers of oil, which accounts for more than 60 percent of Congo's gross domestic product and approximately 95 percent of export earnings. The government began publishing audited information about oil revenues in 2003 and joined the Extractive Industry Transparency Initiative (EITI) in 2004. Reports of widespread corruption in the oil industry persist, however, and progress on EITI has been limited and to some extent overshadowed by issues raised by civic groups and the international financial institutions regarding the lack of transparency in the oil sector. The government repeatedly detained and harassed two prominent anticorruption activists in 2006. An eight-month trial of the two resulted in convictions in late 2006 on charges of forgery and breaching the public interest, and the two activists are appealing the decision. International supporters of the activists' nongovernmental organization (NGO) denied the two had engaged in any mismanagement of funds and helped to fund their legal defense.

Despite the Congo's natural wealth, 70 percent of its citizens live in poverty. Decades of instability destroyed infrastructure and worsened humanitarian conditions for many isolated parts of the heavily forested country. The country ranked 142 of 177 on the 2005 UN Human Development Index.

Congo received conditional approval for debt relief under the World Bank's Heavily Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) Initiative in 2006, though the Bank noted that the government must improve governance and financial transparency to qualify for irrevocable debt relief.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties

The Republic of Congo (Brazzaville) is not an electoral democracy. 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, promulgated in 2002, 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 governed political parties, and a new political party law on the creation, financing, and legal status of political parties was promulgated in 2006.

Corruption in Congo's extractive industries is a continuing problem. Congo was ranked 142 out of 163 countries surveyed in Transparency International's 2006 Corruption Perceptions Index. According to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank, the government maintains inadequate internal controls and accounting systems. Through access to the state-owned oil company that markets the country's share of crude oil, government officials routinely siphon off the bulk of oil revenues into private overseas accounts. Corruption persists outside the oil sector as well, and officials regularly demand bribes to provide government services.

Freedom of speech and of the press is protected by the constitution. Speech that incites ethnic hatred, violence, or civil war is illegal in practice, and the government's respect for press freedom is limited, despite the abolition of censorship and introduction of sharply reduced penalties for defamation in 2000. The government monopolizes the broadcast media, which reaches a much larger audience than print publications. About 10 private newspapers appear weekly in Brazzaville and often publish articles and editorials critical of the government, though the director of one publication was arrested and charged in April 2006 with defamation, insulting the head of state, and "propagating false news." Detained overnight, the director was slated to stand trial in May, but the trial was later postponed. There are no restrictions on internet access.

Religious and academic freedoms are guaranteed and respected.

Freedoms of assembly and association are generally respected in practice, although public demonstrations are rare. NGOs operate freely, though two prominent Congolese activists working on behalf of the Publish What You Pay Coalition, which advocates for greater transparency in the oil industry, were intimidated and detained by the government in 2006. Workers' rights to join trade unions and to strike are legally protected, and collective bargaining is practiced freely. 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. 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, and rape is common.

The government does not fully control all members or units of the country's overlapping and poorly coordinated security forces, which include the police, gendarmerie, and military. Members of these forces act with impunity in committing human rights abuses, and there were reports during the year that security forces killed people during apprehension and in police custody.

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. Members of virtually all ethnic groups discriminate in hiring practices against members of other groups, and urban neighborhoods tend to be segregated.

Harassment by military personnel and militia groups inhibits travel, though such practices have declined. The Congo's overburdened and underresourced judicial system offers limited protection for business and property rights.

Despite constitutional safeguards, legal and societal discrimination against women is extensive. Access to education and employment, especially in the countryside, is limited, and civil codes and traditional practices regarding family and marriage formalize women's inferior status; for example, adultery is illegal for women but not for men. Under traditional or common-law marriages, widows are often not able to inherit any portion of their spouse's estates. Excessive bride prices make divorce extremely difficult for women who cannot reimburse the large sums. Violence against women is reportedly widespread. Abortion is prohibited.

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