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Congo Constitutional Referendum Could Allow the President to Extend His 32-Year Reign

The October 25 referendum opens the door to President Denis Sassou Nguesso serving a third term in office, and has sparked opposition protests in the country.

by Reuters and VICE News
Oct 6 2015, 5:00pm

Photo par Pascal Rossignol/Reuters

Republic of Congo President Denis Sassou Nguesso is eyeing a third term bid for president, with the government announcing a referendum on October 25 over a change to the constitution that would allow him to stand in next year's national elections.

The 71-year-old former military commander has ruled the central African country for all but five years since 1979, when he ruled for 12 years as the head of the single party state before opening up the country to multiparty elections in 1992. He won his first and second terms in office during disputed elections in 2002 and 2009.

The country's constitution of 2002 limits the number of presidential terms to two and excludes candidates over 70 years old.

"The government is charged with putting the constitutional project at the disposition of the Congolese so that its contents can be widely diffused and debated," said government Spokesman Thierry Lezin Moungalla late on Monday. Moungalla said the campaign for the referendum will run from October 9-23.

Related: Fleeing to Rwanda: Burundi On The Brink

Sassou Nguesso has yet to say whether he wants to run for another term in 2016, but in July participants in a political forum — one that was boycotted by the opposition — issued a communiqué approving the changing of constitutional age and term limits.

As the government moves forward to alter the constitution, the opposition has mounted protests against such a move. On September 27, tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets of the capital city of Brazzaville. Some held signs with slogans like "Congo does not belong to Nguesso," according to the AFP.

Sassou Nguesso's potential third term bid comes as other leaders in the region pursue similar efforts, while others have become embroiled in controversy over attempts to extend their rule. In July, Rwanda's parliament cleared an obstacle for changing the constitution and allowing strongman President Paul Kagame to push forward with a third term in office, a decision now in the hands of the Supreme Court as it hears the opposition's case against the move.

Burundian President Pierre Nkurunziza sparked protests and political unrest in April when he announced plans to run for re-election despite a three-term limit in the East African country's constitution. The protests eventually turned violent and despite international calls to step down, the 51-year-old former rebel leader ultimately won in the July vote.

Meanwhile, just to the east in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), opposition leaders have decried what they feel is an attempt by President Joseph Kabila to seek a third term. Earlier this year demonstrators took to the streets to protest against a bill that seemed poised to allow the leader to run again, despite constitutional limits. Violent clashes broke out during the protests leaving dozens dead.

Related: Thousands of Burundi Refugees to Move Out of Overcrowded Camp in Tanzania Amid Crisis

More recently, unidentified youths broke up an opposition event in the DRC capital of Kinshasa in September, a move Human Rights Watch today accused government security forces of orchestrating.

Burkina Faso a year ago also changed its constitution to allow President Blaise Compaore to run for a third term, and led to a popular uprising that toppled him after 27 years in power.

Sassou Nguesso has spent a total of 32 years as Congo's head of state, with the leader's previous 13-year-reign expiring after he lost to the opposition in the 1992 election. He came back into power in 1997 after a brief civil war in the country came to an end, but he was not officially elected until 2002. The opposition made claims of fraud in both the 2002 and 2009 elections.

Watch VICE News' documentary Russian Pilots of the Congo: 

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