Last month, people in the Republic of Congo lost their Internet — and they remained offline for a week. People immediately suspected the government was behind the shutoff. This would come as no surprise as the government has taken increasingly bold steps in recent years to stifle dissent and quash protests – protests like the one on July 10, when state security services were out in full force as Congolese citizens took to the streets. The president reacted to the protest by forbidding public gatherings and confiscating reporters’ cameras.
It turns out that the Internet shutdown had a more innocuous cause: a fishing vessel severed an undersea cord. Still, the assumption that the government was responsible for the outage demonstrates that the level of trust between citizens and government is exceedingly low in this part of the world. And actions by the government preceding this incident did re-enforce this narrative.
The Republic of Congo (RoC) is an oil-producing country of 4.6 million people in central Africa and about three times the size of the state of Pennsylvania. It is sometimes referred to as Congo-Brazzaville after its largest city, which sits across the river from Kinshasa, the capitol of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). The country’s second civil war came to an end in 1999 with the intervention of Angolan armed forces, who reinstated former president Denis Sassou Nguesso. The former president had come to power in 1979 and was defeated in democratic elections in 1992, just before the first civil war broke out in 1993.
The RoC is also one of several countries in central Africa that has seen violent repression of civil protest, as well as referendums resulting in the lifting of presidential term limits. Its neighbor across the river, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), was supposed to hold elections in November 2016, and the government claims the country still can’t afford to hold elections this year, keeping the president in power despite the constitutional requirement that he step down. In Uganda, presidential term limits were eliminated in 2005 and last year the president came to power again in highly contested elections. In Burundi, the president said his first term didn’t count as it was part of a transition where he was not elected, and since 2016 parliament has been considering scrapping term limits. In Rwanda, presidential term limits were dropped and President Kagame is likely to win upcoming elections in August. Dissent and opposition have been treated harshly in all of these contexts with the expectation that it will weaken their influence and allow for a continuation of the status quo.
This may work, up to a point. But in RoC, it could ultimately backfire as the country prepares for legislative elections on July 16. As Brett Carter writes on African Arguments: “The current crisis is strikingly similar to the one that culminated in the National Conference of 1991 and Sassou Nguesso’s electoral humiliation of 1992 in which he came third. The president knows this, as does the opposition.”
A widely opposed referendum in 2015 changed the constitution so that Sassou Nguesso could run for a third term, which he did, and won the election of 2016. Since then, protests have been met with brutal crackdowns. Opposition candidates and civil society leaders have been arrested and thrown in jail. The government also began an offensive on the region of Pool, near the capital Brazzaville, in April 2016.
By launching a military assault on the area – which is largely populated by ethnic Lari, long opposed to the government – Sassou Nguesso has sought to discourage citizens in Brazzaville from contesting his hold on power. For international cover when first attacking the region in April 2016, Sassou Nguesso claimed to be fighting the “terrorist” Pastor Ntoumi, a former militia leader based in Tsoumouna, Pool. But the accusation was absurd; Ntoumi disbanded his militia in 2006. Opposition leader Claudine Munari denounced the assault as “genocide” against ethnic Lari. However, while Ntoumi had no militia when operations began, he has since acquired supporters and weapons. He has captured weapons from police and military outposts, received supplies from disgruntled quarters of the military, and amassed a small group of ethnic Lari young men, who have little choice but to fight back.
People are angry about political repression and the crackdowns in Pool; but compounding frustrations are the economic crisis and fuel shortage. The bankrupt, state-owned oil company has a monopoly on oil imports and is owned by the president’s son. The IMF, despite public opposition and a campaign called Don’t Save the Tyrant, is considering bailing out the government.
Although the internet outage was an accident, the fact that many people at first believed it to be an intentional cut by Sassou Nguesso speaks to the level of distrust between the people and the current government. This means that the draconian measures taken against prominent opposition leaders and public dissent is less likely to frighten people into submission and more likely to lead to broad support for opposition parties at the polls on July 16.