The Republic of Congo's President Denis Sassou Nguesso, one of Africa's longest-serving leaders, has clung onto power according to an official tally of Sunday's election that was released on Thursday, giving him 60 percent of the vote. His victory, which the country's Constitutional Court is likely to validate, would complete what his critics describe as the 72-year-old's efforts to carry out a "constitutional coup," which involved abolishing age restrictions and term limits to enable his reelection.
Voters in the Central African country cast their ballots during a communications blackout after the government ordered telecom providers to block internet, phone, and messaging networks to supposedly avoid the unauthorized reporting of election results. It also banned the use of motor vehicles on election day unless the drivers had special permission. Communications services were still blocked when Interior Minister Raymond Zephyrin appeared on state television to announce the official results, with Sasso Nguesso securing a majority and avoiding a runoff.
By the government's count, Sassou Nguesso has extended a long tenure that first began in 1979. The former military commander was democratically voted out of office in 1992 but took power again in 1997 during a civil war. He went on to secure two victories at the polls in 2002 and 2009, although voting fraud was alleged in both those contests.
That pattern repeated itself this year. Sassou Nguesso's political opposition has accused him of cheating, maintaining that independent counts indicated that he did not secure the 50 percent needed in the first round of voting to avoid a runoff. According to official tallies, Guy Brice Parfait Kolelas and former General Jean-Marie Mokoko won 15 and 14 percent of the vote respectively. But a coalition representing five different opposition candidates said that Sassou Nguesso was actually trailing his opponents.
"It is impossible that the candidate-president could claim a victory, even taking into account only the partial results," said a statement put out by the coalition on Wednesday night.
Mokoko's campaign sent out a statement on Thursday confirming that their reporting indicated the president had not received a majority. Mokoko reinforced accusations of voter fraud and the expectation that the president would rig the elections in his favor. The former chief of staff of the armed forces, who resigned as a security adviser to Sassou Nguesso in February to run against him, has rejected the official results and called for a recount.
"As we have kept on saying, throughout the campaign, if such an outcome was imposed on you, you would be within your right to consider it yet another abuse of power," the 69-year-old candidate said in his address to the public. "If the government persists in cheating, then we will be obliged to seek recourse with the people so that they understand the consequences of their vote being stolen."
Mokoko acknowledged the public effort to fight the constitutional changes proposed by the government last year, which he said came at a great cost, including deaths and arrests. He concluded the statement, which his campaign referred to as a call to action, by saying, "People of Congo, your destiny is in your hands. It is up to you to defend it."
The constitutional controversy started last July when political leaders announced a move to remove the two-term limit and 70-year-old age restriction from the constitution, paving the way for Sassou Nguesso to seek another term. By October, when the government scheduled a referendum for the changes, an unprecedented popular protest movement of various youth and opposition groups united under the slogan "Sassoufit" — a play on a French word ça suffit, which means "enough."
This marked the first significant protest movement in the country since the end of the civil war in 1999, which kept Sassou Nguesso in power. For years, citizens had feared any major show against the government, which has long been accused of human rights abuses, disappearances, and harsh crackdowns on dissent.
As demonstrations escalated, the protests eventually turned violent with security forces killing several participants. The opposition boycotted the referendum, which eventually passed with 92 percent voting in favor.
The people of Congo have faced several challenges in standing up to the government in the months between the October referendum and Sunday's election. Following deadly clashes, the protest movement went underground with plans to resurface ahead of the election. In the meantime, authorities watched opposition candidates closely. Mokoko saw security forces surround his home in February when he returned home from neighboring Central African Republic, where he was serving as the African Union's special representative there, to run for president.
Momentum gathered last week with thousands of people attending opposition rallies across the country ahead of the vote. Demonstrators had initially planned to gather after a rally on Friday to demonstrate against the election, but energy dwindled as safety became a major concern and opposition members urged party members to express their views at the polls.
As streets emptied out on Friday and activists came to the realization that there would be no major demonstrations before the vote, one youth member of the UPC opposition party expressed disappointment that opposition leaders did not seize an unusual opportunity to mobilize people in the country.
"I have tears in my eyes," he said, asking not to be identified for fear of reprisal from the government. The Brazzaville resident said opposition party members who refused to protest were essentially endorsing Sassou Nguesso's victory.
With news setting in on Thursday that Sassou Nguesso had come out on top, and cell phone networks finally up and running again, the activist said the leader had "stolen" the victory. According to the young party member, many had expected an opposition leader to take to the streets and demonstrate against the results. Though Mokoko has been defiant, the activist said the movement is looking for concerted action in the streets from opposition leaders rather than talk.
"The cup is full, all it would take for it to overrun is one single drop," he remarked. "I must say that in the streets, young people are gathered in small and large groups, waiting for things to get heated."
Some remained optimistic that a grassroots movement could still form against Sassou Nguesso. Andrea Ngombet, the Paris-based organizer for the Sassoufit umbrella movement, said plans were still in the work for more demonstrations. He pointed to the crackdown on protests and the election media blackout as proof of government repression in Congo.
"Now the challenges for Congolese people is to rise up for liberty and justice," he said. "Coming next is tears, blood, and freedom from the dictatorship."
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