Congo Republic Leader Set to Extend Rule as Economy Slumps

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The Republic of Congo voted in elections on Sunday with President Denis Sassou Nguesso expected to extend his decades-long rule even as the Central African nation faces its worst economic crisis since the slump in global oil prices in 2014.

The 77-year-old incumbent is seeking a fourth five-year term and faces six opposition candidates. Catholic Church leaders and advocacy groups have expressed concern that the conditions for a credible vote aren’t in place. Human rights group Amnesty International has criticized his administration for arresting and jailing opponents, while local civil-society organizations estimate dozens of political prisoners have been jailed.

Among Sassou Nguesso’s main challengers are ex-finance minister Mathias Dzon; retired army Colonel Albert Oniangue, who is now a pastor in an evangelical church; and former Civil Service Minister Guy Brice Parfait Kolelas, who was runner-up in 2016.

Kolelas, 61, was hospitalized with Covid-19 and set to be evacuated on a government-chartered plane on Sunday. The leader of the Union of Humanist Democrats is Sassou Nguesso’s main challenger, according to polls. If no candidate gets more than 50% of the vote the two top candidates go to a runoff.

Internet was cut from midnight on Saturday, according to observatory Netblocks. The shutdown follows a pattern of similar information blackouts imposed by authorities during 2016 presidential elections, the organization said in a statement on its website Sunday. That poll was followed by protests as Sassou Nguesso was declared the winner. Tens of thousands were displaced in the post-election conflict, according to the United Nations. After a presidential campaign without major incidents, Sunday’s vote is expected to be largely peaceful.

Interior Minister Raymond Zephyrin Mboulou charged with organizing the election said on Saturday “each vote cast in favor of a candidate will be counted in favor of this candidate.” Two and a half million voters have registered for the poll.

Economic Woes

Congo, home to sub-Saharan Africa’s fourth-biggest oil reserves, saw an 8% decline in economic growth last year largely on the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic and a collapse in global oil prices. Growth is expected at just below 1% this year, according to government estimates.

The government is in talks to restructure debt with creditors including Glencore Plc and Trafigura Group Ltd. The International Monetary Fund said last month that Congo’s debt remains unsustainable, although it’s expected to fall below 100% of gross domestic product this year.

Sassou Nguesso, in power for 36 years, led the country from 1979 to 1992 and then returned to power at the end of a civil war in 1997. A controversial 2015 referendum removed the 70-year age limit and a ban on presidents serving more than two terms, allowing him to run again the following year.

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