March 21, 2021
The Congo Republic pressed ahead with a presidential election on Sunday with the Internet and social media sites down since midnight, the main opposition candidate gravely ill and all signs showing the incumbent, Denis Sassou Nguesso, likely to win yet another poll following a boycott by the main opposition.
Security forces casting their ballots in Brazzaville on March 17 ahead of the country’s March 21, 2021 presidential election. © Hereward Holland, REUTERS
By FRANCE 24 with AFP, AP, and REUTERS
The 77-year-old incumbent is widely expected to win against six contenders, led by economist and 2016 presidential runner-up Guy-Brice Parfait Kolelas, who revealed Saturday that he is gravely ill.
Voting began at a polling station in the capital Brazzaville shortly after 7am local time, according to witnesses.
Access to the Internet and social media was cut hours before polls opened, with the watchdog group NetBlocks reporting an Internet blackout that began in the Central African country around midnight on election day
Sassou Nguesso, a former paratrooper, first rose to power in the Congo Republic in 1979 and has since accumulated 36 years in office, making him one of the world’s longest-serving leaders.
He is widely expected to win a fourth term in office despite an ongoing economic crisis and accusations of having mismanaged the country’s oil revenues.
UN and EU observers were not invited to monitor Sunday’s election, and the interior ministry refused to allow the Catholic Church’s 1,100 observers to take part.
Main challenger ‘battling against death’
A day before polls opened, Kolelas, 66, the main opposition challenger, posted a video message online showing himself in a sickbed, declaring he was “battling against death” after taking off a respiratory mask.
“Rise up as one person… I’m fighting on my deathbed, you too fight for your change,” he urged supporters, saying the election was “about the future of your children” before replacing his mask.
Campaign spokesman Cyr Mayanda told the Associated Press on Sunday that Kolelas’s condition was stable, but that plans were underway for a medical evacuation to France for further treatment.
Doubts and boycotts
Congo’s Catholic Church episcopal conference has already expressed “serious reservations” about the ballot’s transparency.
The largest opposition group, the Pan-African Union for Social Democracy or UPADS, is boycotting the poll.
UPADS – the group of former president Pascal Lissouba, who died in France last August – is the only opposition party to have a parliamentary group in the current national assembly.
Flanked by its giant neighbour the Democratic Republic of Congo and Gabon, the former French colony has oil reserves and most of its budget comes from petroleum revenue.
But its economy is in a slump, hurt by a collapse in world crude oil prices, long-standing debt, and the pandemic, as well as being saddled with a reputation for corruption.
On the campaign trail, Sassou Nguesso focused on agricultural development and portrayed himself as a defender of Congo’s youth – the average age of the population of five million is just 19, according to UN figures.
Winner of every election since 1997
After first coming to power in 1979, Sassou Nguesso was forced to introduce multi-party elections in 1991 and was defeated at the ballot box a year later.
But he returned to power in 1997 following a prolonged civil war.
He has won every election since, which the opposition have mostly slammed as fraudulent.
A constitutional amendment in 2015, which ended a ban on presidential candidates aged over 70 and scrapped a two-term limit, allowed Sassou Nguesso to run again a year later.
Two rivals who contested the 2016 results – former army general Jean-Marie Michel Mokoko and ex-minister Andre Okombi Salissa – were later jailed for 20 years, effectively sidelining the opposition.