Freedom in the World 2010 - Congo, Republic of (Brazzaville)

Capital: Brazzaville
Population: 3,863,000

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

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Congo received a downward trend arrow due to President Denis Sassou-Nguesso's increasing concentration of power and the authorities' handling of the July 2009 presidential election and its aftermath, including the disqualification of several opposition candidates and the intimidation of journalists.


President Denis Sassou-Nguesso secured a new term in the July 2009 presidential election, which was marred by the lack of an independent electoral commission, the disqualification of several opposition candidates, and the intimidation of journalists. Sassou-Nguesso subsequently eliminated the position of prime minister, further concentrating executive power in his own hands. A postelection demonstration by the opposition was forcefully halted by the police, and opposition leaders were barred from leaving the country.

Congo's history since independence from France in 1960 has been marked by conflict and military coups. Colonel Denis Sassou-Nguesso seized power from another military officer in 1979, but 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, former prime minister Pascal Lissouba defeated the late veteran oppositionist Bernard Kolelas.

Disputed parliamentary elections in 1993 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. Referendum voters adopted a new constitution in 2002, and Sassou-Nguesso easily won the presidential election that year after his main challenger, former National Assembly president Andre Milongo, claimed fraud and withdrew. In the 2002 legislative elections, Sassou-Nguesso's Congolese Labor Party (PCT) and its allies obtained 90 percent of the seats. The polls failed to foster genuine reconciliation, although a 2003 peace agreement was signed by virtually all of the country's rebel factions.

The 2007 legislative elections were boycotted by the main opposition parties after the government ignored calls to create an independent electoral commission. The PCT and its allies won 125 out of 137 seats in the National Assembly. The participation of Frederic Bintsangou's National Resistance Council (CNR), a former rebel group based in the southern Pool region, was hailed as a major step toward peace.

Sassou-Nguesso made minor cabinet changes in late 2007, notably including members of Kolelas's Congolese Movement for Democracy and Integral Development (MCDDI) for the first time. A new political coalition, the Rally of the Presidential Majority (RMP), was formed by the PCT and some 60 other parties in early 2008, with the goal of broadening the government's support ahead of the 2009 presidential election.

The RMP won 564 out of 864 council seats in June 2008 local elections, which featured low voter turnout. Councilors from seven departments subsequently elected members of the national Senate, marking the first time the departments of Pool and Pointe-Noire chose senators. The RMP secured 34 out of the 42 seats at stake.

In the July 2009 presidential election, Sassou-Nguesso won another term with 79 percent of the vote. His closest challenger was independent candidate Joseph Kignoumbi Kia Mboungou, who took 7 percent. Six of the original 16 opposition candidates had withdrawn to protest poor electoral conditions. The government had again rejected calls to establish an independent electoral commission, and the existing National Commission on Elections (CONEL) had disqualified four of the initial opposition candidates, most notably Ange Edouard Poungui of the Pan-African Union for Social Democracy (UPADS), the largest opposition party in the National Assembly.

While the government reported voter turnout of 66 percent, the opposition claimed that the figure was closer to 10 percent. The African Union and the Economic Community of Central African States sent some poll observers, but the European Union did not. In advance of the elections, the government had updated the existing voter registry rather than carrying out a new census, despite evidence of inaccuracies.

Sassou-Nguesso made major cabinet changes after the election, including the elimination of the position of prime minister. The move meant that the president would be both head of state and head of government, further concentrating executive power.

Congo is one of sub-Saharan Africa's major oil producers, which has led to strong economic ties with France and other European states. However, 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.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties

The Republic of Congo is not an electoral democracy. Recent elections have been marred by irregularities, opposition boycotts and disqualifications, and the absence of an independent electoral commission. The constitution of 2002 limits the president to two seven-year terms, although current president Denis Sassou-Nguesso has been in office since he seized power in 1997; he previously ruled from 1979 to 1992. 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 the total ordinarily 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 200 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 (ACO), tasked with increasing government accountability, became operational in 2008, but the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank have found that the government maintains inadequate internal controls and accounting systems. Sassou-Nguesso and his family have been beset by allegations of graft. In 2008, the watchdog organization Global Witness reported extravagant personal spending by one of the president's sons and evidence of kickbacks involving the state oil company. Congo was ranked 162 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International's 2009 Corruption Perceptions Index.

The government's respect for press freedom is limited. Police harassment and violence against journalists was reported during the 2009 presidential campaign period, and police attacked French and British journalists and confiscated their equipment during an opposition protest following the election. Speech that incites ethnic hatred, violence, or civil war is illegal. The government monopolizes the broadcast media, which reach a much larger audience than print publications. However, about 10 private weekly newspapers in Brazzaville often publish articles and editorials that are 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. The opposition's postelection protest in 2009 was halted by police, who allegedly fired live rounds at demonstrators. Several leaders of opposition parties, including Ange Edouard Poungui of the UPADS, were subsequently barred from leaving the country.

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 poorly coordinated 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 and related clans dominate key government posts. Pygmy groups suffer discrimination, and many are effectively 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.

Harassment by military personnel and militia groups inhibits travel, though such practices have declined. 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. Their access to education and employment is limited, and civil codes and traditional practices 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.

*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.

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