Congo's Youth-Led Protest Movement Vows to Keep Fighting, After a Disputed Referendum

Following violent protests, a constitutional referendum held in Congo passed by a landslide, lifting restrictions on President Denis Sassou Nguesso standing for another term — after 32 years in charge.
October 28, 2015, 5:01pm
Photo via Reuters

Denis Sassou Nguesso is one of the longest standing presidents in Africa, holding the Republic of Congo's highest office for 32 out of the last 36 years. A controversial referendum passed this week officially allows the 71-year-old to run for another term, with the sustainability of the largely youth-led movement that took hold this month against the leader coming into question.

Following a violent week of protests that left five people dead, the constitutional referendum held on Sunday passed by a landslide, lifting both the two-term limit and 70-year-old age restrictions that would have barred Sassou Nguesso from running for another term. According to official figures released on Tuesday voter turnout was at 72 percent, with 92 percent of constituents — a total of 1.2 million people — casting their ballots in favor of the changes.

These numbers seemed contrary to media reports on Sunday that depicted a quiet day at the polls with visibly low voter turnout. Similarly, opposition leaders are calling the government out for fraud with an array of claims, ranging from having security forces cast multiple ballots to paying people to vote.

The results, however, were not unexpected, as Didier Mahouele, a coordinator for the opposition party UPADS, explained ahead of the vote. "Even if in the whole of the country only 10 people vote, the population will be told there was an 80 percent turnout," he explained.

What didn't go as planned was the protest both the opposition and youth leaders had promised would continue this week. According to Congo expert and Stanford fellow Brett Carter, the deadly government crackdown on the protesters caused the opposition to take stock of its tactics.

"Whenever the opposition realized that Sassou Nguesso was indeed willing to arrest upwards of 30 people in the last week," Carter said, "I think the opposition decided it wasn't going to sacrifice the lives of its supporters to make a point."

The demonstrations first kicked off in the capital of Brazzaville in early October following the government's announcement that a referendum would be held before the end of the month. The protests were unprecedented for the country, but were initially peaceful — if you don't include the arrests made and tear gas deployed. For a brief period a largely youth-led protest movement seemed to be putting up the biggest fight against the leader to date.

Related: Protesters Shot and Killed in Congo Republic Demonstrating Against President's 32-Year Rule

"I want a Congo free from Denis Sassou Nguesso and his crooked legacy, I hope my country will heal its wounds from three decade of totalitarianism," said Andrea Ngombet, a 30-year-old Congolese citizen living in Paris who is a coordinator for one of the collectives behind the protest movement.

Tensions peaked in the capital last Wednesday when protesters and police clashed. Security forces reportedly fired into the crowd, leaving at least five participants dead and dozens injured, according to Amnesty International.

The ability to communicate on social networks and cell phone messaging services like WhatsApp was crucial for Ngombert and his peers over the last few weeks. Even opposition official Mahouele gave credit to Congo's young citizens for propelling the civil unrest. Similar to other recent protest movements around the world, the UPADS member credited the internet and a global perspective on world politics with enabling this generation's resistance efforts.

"The real issue since 1997 is that people have been afraid to speak up because they are afraid of weapons," Mahouele said, referring to Sassou Nguesso's second rise to power following a five-year break and a brief civil war.

The president first ruled from 1979 to 1992 before losing an election that year. The first democratic election under the new constitution was held in 2002 when Sassou Nguesso officially entered his first term, although many claimed the elections were fraudulent.

'We are asking the international community to get involved. And to open up an investigation for the security force violence on the civilians'

"Now we have a new generation, one that doesn't accept the situation," Mahouele added.

On Twitter the movement has taken on the hashtag "Sassoufit," a play on the French phrase Ça suffit, which means "enough." Ngombet, one of the coordinators of the Sassoufit collective, said his group has helped orchestrate the dialogue on social media, while working alongside various other youth organizations and movements participating in the protests.

"They got nothing more to lose so they just rise up against the dictatorship. Young, old, they just rise up against this illegal referendum," Ngombet said.

According to Carter, this consciousness developed after people watched how protesters took to the streets in Burkina Faso in 2014 and succeeded in toppling long-time president Blaise Compaore — or even demonstrators' unsuccessful attempt in Burundi to keep President Pierre Nkurunziza from seeking a third term. They have also come to recognize that the international community is not going to step in and solve the problem, meaning they must take it into their own hands, Carter explained.

Related: Congo Constitutional Referendum Could Allow the President to Extend His 32-Year Rule

"If they have to sacrifice their life, for having fostered democratic change, that's increasingly a choice that many of them are willing to make," he said.

Those same movements that invigorated protesters, however, have also instilled fear in the president. Sassou Nguesso was unsuccessful in grooming a successor who would not only protect the dictator from international criminal cases, but would also look out for the assets the political family has secured during its reign. As a result, Carter explained, Sassou Nguesso has been forced to make this power grab out of necessity.

"Sassou Nguesso doesn't want to risk this," Carter said, explaining that he saw the fall of fellow dictators like Libya's Muammar Qaddafi or strongmen like Compaore. "There is no one else for Sassou Nguesso to transfer power to, so in a way he's been forced into this position."

Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi, talks to Sassou Nguesso during a meeting with African leaders to find a road map to a cease fire in Tripoli, Libya, Sunday, in April 2011. Muammar Qaddafi. (Photo by Pier Paolo Cito/AP)

This necessity can also explain the harsh crackdown, which not only included arrests and violence, but reports indicate phone lines and internet connection were forced down last week — something protesters blame on the regime. The connection problems hindered organization efforts, according to Ngombet.

Meanwhile, at least two opposition officials have been barricaded in a Brazzaville house since October 23, as well as ruling party dissident Andres Okombi Salissa. This development reportedly disrupted talks that were supposed to be held with the opposition, government, and foreign officials, Reuters reported.

'We are more motivated to honor our dead, it's like a debt we get, we have to overthrow Sassou for them to rest in peace.'

As of Tuesday, the men are reportedly still in the home surrounded by Congolese military forces and mercenaries from the region. Rumors have been flying that mercenaries from Burundi entered the country ahead of the referendum vote.

Speaking on Saturday, Okombi Salissa confirmed his detainment, but focused his concern on calling attention to the alleged abuses against protesters.

"We are asking the international community to get involved. And to open up an investigation for the security force violence on the civilians," he wrote. "We are calling for the USA sanctions: visas, freezing the banks account, assets, etc."

Moving forward, Carter said he expects the presidential elections to occur relatively quickly, potentially by March 2016. As he explained, the referendum itself was called and held in just three weeks, limiting the opposition's ability to organize.

While these developments may seem to be a hindrance to the continuation of protests in Brazzaville, Carter refuted that idea. According to him, a commonality underlying these type of movements is the intrinsic capacity of elections to help citizens coordinate their anti-regime efforts.

"These regular elections enable citizens to get a sense of shared frustration and then to coordinate popular protests," Carter explained. "Elections themselves really enable citizens to organize protests and that's the real threat to Africa's current autocrats."

While the streets have calmed down in Brazzaville over the last few days, the crackdown on protesters has seemingly not succeeded in discouraging their rhetoric and plans.

Sassoufit coordinator Ngombet stressed plans to continue demonstrating, at least on behalf of the collective and the rest of the youth movement. He not only emphasized the desire to remove the president as their motivation, but also cited the deaths this week as a reason for action.

"If the referendum passes, we will work on a new massive protest to overthrow the dictator," he said. "We are more motivated to honor our dead, it's like a debt we get, we have to overthrow Sassou for them to rest in peace."

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