Congo faces 'civil disobedience' campaign in referendum row

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Congolese President Denis Sassou Nguessou arrives to cast his ballot in the referendum on October 25, 2015 in Brazzaville

Congolese President Denis Sassou Nguessou arrives to cast his ballot in the referendum on October 25, 2015 in Brazzaville (AFP Photo/)

Brazzaville (AFP) - Congolese opposition leaders Tuesday called a "civil disobedience" campaign to pressure the government into retracting a planned constitutional amendment that will enable President Denis Sassou Nguesso to extend his three-decade rule.

Early Tuesday, the government announced that a landslide 92.96 percent of people voting in a controversial referendum on Sunday had approved changes to the constitution allowing Sassou Nguesso to run for a third term next year.

But in a statement read to the media, the FROCAD opposition coalition rejected the results as null and void and demanded "purely and simply the withdrawal" of the plan, as well as the release of opposition leaders held under house arrest.

Congo was rocked by protests in the run-up to the referendum to amend the 2002 constitution.

"We will maintain civil disobedience until the withdrawal of the planned constitution, which is a masquerade," said FROCAD spokesman Guy-Romain Kinfoussia.

The government also said turnout stood at 72.44 percent despite opposition calls for a boycott, and that the amendments had been enacted.

"The draft text of the new constitution has been adopted and will come into force as soon as it is put into effect by the President of the Republic," Interior Minister Raymond Mboulou said.

The referendum proposed two amendments to the constitution, scrapping a 70-year presidential age ceiling as well as a two-term limit. Sassou Nguesso is 71 and has served two consecutive seven-year terms.

The veteran leader took power in 1979 and has been in office since then, bar five years, meaning he has ruled the impoverished central African country of 4.5 million people for more than 31 years.

Congo is one of several African countries currently facing the critical question of whether heads of state should be allowed to run beyond two terms in office.

Rwanda will on Wednesday hold a parliamentary vote on a constitutional revision, a key step towards potentially allowing President Paul Kagame to run for a third term there.

- 'A constitutional coup' -

France, Congo's former colonial power, said that the conditions in which its referendum was prepared and organised "do not allow an assessment of the result, notably in terms of the turnout."

The opposition had dubbed the referendum "a constitutional coup", and the FROCAD coalition said "the vote was neither free, nor just, nor fair, nor transparent."

"It was a mockery of a vote held under a state of siege," the group said, referring to a ban on public rallies ahead of the vote and to deadly unrest last week.

According to AFP journalists in the capital Brazzaville, the second city Pointe-Noire, and in several other areas, voters largely stayed away from polling stations on Sunday.

On Monday, FROCAD leader Pascal Tsaty Mabiala estimated turnout at around 10 percent.

FROCAD, which stands for the Republican Front for the Respect of Constitutional Order and Democracy, is mainly made up of longtime Sassou Nguesso opponents.

The country's other opposition alliance, the Initiative for Democracy in Congo (IDC), was set up this year by former Sassou Nguesso allies now turned dissidents.

Two of its leaders, Guy Brice Parfait Kolelas and Andre Okombi Salissa, both former government ministers, were placed under house arrest last week.

Speaking in Paris, the IDC's Charles Zacharie Bowao said "civil disobedience will continue."

The Sunday referendum, he said, "is a coup that has no future. We will not accept it, we will continue to work to make this coup fail."

Neither of the opposition groups gave details however of how they planned to go ahead with the civil disobedience campaign.

A leader of the ruling Congolese Labour Party (PCT), Pierre Ngolo, dismissed all criticism, saying the results were correct and the turnout figures "sufficiently eloquent."