Fighting for power in the Congo

By Martine-Renée Galloy and Marc-Éric Gruénais, Le Monde diplomatique, November 1997

Congo-Brazzaville provides a bleak example of the absence of democratic reform, with years of in-fighting between Pascal Lissouba and Denis Sassou Nguesso.

Even with presidential elections scheduled for July 1997, the Congolese army and President Pascal Lissouba's militia were at war with the cobras of his predecessor and main rival, Denis Sassou Nguesso, for over four months, until Mr Nguesso seized power.

After one of the national conferences held in Africa in 1990 and 1991 to set up democratic governments, Mr Lissouba replaced Mr Sassou Nguesso as head of state in 1992, mainly through a pre-election arrangement, with Mr Sassou Nguesso urging the electorate to vote for Mr Lissouba (1). Mr Lissouba became the first Congolese president to be elected by universal suffrage, an election that was never contested.

Mr Sassou Nguesso had previously held a monopoly of power for twelve years, heading a socialist government set up in 1963 and a single party modelled on the Soviet system. When he left office, the country's finances were in a very poor state: Congo had a higher per capita debt than any other African country. The economic situation continued to deteriorate, with civil service salaries delayed and then cut, recruitment frozen, devaluation of the CFA franc in 1994, inflation and strained relations with the international financial institutions. 1996 saw a cautious recovery, mainly thanks to a loan from the International Monetary Fund and the development of a new oil field. Even so daily life was becoming more and more difficult, particularly in the capital, Brazzaville. Roads were in poor repair, fuel, gas, water and electricity in short supply, telephones cut off. The politicians, on the other hand, seemed to be getting richer all the time. People at every level of society were looking for patrons and protectors to enable them to share in the redistribution of wealth. Most government employees were reluctant to carry on working without back-up measures (2).

The electoral process that started in Congo in 1992 was never completed and the new institutions have never really worked. Because of an electoral dispute in one region, the National Assembly (dissolved in early legislative elections in 1993) was able to sit for a whole term without all its members being elected.

Mayors were supposed to be chosen by elected local councillors, but the Lissouba government decided to appoint them as acting mayors. It was 1997 before the High Council of the Magistracy and the High Council for Communications provided for by the constitution were actually set up. The Constitutional Council members were not appointed until May 1997, at the end of the president's five-year term. They were sworn in as the bombs fell and held their first meeting on 21 July 1997, extending the president's mandate (3).

From 1995, with freedom of expression under increasing threat and many journalists arrested, a debate opened on the 1992 constitution which was said to be unrealistic. There were calls for a traditional African-style consensual democracy instead of the opposition democracy imported from the North. The president took control of the Special Official Census Coordinating Committee which was organising the electoral registers. Was the aim to create machinery that avoided the need to go to the country, or at least extended the democratically elected president's prerogatives?

There was widespread apprehension about the 1997 elections. War had already broken out at the end of 1993. Tension mounted when the results of the 1992 legislative elections were contested. Each of the three main political leaders had formed his own militia: Pascal Lissouba, Denis Sassou Nguesso and Bernard Kolelas, mayor of Brazzaville and at that time leader of the opposition allied with the ex-president, and later appointed prime minister during the 1997 war. At least two thousand people were killed in the confrontation between Mr Lissouba's and Mr Kolelas' soldiers.

Peace gradually returned after a period of insecurity lasting for the whole of 1994 and most of 1995, particularly in Brazzaville, which had suffered very badly in the first war. But it was no secret that the militias of the three political leaders were still arming themselves and training. The disarmament of the militias was a recurring theme in the political debate.

The second war in President Lissouba's five-year term was expected, but it began earlier and was much more violent than anticipated (4). On 5 June 1997, after several incidents in the north of the country, the Congolese army, backed by the militia supporting President Lissouba, surrounded Mr Sassou Nguesso's residence in Brazzaville. Mr Sassou Nguesso's own militia, clearly heavily armed, retaliated. After over four months of fighting, resulting in between four to ten thousand deaths and the devastation of the capital, which was emptied of its inhabitants, the victorious Mr Sassou Nguesso announced on 16 October that the war was over.

It was partly because of the international community's policy of active non-interference that a conflict of democracy was resolved by force. There were fears of intervention by Laurent Kabila's government, which had had a rapprochement with President Lissouba and announced its intention of sending troops across the river to stop the shelling of Kinshasa. But Mr Kabila was presumably too concerned with his difficult relations with his Rwandan and Ugandan allies, and, despite his efforts, Mr Lissouba was unable to win the support of Uganda and Rwanda.

It was Angola that provided the solution. The links between Mr Sassou Nguesso and the Angolan president, Eduardo Dos Santos, were stronger than the close relationship between Mr Lissouba and Jonas Savimbi, UNITA leader and sworn enemy of Mr Dos Santos. Angola managed to resolve an internal conflict with Mr Savimbi and also with the Cabinda Liberation Front independence movement, (an Angolan enclave in the former Zaire which has a common border with the Congo, alongside which most of Angola's oil resources are concentrated).

Having won the oil battle at Pointe-Noire virtually unopposed with the aid of Angolan troops, Mr Sassou Nguesso has fought his way back to power five years after a period in which, despite all the odds, some Congolese still had faith in democratisation.

How will Mr Sassou Nguesso now deal with those that probably helped him (Angola, Gabon, France, Elf) (5) and those that apparently distanced themselves from him (former Zaire, Rwanda, Uganda, the United States)? How is he going to govern with the country in ruins and undisciplined militias on the rampage? Restoring national unity to the Congo is going to be a difficult task, to say the least.


(1) After the elections Mr Sassou Nguesso tried to appoint his supporters to the key ministries (hydrocarbons, army, interior). Mr Lissouba refused, the alliance broke down and the president lost his absolute majority in the Assembly. The situation deteriorated and led to the first war of 1993.

(2) Congolese euphemism for gratuities.

(3) Le Monde, 22 July 1997. Under the constitution the mandate of the president elected in 1992 could not extend beyond 31 August 1997.

(4) It is clear from the violence of the fighting, the heavy weaponry of the two militias (aircraft, helicopters, etc.) and the duration of the conflict that they must have received significant amounts of aid.

(5) For the part played by France and Elf in supporting Mr Sassou Nguesso, see Le Canard enchaîné, Paris, 22 October 1997.