Congo to hold presidential election amid economic crisis

Repeated bailouts failed to rescue the oil-producer from low crude prices and corruption scandals, even before the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

Video Transcript

MALCOM WEBB: Joi Nsayi says the onion business in the Republic of Congo is not what it used to be. She's struggling to take care of her three children on about $4 a day.

INTERPRETER: Can you imagine? I opened this pack of onions in the morning, and from 6:00 AM until now I have not been able to sell them. Before, it was a booming business. But since COVID-19, it's no longer bringing in a profit.

MALCOM WEBB: The onions that are sold here are imported from Cameroon with three different kinds of garlic. This one's imported from the neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo. This one comes from Chad. This one comes all the way from China.

And it's the same story for more than 70% of the food that people eat here in Congo. It's imported, and that makes it relatively expensive. Since the COVID pandemic, more than a third of the people living here in the capital, Brazzaville, have become food insecure.

DENIS SASSOU NGUESSO: [NON-ENGLISH SPEECH]

MALCOM WEBB: President Denis Sassou Nguesso has asked supporters why Congo depends on food imports, in election campaign rallies.

DENIS SASSOU NGUESSO: [NON-ENGLISH SPEECH]

MALCOM WEBB: It prompted a flurry of memes from social media users who say his policies, after nearly 40 years in power, are the reason why.

- [NON-ENGLISH SINGING]

MALCOM WEBB: This singer says, "Your plan for society is fake and ineffective."

But the economic problems aren't from a lack of revenue, which comes from oil exports worth billions of each year. But that hasn't stopped Congo from nearly going bankrupt three times in the last two decades.

Alphone Dongo says in this economic climate his passion, financial journalism, doesn't pay. He also says it's not safe to publish critical views. That's why he runs a restaurant to get by. He told us most of the last bailout, offered by the International Monetary Fund two years ago, is held up because the government's failed to meet the criteria on transparency and corruption.

ALPHONE DONGO: [NON-ENGLISH SPEECH]

INTERPRETER: "We refused to be transparent, as the IMF requires, so we can go and figure it out with the Chinese because we need cash right away. I would say Congo is not a victim, but Congo is the one playing a double game.

MALCOM WEBB: According to French prosecutors, more than a million of Congo's public money have been spent on suits and shirts in this shop in Paris. It's just one investigation among many corruption scandals that often involve the First Family.

The government spokesperson has been campaigning for President Sassou Nguesso ahead of Sunday's election. He's promising economic recovery.

THIERRY MOUNGALLA: It's not corruption. It's not a bad choice. No, it's the decreasing of the price-- of oil price.

MALCOM WEBB: China's growing investments here can't be missed on the streets of Brazzaville, although this one isn't paying off. It's one of many stalled constructions here.

In the hillside suburbs, people complain of a chronic lack of any investment for decades. Homes here were collapsing long before the oil prices, and many people wonder if an election will bring any change.

Malcolm Webb, Al Jazeera, Brazzaville, Republic of Congo.