Congo president wins third term, opposition cries foul

Marc Jourdier
1 / 6

Newly re-elected Congo President Denis Sassou Nguesso (2nd L) and his wife Antoinette (L) leave campaign headquarters in Brazzaville on March 24, 2016

Newly re-elected Congo President Denis Sassou Nguesso (2nd L) and his wife Antoinette (L) leave campaign headquarters in Brazzaville on March 24, 2016 (AFP Photo/Marco Longari)

Brazzaville (AFP) - Congo strongman Denis Sassou Nguesso was on Thursday declared the winner of presidential elections, extending his 32 years in power in a vote the opposition says was marked by "massive fraud".

Interior Minister Raymond Zephyrin Mboulou announced the results in the early hours (0230 GMT) on national television, saying Sassou Nguesso had secured 60 percent of the vote in the tense weekend poll held under a communications blackout.

That official count gave runner-up Guy-Brice Parfait Kolelas 15 percent of the vote, while General Jean-Marie Michel Mokoko came in third with 14 percent.

Sassou Nguesso hailed the victory at his campaign headquarters, saying the Congolese people had "taken their destiny into their own hands", and adding that the campaign had produced a "very open" democratic debate in the former French colony.

But Mokoko promptly issued "a call for general civil disobedience".

In a text seen by AFP Mokoko wrote: "It is time to stop being afraid! I ask you to demand back your confiscated, stolen vote."

Speaking in Paris, a lawyer for Mokoko explained the demand was for a strike, not a call for demonstrations.

Marc Mapingou, Mokoko's representative in France, said that "General Mokoko and the entire opposition are demanding a vote recount with international observers.

"The general is not a putschist, he wants the recognition that the victory of the Congolese people has been stolen," said Mapingou.

After Wednesday's release of partial results, Kolelas's spokesman Vivien Manangou lamented "massive fraud".

Mokoko, who until February was Sassou Nguesso's security advisor, called for a recount, saying: "I knew beforehand that the dice were loaded, but we had agreed to play the game."

- US urges restraint -

Telephone and Internet links had been down in the days following the poll, officially to prevent the opposition from publishing "illegal results" before the official announcement.

Telecommunications were re-established after the official figures were released.

The US State Department urged Congo Thursday to ensure respect for freedom of expression, the day after AFP and Le Monde journalists were assaulted while covering the presidential election in Brazzaville.

In a statement specifically naming the two media outlets, State Department spokesman Mark Toner said the United States was calling "upon the government of the Republic of Congo to ensure respect for freedom of expression, assembly, and movement, and we urge security forces to remain professional and continue to exercise restraint."

Oil- and timber-rich Congo has been on edge since an October constitutional referendum that ended a two-term limit on presidential mandates, allowing Sassou Nguesso, a 72-year-old former paratrooper colonel, to run for office again.

Critics accuse him of rampant corruption and nepotism, blasting the referendum result as a "constitutional coup".

Sassou Nguesso has ruled Congo for all but five years since 1979, having lived in Paris in exile from 1992 to 1997.

- Stampede at opposition HQ -

Manangou said security forces had stormed Kolelas's campaign offices on Tuesday, hurling tear gas cannisters and causing a stampede that left one person dead.

A French journalist was present at the scene but was unable to confirm the death.

Mokoko and Kolelas, along with the three other opposition candidates, had earlier urged people to "exercise their sovereignty" in the event of a Sassou Nguesso victory.

They had created their own parallel "technical commission" to monitor the vote and compile polling station data to compare with official results.

They said they could say "with certainty" that the opposition had beat Sassou Nguesso in the first round and that a second-round election should be held.

The European Union refused to send election observers to monitor the polls, saying conditions had not been met for a transparent and democratic vote.

The international community has since expressed concern over the fairness of the vote and called for the opposing sides to resolve their differences calmly.

"This vote took place in a worrying context, particularly due to the cut in communications," said France's foreign ministry spokesman Romain Nadal.

Congo recorded growth of five percent over the five years to 2014 but the vast majority of the population lives in abject poverty.

Sassou Nguesso served as president from 1979 to 1992 and returned to power in 1997 following a civil war. He won two successive terms in 2002 and 2009, but both elections were contested by opposition parties.

The disgruntled opposition candidates have 15 days from voting day to appeal the election results to the constitutional court.