Congo-Brazzaville constitutional debate fuels uncertainty

Congo-Brazzaville constitutional debate fuels uncertainty

President Sassou-Nguesso’s attempts to change the constitution to allegedly run for a third term are dividing the political class, raising fears of instability in a country already affected by falling oil prices.

As co-founder of the ruling Parti Congolais du Travail (PCT) in 1969, President in 1979-1992 and then again after the civil war from 1997, Denis Sassou-Nguesso has been engaged in the Republic of Congo’s political life since the country’s independence from France in 1960.

Now 72 years old, Sassou-Nguesso is considering amending the 2002 constitution, which prevents Presidents from serving more than two consecutive seven-year terms, and prohibits those over 70 from running. That prompted a national debate, raising questions about the outcomes of the 2016 election and its impact on the security and business environment.

A divided political class

Though Sassou-Nguesso has not officially announced whether he would run in 2016, he and the PCT have talked about changing the constitution and holding a referendum on the matter since early 2014. But the Congolese political class is very divided on the question.

The majority argues that the Constitution has become obsolete, as it was established in a post-war context to restore stability. But the opposition and civil society groups think Sassou is attempting a “constitutional coup” to be able to run for a third term. The ousting of Burkina Faso’s president Compaoré in October 2014, after similar attempts to amend the Constitution to stay in power, seems to have boosted the Congolese opposition’s resistance.

Both camps face internal divisions though, with the moderate opposition advocating dialogue and consultation in order to smooth tensions. Conversely, the radical opposition – headed by Mathias Dzon (UPRN), Clément Mierassa (PSDC) – refuses dialogue and opposes the constitutional change.

Sassou managed to exacerbate those divisions when he launched last-minute national consultations last May, taking the opposition by surprise: UPADS (main opposition force) members were suspended for participating despite the official coalition’s boycott. Divided into too many parties, among which only the UPADS is represented in Parliament (7 seats), and lacking in resources and members, the opposition does not pose a serious challenge to the majority.

The majority is also facing internal divisions because of the debate. Affiliated parties such as the MCDDI (second force of the majority) are opposed to the change. Such divisions reflect significant support among the political class and the civil society for the respect of the constitution and a change in power.

Nevertheless, the majority remains strong. Sassou-Nguesso’s ethnic group (Mbochi) dominates the PCT and the military, thus controlling the Congolese political scene and the oil-dominated economy (60% of GDP). The leadership of the PCT and the military will try to retain their power by maintaining the status quo under Sassou-Nguesso, and will therefore support the change of the Constitution.

So far, Sassou-Nguesso has appeared to remain deliberately vague on his intentions in order to save time in imposing the reform. For that, he can count on a strong inner circle, including potential successors: his son Denis-Christel, deputy director general of downstream oil for SNPC (the national oil company); his nephew Jean-Dominique Okemba, head of security services, chairman of the BGFIBANK Congo’s board; his cousin’s son, Jean-Jacques Bouya, minister in charge of Planning and of the General Delegation of Great Works and Lucien Ebata, director of Forbes Africa, owner of an oil trading company.

Congo faces three main electoral scenarios, detailed below from most likely to least likely.

1. Sassou-Nguesso is re-elected.

Given the majority’s grip on power and the weakness of the opposition, Sassou-Nguesso will be easily re-elected, thus maintaining the status quo. France will certainly take targeted sanctions against Congo. This is unlikely to seriously threaten bilateral ties, since it remains Congo’s first economic partner. As the international community and Congolese political actors fear a new civil war, they will ultimately accept the status quo and try to appease tensions.

Peaceful opposition and church group demonstrations are very likely, mainly in urban centres like Brazzaville and Pointe-Noire. But they are unlikely to degenerate given the political actors’ determination to avoid violence.

2. Sassou-Nguesso changes the Constitution, but chooses to be succeeded by a member of his inner circle.

The most likely candidate in this scenario is Jean-Dominique Okemba. As the regime’s number two, he has influence over all the national strategic sectors. France is likely to prefer him as a successor: he was awarded the Legion of Honour in 2011.

Denis-Christel is the second most likely successor. He is a key element in the oil and gas sector, which would reassure investors.  But his Zairian origins, his involvement in financial scandals, and his bad relations with Okemba could disadvantage him. Known for his extravagant spending, he is likely to mismanage Congo finances even more than his father.

3. The opposition wins.

An opposition win could trigger massive protests by majority supporters. Violence is very likely in this scenario. The military could turn on the opposition. Such instability will hamper economic growth and scare away investors.

Impact on business climate

For now, political instability is not affecting the business environment. However, despite a 6.8% growth in 2014, falling oil prices over the past months are weakening Congo’s economic prospects (IMF projects average 3% growth per annum for 2015-20). Therefore social and infrastructure spending is already decreasing, with government projects being delayed.

As Congo lacks some fiscal buffers to absorb falling oil prices, Congo may also devalue its currency. Lower expenditures and higher inflation could encourage social unrest, especially when they affect disgruntled segments of society (unions, students).

Because of the All Africa Games in Brazzaville in September 2015, the summer should be quiet. However, uncertainty in 2016 is likely to push investors to slow down their activities and focus on specific sectors of the national economy, like hydrocarbons and construction. Investors should focus their activities in Pointe-Noire, Congo’s commercial centre, as it is normally spared by the capital’s turmoil.

There has been no popular demonstration against Sassou’s proposed reform so far, indicating that the population seems resigned to accept a third term or one of his relatives as a successor. But social unrest cannot be excluded as social tensions remain.

The June 5 student demonstrations seem to indicate an increased frustration of the Congolese society, a factor for long-term unrest. The energy sector in the Congo is unlikely to be impacted though, as Congolese are well aware that this sector is vital for the economy.

About Author

Djenabou Cisse

Djenabou Cisse is a political analyst. She holds a Master's in International Security and a Bachelor in Political Science from Sciences Po Paris. She currently works for the think tank G-NOVA where her research focuses on digital diplomacy, defence, MENA/Subsaharan Africa and transatlalantic issues.