Congo-Brazzaville: Constitutional reform plans trigger opposition unrest

30 Sep 2015

Congo-Brazzaville: Constitutional reform plans tri...
  •   Tens of thousands of people gathered in Brazzaville on 27 September to protest planned constitutional changes that will allow President Denis Sassou-Nguesso to extend his rule in elections next year. 
  •   The demonstration represents growing resentment to the proposed changes, particularly among southern communities, and illustrates the potential for further unrest in the coming months.
  •   There is currently a low risk of conflict as the government maintains the support of the military but mass protests will continue intermittently in the build-up to a referendum on planned constitutional reforms


The protests marked the largest gathering in Brazzaville since Sassou-Nguesso returned to power in 1997, and involved some 300,000 people in a rally on the central Boulevard Alfred Raoul. Discontent has been growing for some months over the president’s widely anticipated attempt to change the constitution, a move that was confirmed on 22 September when Sassou-Nguesso announced a constitutional referendum would take place on an unspecified date before elections next year. Although the government held a “national dialogue” on the constitutional changes in July, most opposition and civil society groups boycotted the process under a coalition called the Front Republicain pour le Respect de l'Ordre Constitutionnel et l'Alternance Democratique (FROCAD). The government claimed a “large majority” of participants in the national dialogue had favoured changes to the constitution, which include removing an upper age limit on the president as well as the number of term limits the head of state can serve.

The large turnout at the FROCAD demonstration indicates the emergence of an increasingly robust protest movement in support of the “No” campaign. The opposition has been bolstered in recent months by the defection of several prominent government figures who oppose the constitutional changes. The most notable of these were Civil Service Minister Guy Brice Parfait Kolelas and Trade Minister Claudine Munari, who were dismissed from their posts on 10 August after criticising the constitutional reform campaign. Brice Parfait is influential in the populous Pool region, where the government must rally support if it is to be successful in the campaign for constitutional reform. They join Andre Okombi Salissa, who was a member of the president’s government from 1997 to 2012 and was one of the key speakers at the rally on 27 September. Salissa enjoys widespread support in Plateaux and Bouenza regions and has emerged as a key opposition figure. The emergence of such key figures as opponents to the reform agenda highlights the possibility for the opposition to mobilise protesters in the run-up to the referendum, increasing the risk of disruption and rioting.


Regional divisions

Significantly, many of the most prominent dissenters are figures from southern Congo, who supported former president Pascal Lissouba during the 1997 civil war. The conflict was fought along regional lines, pitting Lissouba’s southern forces against Sassou-Nguesso’s supporters in the north. It is unsurprising, therefore, that southern politicians are opposed to constitutional changes that would maintain the dominance of the northern elite on which the president’s power resides.

In an attempt to counteract the emergence of a coherent southern faction and solidify political support ahead of a referendum on the proposed constitutional changes, the president has undertaken multiple government reshuffles aimed at consolidating his authority in the south in the past year. Munari was replaced as trade minister by the president’s ally Landry Kolelas, a figure who has considerable support in the southern Pool region, and is seen as a key challenger to Guy Parfait’s support base there. The president also appointed Jean-Marc Thystère Tchicaya in the hugely influential role of oil minister. Tchicaya is a native of Pointe Noire and leader of the Rassemblement pour la Démocratie et le Progrès Social (RDPS), a party that dominates the oil capital. Many of RDPS’s supporters oppose constitutional reform and Pointe Noire more generally is an opposition stronghold, so the support of Tchicaya is seen to be vital in maintaining the president’s influence in the region.

Despite growing opposition in the south as a result of the constitutional reform programme, the campaign is unlikely to deteriorate into wider conflict. Northerners from Sassou-Nguesso’s Mbochi ethnic group dominate the military and have shown little sign of dissent. Although prone to clan rivalries, on the issue of constitutional reform the Mbochi broadly support the president’s re-election. Sassou-Nguesso has ensured members of the Mbochi have held many of the most important and lucrative positions in government and the military and businesses see it in their own interest to prolong his power.


Continuing unrest

Nonetheless, FROCAD will remain a key instigator of civil unrest in southern Congo in the coming months, channelling discontent relating to deteriorating economic prospects since the fall in world oil prices and long-standing accusations of political repression. Brazzaville and Pointe Noire will be the focus of the unrest, as the country’s main urban centres, both with a strong opposition presence. It is unlikely the unrest in Pointe Noire would severely affect oil interests, most of which are offshore or in rural areas, and the government will likely deploy security forces to protect key port operations, as has been the case during the past demonstrations. The risk of disruption will increase in the event trade unions join the campaign against constitutional change, though there has been no indication of this yet.

Although the protest on 27 September was broadly peaceful, the government’s tendency to react to demonstrations with violence means there is a strong risk of clashes breaking out during future protests. In the event of any significant violence, demonstrations condemning the arrest or killing of protesters may extend to secondary cities, but there is little likelihood the president will reverse his reform agenda now a referendum has been announced. Once a date for a referendum has been scheduled protests will likely increase in momentum as FROCAD seeks to mobilise supporters against the reform process.


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