Denis Sassou Nguesso’s dangerous game in Congo Brazzaville

Denis Sassou Nguesso’s dangerous game in Congo Brazzaville

After a contested referendum on allowing president Nguesso a third term, Congo Brazzaville, one of the continent’s largest oil exporters, braces itself for what comes next as the opposition rejects the results and calls for annulment.   

A resounding “yes in Congo Brazzaville’s (Congo-B) referendum on a constitutional amendment has cleared the way for President Denis Sassou Nguesso to extend his 31-year rule.

According to the electoral commission the measure passed with 92.26 percent of the vote, with a voter turnout of 72.44 percent. The proposed change would scrap the term limit and provision barring people over 70 years from running (Nguesso would be in violation of both).

The opposition has contested the turnout and demands the result be annulled.

According to opposition leader Pascal Tsaty Mabiala of the Pan-African Union for Social Democracy, the turnout discredits the referendum entirely. Gauging the turnout is tricky because on one hand, Freedom House categorizes Congo-B as not free with reports of political repression and rampant corruption. On the other hand, the reported turnout is strikingly in line with average electoral participation.  



However, there are reports of some ethnic groups being largely excluded from the political process as well as poor turnout in the capital.

Further, Nguesso has a history of sidestepping the law and his bid for a third term has drawn international condemnation, notably from former colonial ruler France. Mr. Nguesso is part of the larger trend of long-time incumbents trying to extend their rule through constitutional amendments.

So far he appears to be the only one to have managed an extension this way.

Vulnerable economy and potential political unrest  

The political risk is evident when taking into account that along with Angola and Nigeria, Brazzaville is a substantial exporter of oil in Africa.

Some 74% of government revenue comes from oil and leaves the economy vulnerable to shocks in commodity prices, like this year’s price tumble for oil. Taken together with the potential for violence over the referendum and Nguesso’s penchant for repression of the opposition, the risk to investors is on the rise.

Should Nguesso’s ability to dispense patronage and control the corruption in the oil industry spiral out of hand in his third term with oil revenues drying up – violence, like in other parts of Africa, is sure to follow.   

Short and median term outlook

For the short term, all eyes are on the disorganized opposition who has suffered from lack of unity and intimidation by government security forces.

This disunity was clearly exemplified by the canceling of otherwise high profile national protest on Friday 30th October. The reason offered by the opposition groups was in remembrance of those killed in the pre-referendum violence.

The internal differences between the two major opposition coalitions appear insurmountable in the face of a strengthened Nguesso.   

In the medium term, baring the unlikely event the opposition rallies around another candidate, Ngeusso is likely to win a third term.

Having brought the army to heel and managed to quash any serious contenders, Ngeusso has positioned himself as the only viable option. Investors must be weary of continued corruption in the oil and commodities sectors as well as of a fragile political situation.  

More violence cannot be ruled out and investors would do well to heed the lessons of other African countries where incumbents played the same dangerous game Nguesso is playing today.

About Author

Jesper Bak-Christensen

Jesper Bak-Christensen: Is an international security analyst with a focus on African security, natural resources and non-state groups. He has worked on mapping shadow networks of corruption and their impact on politics and mining operations. He holds degrees in International Relations and Security Studies from the University of Maastricht, Netherlands and the University of St. Andrews, Scotland.