Has Sassou Nguesso Escaped Punishment for Congo’s Post-Electoral Violence?

Police officers search several men after clashes between security forces and government opponents. Brazzaville, Republic of the Congo. April 4, 2016. (Stringer/AFP/Getty Images)

Reports of political oppression continue to emanate from the Republic of the Congo, as President Denis Sassou Nguesso seeks to consolidate his rule. Last month, Sassou Nguesso appointed former opposition leader and southerner Clement Mouamba as Prime Minister, seeking support across the political and regional divide. This followed an intense security operation in opposition strongholds, which has now largely faded from international view. The risk of a continuing muted response is that Sassou Nguesso may further test the limits of his ability to neutralize his political adversaries.

Proclaimed winner of the March 20th presidential election after a 2015 constitutional referendum removed a two-term presidential limit and age restriction, Sassou Nguesso is set to extend his 32-year rule by another five years. This was despite institutions such as the European Union expressing serious doubts about the credibility of the poll. The 2015 referendum also created the new position filled by Mouamba, who is valued as a technocrat former minister of finance and Congolese representative at the Bank of Central African States. He is likely seen as an ally who can help Sassou Nguesso deliver on his promise to improve the country’s struggling oil-dependent economy.

A former adviser to Sassou Nguesso who later defected to lead the Pan-African Union for Social Democracy, Mouamba participated in the Sibiti dialogue that paved the way for the 2015 referendum. He is tasked with leading a new government that claims to be a break from the old and has already removed longstanding Sassou Nguesso allies, though the President retains effective control of all appointments and major decisions.

Another significant change in personnel is the removal of Peace and Reconciliation Envoy Frederic Bintsamou, who was accused of plotting a post-election shootout in the capital of Brazzaville and southern city of Pointe Noire on April 4th that killed several members of government security forces. Bintsamou is also known as Pasteur Ntumi, a charismatic cult figure who led the Ninja Nsiloulou militia, which was a key participant in Congo’s 1990s and 2000s civil conflict. After its official disbanding in 2007, most of the group’s fighters reverted back to their original function of community policing, but a small group have perpetrated occasional violence in the southern Pool region. Although the Ninjas are accused of plotting against Sassou Nguesso’s government and launching a terrorist operation, the state is yet to make its evidence public. Bintsamou, meanwhile, has accused the government of deliberately arming the Ninja rebels in order to create chaos and justify a subsequent security crackdown.

This crackdown focused on the historically marginalized Pool, which remained a hostile region with some rebel activity after the end of the decades of civil war. For more than two weeks in April, Pool suffered aerial bombardments, raids, and arbitrary arrests of the government’s opponents. At least three presidential candidates—Jean Marie Michel Mokoko, Claudine Munari, and Andrew Okombi Salissa—were placed under house arrest in Brazzaville.

Amnesty International estimates at least 30 bombs were dropped on residential areas, with security forces targeting Bintsamou’s residence in Vindza in particular. Although the rights group has very limited access to the area, eyewitness reports claim at least 30 people were killed. The Congo opposition claims the figure was as high as 600 killed and 2,000 displaced. While that may be wildly exaggerated, it does suggest the need for a serious investigation. The violence has also been compounded by arrests of opposition figures, including 50 people in connection with the April 4th shootings. Guided press tours the government permitted to the bombing area did not reveal the full extent of the damage, and local rights groups continue to press for an independent inquiry and unrestricted access. A government spokesperson dismissed Amnesty’s report as making biased and unsubstantiated allegations, indicating there is little chance of further oversight without a concerted international effort.

If Sassou Nguesso wanted his potential final term to run smoothly—as his appointment of Mouamba attests—it was in his interests to find a quick exit from the Pool siege. For a while, this seemed unlikely. The United Nations human rights watchdog expressed deep concern over the alleged targeting of civilians and displacement of the local population. The UN deployed the Secretary-General’s Special Representative in Central Africa, Abdoulaye Bathily, to consult with key political actors. The United States and EU also called for a peaceful resolution and members of US Congress even met with Congolese opposition representatives, who visited Washington to try to raise international awareness.

In the past month, however, the level of attention has died down. The impression is that Sassou Nguesso may have got away with a show of force designed to quickly crush opposition and consolidate power. While the violence has indeed subsided to a large degree, there is no guarantee the uneasy peace will last. Counting in the President’s favor is the fact that the international community may be wary of taking on another seemingly intractable political challenge in Central Africa as crises in Burundi and elsewhere continue, and memories of Congo’s troubled past persist. Under the circumstances, a return to a delicate equilibrium could be seen as an alternative to prolonged conflict. There is a great risk in this, however: as well as denying justice to the victims in Pool, abandoning efforts to make a full account of the violence and oppression may tempt Sassou Nguesso to revive his efforts should he be challenged once more.

To mitigate further tensions, the UN’s Bathily should not delay any further and hold talks with the relevant stakeholders. Despite being deployed to Brazzaville last month, he is reportedly yet to consult with the national authorities and opposition. After the tense constitutional referendum last October, Bathily intervened to defuse tensions at the request of France. Perhaps a stronger push from international actors is again necessary for the UN to act and ensure hostilities do not escalate.

As Sassou Nguesso’s controversial new five-year term progresses, the targeting of opposition politicians and activists continues. Although the government denies it, at least 50 people are reported to have been arrested in connection with the April 4th shootings, with the opposition continuing to call for their unconditional release. If political talks materialize, this might present a hurdle for the UN envoy as it could be more difficult to bring opposition hardliners to the reconciliation table, let alone encourage them to consider playing a meaningful role in post-election Congo. Open dialogue and an inquiry into the bombing of Pool is important before the siege completely falls off the international radar and, more significantly, creates a desire for retribution among the bombed communities and bigger problems for the regime.

Tendai Marima is an independent postdoctoral researcher and freelance journalist based in Southern Africa. Follow @i_amten.