Congo, Republic of the

December 14, 2010 § Leave a comment

R CongoWho lives there?: There are two countries named Congo. A common misconception is that there is some animosity between the two – an actual fact they are broadly indifferent to each other as there has never been much in the way of cross river linkages (trade normally happens up and down the banks rather than across). However they both claim the name of the river that separates them as the name of their country. As a result various naming conventions have been tried. Some call the big one the Democratic Republic of Congo and the small one the Republic of Congo; some call the big one Congo-Kinshasa and the small one Congo-Brassaville; some call the big one ” Congo” and the small one “the Congo” which is maddening. The big one used to be called Zaire but that is now frowned upon for historical reasons. This article is about the small one.

About 4 million people live here. French is the official language and French literacy is around 80%: but most people speak one of 63 local languages. Lingala and Kituba (trade languages) are used for inter group communication. The religious split is roughly 50/50 between Catholic and Protestant.

There are a number of different ethnic groups. The largest are known as the Kongo and make up about 50% of the population. They are divided into a number of subgroups: the largest are the Laari along the coast and the Teke in the north. Other major ethnic groups include the Boulangui:12% of the population mostly in Brazzaville and the north-west; and Pygmies: 10% of the population, mostly in the deep jungle.

How does the system work? (the theory): The Congo has a very strong President who exercises almost all power. They are elected by two round first past the post. Terms are for seven years; there is no term limit.

There is a bicameral parliament, which has been seen at time as a bit of a rubber stamp authority. The lower house has 153 members elected by two round first past the post for five years. The upper house, the senate, is elected for six year terms in thirds every two years. There are 72 senators, 6 from each of the 12 provinces. They are elected indirectly – every member of a local authority of any kind having one vote. As far as I can tell elections are by single non transferable vote but details are hard to find. I believe the electoral college meet in a physical location and elect their senators in a conference-like atmosphere.

The Congo is divided into 12 departments which are in turn divided into 86 districts and 3 communes.Each elects a local council on the French model – first past the post councillors who then go on to elect a leadership.

How does the system work? (the practice): The Congo was a one party state for many years, in theory multi-party democracy has been introduced but in practice the Congo reverted to one party rule after 1997. Opposition parties might be legal but they don’t stand much chance of winning – media bias, the disqualification of prominent members of the opposition on spurious grounds, and voting irregularities see to that.

How did we get here?: The Congo basin was originally only inhabited by pygmy tribes but Bantu trading empires took over the area at some point after 200BC. The French took over the area in 1880 and it was ruled as a French colony for the next 80 years. The French weren’t much better than the Belgians across the river, but they were a bit better – especially after 1944 – and for this reason this side of the Congo was more infrastructurally developed, and that my explain why it has been a bit more stable.

The Congo became independent in 1960. The regime adopted a marxist doctrine with heavy military involvement right from the off. There was initially some democracy but an internal coup in 1968 ended that. Further internal coups in 1977 and 1979 brought forth ever more hard-line communist regimes. This culminated in Denis Sassou Nguesso‘s stalinist PCT regime which ruled from 1977 to 1992.

In 1991, with Soviet patronage having evaporated, the PCT decided to moderate its stance and reintroduce multiparty elections. The first of these were held in 1992 and were won by Pascal Lissouba and his Pan-African Union for Social Democracy: a left wing umbrella group supported by the PCT and Sassou (who knew they couldn’t win outright).

However as the 1997 elections approached, Sassou and Lissouba started to fall out. Both accused the other of wanting to win the next election outright, without the other, and by any means. In June, Lissouba tried to arrest Sassou and sent the army to his private compound. Sassou ordered his private militia (the Cobras) to resist and civil war broke out.

On the one side was Lissouba’s army, his private militia (the Mambas: Congolese presidents like snake names), and various other anti-marxist militias (the Cocoye, the Nossulu, and the Ninjas). On the other side were initially only Sassou’s cobras, but he called for help from his fellow Marxists in the Angolan Government who invaded in his support. As a result the war got a little tangled up in the Second Congolese War and various Angolan allies (Hutu militias etc..) came too.

The Angolans were by far the most powerful of the forces involved and within months Sassou was once again president. By 1999 the other groups gave in and agreed to a peace. Sassou and the PCT have been in charge ever since.

The only group not to accept the peace were the Ninjas. They were an ethno-Christian group based around the charismatic Pastor Ntumi (real name Frédéric Bintsamou) and the Pool Province in the inland south. They fought on until defeated in 2002, at which point they maintained a low level insurgency until Ntumi was offered a ministerial post in 2007.

Who’s in charge?: Sassou is pretty much unchallenged these days. The PCT are the only organisation of any size. Apart from them everything is deeply fragmented: there are 200 other political parties, almost all of whom are minute and personality or ethnicity based. For the sake of form, and to more effectively command a majority, Sassou has created a coalition of the PCT and 60 minute political parties – this coalition is called the RMT.

Since the civil war the Pan-African Union for Social Democracy  are totally anti-Sassou and are the strongest opposition party. Lissouba no longer leads them but is very much still the power behind the scenes. Whilst RMT dominated the parliament does sometimes stand up to the president. Before the last Parliamentary elections senior PCT and RMT parliamentarians shocked many by writing to the President demanding an independent election commission. It didn’t happen, but it caused quite a stir.

In the latest – 2009 – presidential election Sassou won on the first round with 79% of the vote. In second place with 8% was Joseph Kignoumbi Kia Mboungou – a former member of the Pan-African Union for Social Democracy running as an independent.

In the 2007 Parliamentary election the PCT won 47 seats and other minor members of the RMT won 79 others. The opposition won only 11 seats.

The RMT coalition consists of: PCT 47, Independents 37, MCDDI (formerly the main opposition pro-democracy party) 11, MAR (the Pointe Noir based movement of poet Jean-Baptiste Tati Loutard) 5, MSD (a regional movement) 3, Club 2002 (a political club that thought they’d try running for election) 3, AGIR (a former pro-democracy umbrella group) 3, FDN (an umbrella of 15 regional parties) 3, UPDP (an anti Lissouba party) 2, RDPS (left wing) 2, UP (the party of a lawyer – Mbemba – who rose to fame attempting to defend the Nazi Kaus Barbie in French court by showing how the French government had done things in the Congo just as bad as those Barbie was accused of) 2, UR (ethnic pro Bouenza) 1, UFD  (another regional party) 1, MDP  (another regional party) 1, Youth in Movement (pro youth) 1, RC (Brazzaville based party) 1, Life Party (protestant evangelicals) 1, and UPDP (anti-Lissouba) 1.

The opposition seats split as follows: Pan-African Union for Social Democracy 10, UDR (the party of a former Prime Minister) 1.

Congo parties

I don’t have exact figures for the Senate but I believe the Pan-African Union for Social Democracy have around 6 seats and all the rest are RMT.

What does it look like?: This:

Sorry, it’s still funny. The Congo consists of the Congo basin in the centre and a coastal savannah plain in the south-west. In the north and west the jungle is bordered by the Cameroonian highlands.

The Congo basin contains some of the world’s thickest rainforest. Bizzarely enough it is not very old, what is now dense rainforest was open savannah in the 15th century – warm climates and the river caused the forest to expand rapidly over the last 500 years.  The Congo is a “backwards river” in that it is massive, slow, and silty in its upper stretches and incredibly fast flowing and quite narrow in its lower estuary. Here are some of the most famous rapids – which collectively form the Livingstone falls:


What are the issues?: The Congo has fewer diamonds than its neighbour but more oil, more infrastructure, and less war and as a result GDP grew 5% year on year for many years and development progressed with all the positives and negatives you’d expect from an authoritarian Marxist regime. Now things are not going so well: Oil is running out and the economy is faltering. Public expenditure is falling and the education system – formerly very good – is getting worse and worse.

A good source of impartial information is: There is virtually no press which isn’t fawning about the Sassou government. Le Choc is private and sometimes carries constructive criticism.

A good book is: The problem with having a more famous neighbour is you are almost totally overlooked. There is not much in English and not much about politics. That said, there are a number of decent Congolese authors, and their work is deeply flavoured by the politics of the nation.

Emmanuel Dongala is an acclaimed poet, chemist and novelist now working in the USA, his most famous book is Johnny Mad Dog: an account of child soldiers in the civil war which is now a film. Alain Mabanckou is an author and journalist. Broken Glass is his most famous novel. Théophile Obenga is an acclaimed Egyptologist and serial government minister. Most of his books are on Egypt but Pour le Congo-Brazzaville: Réflexions et propositions talks about the politics of the Congo in detail – in French. Jean-Baptiste Tati-Loutard is a poet and politician; Nouvelles chroniques congolaises: Nouvelles (Écrits) is all that seems to be available in the UK – and only in French. Marie-Leontine Tsibinda is another acclaimed poet; Une lèvre naissant dune autre: Poèmes is the only collection published outside of the Congo – and again only in French.

When are the next elections?: 2016 for President and 2012 parliament.


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