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Congo (Brazzaville): IRIN Briefing
Congo (Brazzaville): IRIN Briefing
Date distributed (ymd): 971028
Document reposted by APIC
Region: Central Africa
Issue Areas: +political/rights+ +security/peace+
This posting contains background information on the crisis in Congo (Brazzaville),
following the takeover by former President Denis Sassou-Nguesso. It analyzes
the players, assesses the regional impact, and provides historical background.
U N I T E D N A T I O N S
Department of Humanitarian Affairs
Integrated Regional Information Network for the Great Lakes
Tel: +254 2 622147 Fax: +254 2 622129 e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Background Brief on Congo-Brazzaville, 22 October 1997
Five years after losing presidential elections, General Denis Sassou
Nguesso is back in power in Congo-Brazzaville. In a rapid offensive, his
Cobra militia captured the capital Brazzaville and the second city Pointe-Noire
last week and have since tightened their grip on the rest of the country.
His rival, the democratically-elected President Pascal Lissouba, fled the
country. After a brief stopover in Togo, he arrived in Burkina Faso where
he was offered refuge on "humanitarian grounds".
The price of Sassou Nguesso's victory is enormous. Four months of civil
war have left the country's infrastructure, already damaged from fighting
after the 1992 election, in ruins. Brazzaville, pounded by indiscriminate
shelling, is all but deserted. More than 50 percent of Congo-Brazzaville's
population of 2.6 million were urban based. Thousands are now scattered
throughout the country and region.
Members of a UN inter-agency humanitarian assessment mission which arrived
in the country on Tuesday reported the centre of the capital was "completely
destroyed" and resembled a ghost town. They said dead bodies, many
rotting, littered the streets. The mission, made up of field representatives
from DHA, UNICEF, WFP, WHO and leading NGOs, also reported the cargo and
passenger units of the Maya-Maya international airport were badly damaged,
but said the tower seemed to be functioning. A field hospital in Kintele,
set up by MSF-H two weeks ago, was reported to be in an appalling condition
with no supplies or medicines left. Some 2,000 Rwandan refugees, including
200 children under the age of five, were found to be in a "satisfactory
condition" with sufficient supplies for another week. Another 7,000
Rwandan refugees are at Lukolela in northwestern Congo.
WFP estimates that before the Cobras' last advance, there were some
60,000 displaced people in the southern region. The agency said earlier
this month that more than 250,000 people had passed through Pointe-Noire
to escape the conflict. Many of those who remained in the city were reported
to be in desperate condition. Fighting in the north prevented humanitarian
agencies from assessing the situation. According to UNHCR, there are currently
at least 33,000 Congolese refugees in Kinshasa.
Sassou Nguesso's victory does not mean the fighting is necessarily over.
Lissouba still holds a few areas in his southwestern home region. Large
quantities of weapons are also in the hands of young militia members. Even
without a political agenda, their presence seems to suggest at least the
possibility of banditry-inspired instability.
There is also international concern over the constitutional issues surrounding
the overthrow of a democratically-elected president by his military predecessor.
Regional analysts allege Sassou's support rests on a narrow political base
in parts of the sparsely-populated north of the country. Sassou Nguesso,
however, has said that talks are to begin soon on a transition period,
leading to a "free and transparent presidential election." He
has called on the UN, OAU and EU to assist in organising the poll.
Regional effects of Mobutu's demise helped Sassou Nguesso
After weeks of inconclusive fighting, a dramatic change occurred in
Sassou Nguesso's military fortunes in mid-October. Analysts believe that
what tilted the balance was the Angolan army. It had been funnelling weapons
and logistical support to the Cobras, in apparent retaliation for Lissouba's
warmth towards the former Angolan rebel movement Uniao Nacional para a
Independencia Total de Angola (UNITA). Direct military intervention to
wipe out UNITA bases and those of the separatist Frente de Libertacao do
Enclava de Cabinda (FLEC) in Congo's southern region was the decisive step,
regional analysts told IRIN.
AFP and other news organisations reported regional experts as saying
between 1,000 and 3,000 Angolan troops were flown in to support Sassou
Nguesso. Several residents reported Angolan soldiers and armour spearheaded
the Cobras' capture of Pointe-Noire on 16 October. Angolan troops were
also reported at Brazzaville's airport. Its seizure by Sassou Nguesso's
forces and the capture of the presidential palace on 14 October marked
the end of the battle for Brazzaville.
Angolan soldiers, interviewed last week by news organisations, said
they were scheduled to remain in the country for two months. That would
fly in the face o f demands by the UN Security Council, OAU and the United
States for the immediate withdrawal of foreign forces from the country.
Luanda has, however, consistently denied that it has troops in Congo-Brazzaville.
On Friday, Angola's ambassador to the UN said Angolan forces had mounted
hot-pursuit raids into Congo-Brazzaville on 13 October against Angolan
rebels, and then returned to their base in the oil enclave of Cabinda.
On Tuesday, Reuters reported Angola's state news agency Angop as saying
that President Jose Eduardo dos Santos had telephoned Sassou Nguesso on
Sunday to congratulate him on his victory. The agency, quoting a presidential
statement, said dos Santos told Sassou Nguesso that he hoped the two neighbours
could continue their good relations and cooperation in all areas, including
in the military field. Reuters quoted a military source as saying the Angolans
had suffered heavier casualties than anticipated.
Old regional alignments helped broaden conflict Congo-Brazzaville's
civil war quickly sucked in neighbouring states and moved from an essentially-national
power struggle to a wider regional conflict. This process was largely assisted
by the legacy of recent military struggles in the Great Lakes area of central
Africa. Battling alongside Lissouba and Sassou Nguesso were allegedly remnants
of the defeated former Forces Armees du Zaire (FAZ), Forces Armees du Rwanda
(FAR) and the Hutu Interahamwe militia. Analysts say the existence of these
groups in Congo-Brazzaville ensured the interest of Kigali, Kinshasa and
Luanda - part of the same formidable coalition that helped overthrow Zairean
leader Mobutu Sese Seko earlier this year.
With the collapse of Mobutu's rule, UNITA leader Jonas Savimbi had moved
his main African office to Brazzaville, and then Pointe-Noire. Congo reportedly
become a transit point for troops and weapons into the Angolan enclave
of Cabinda. The southwestern towns of Dolisie, Loudima and Bouansa, captured
by the Cobras before the fall of Pointe-Noire, were said to be bases for
UNITA and FLEC. Luanda saw in Lissouba's relations with UNITA a dangerous
loophole in its attempt to contain the rebel movement, analysts say. By
contrast Luanda had enjoyed close ideological ties with Sassou Nguesso
since the 1970s. Angola, facing international opprobrium over its intervention,
would now expect Brazzaville to shut down UNITA's and FLEC's operations.
That would deliver another strategic blow to Savimbi. His Congo rearbase
- and diamond operations that transit through Brazzaville - has provided
him with an element of leverage over the 1994 Angolan peace accords.
Lissouba, a former academic and technocrat, "contributed to his
own downfall by not making more of his international credibility as an
economic reformer and democrat," according to one Congolese specialist.
He also failed to play a more astute regional diplomatic hand, allowing
opponents to brand him as a Mobutu supporter. With the fall of Kinshasa
to the forces of Laurent-Desire Kabila in May, troops of Mobutu's former
special presidential division (DSP) and other units fled across the Congo
river to Brazzaville. Both sides said the other was recruiting them. Both
vigorously denied the accusations. Lissouba's opponents claimed he was
attempting to entice Kabila to intervene in the fighting by saying the
DSP were behind artillery salvoes which hit Kinshasa from Sassou Nguesso's
side of the city. Lissouba's then prime minister, Bernard Kolelas, strongly
denied those accusations, but did acknowledge earlier this month that Hutu
Interahamwe militia and ex-Rwandan government soldiers who had fled to
Congo were fighting on both sides. Even after his victory, Sassou Nguesso
himself claimed the ex-FAZ, ex-FAR, and DSP elements were only welcomed
In a further internationalisation of the conflict, European and South
African mercenaries were hired by Lissouba and Sassou Nguesso. Lissouba's
purchase of four Russian-made helicopter gunships was matched in the last
stages of the war by the appearance of MiG-21s in the service of Sassou's
militia. Congo's position as Africa's fourth-largest oil producer, with
vast untapped reserves, means French and US oil companies also took a keen
interest in developments, regional observers say.
The mediation effort
Reluctant to become involved, but anxious to contain the crisis, the
international community finally agreed a peacekeeping plan - pushed by
France - for the dispatch of an inter-African peacekeeping force. Despite
suspicions over Paris' motives, the UN Security Council endorsed a proposal
for a total of 5,000 troops under Senegalese command with western logistical
support. Crucially, however, the force could not be sent in until an effective
ceasefire was in place.
To achieve that, Joint UN/OAU Special Representative for the Great Lakes
Region Mohamed Sahnoun worked alongside President Omar Bongo of Gabon -
Sassou's son-in-law - and a political advisor to Lissouba. Both men were
supported by then Brazzaville Mayor Bernard Kolelas who, until the final
battle for Brazzaville, stayed neutral. His southern strongholds of Bacongo
and Makele-Kele were left relatively unscathed, acting as a haven for thousands
of displaced in the capital. However, the closest the talks came to a settlement
was agreement in September that Lissouba would stay on at the head of a
government of national unity until presidential elections postponed from
27 July, could be run. Kolelas accepted the post of prime minister. On
the weekend of 11-12 October, he threw in his Ninja militia on the side
of Lissouba to recapture the airport. The combined force was unable to
stop Sassou Nguesso's sweep through the southern suburbs of Brazzaville
and the capture of the city.
Background to the war
The conflict has its roots in the disputed 1992 multiparty election.
In the national assembly poll, Lissouba's Union panafricaine pour la democratie
sociale (UPADS) became the majority party winning 39 of the contested 125
seats. The Mouvement congolaise pour la democratie et le developpement
integral (MCCDI) of Kolelas took 29 seats, and Sassou's former sole ruling
party, Parti Congolaise du travail (PCT), won 18. In senate elections the
party order was repeated and UPADS again won a majority. Lissouba also
beat Sassou Nguesso into third place over two rounds of presidential polls,
and was inaugurated as president in August with 61 percent of the vote.
However, a UPADS-PCT parliamentary alliance quickly fell apart in a dispute
over cabinet seats. The PCT formed a pact with the Union pour le renouveau
democratique (URD), a grouping of seven political parties including the
MCCDI, giving it a majority in the assembly. In October, it won a vote
of no confidence in the government. Lissouba however dissolved the national
assembly and announced that new legislative elections would be held the
In the first round of parliamentary polls in May 1993, Lissouba's 'Presidential
Group' took 62 of the 125 seats and the URD-PCT alliance 49. Alleging serious
voting irregularities, the URD-PCT boycotted the second round. Kolelas,
the leader of MCCDI and URD announced a rival government and called for
a civil disobedience campaign. The political crisis precipitated violent
conflict between rival militia. The supreme court ruled that some irregularities
had occurred in the election, and after international mediation, the first
round was re-run in October. The 'Presidential Group' held on to its majority
and the URD-PCT agreed to participate in the assembly. In November, however,
serious clashes between the armed forces and militia erupted once again
and despite ceasefire attempts, continued into 1994.
The bulk of Lissouba's support comes from his southern home region which
accounts for some 35 percent of Congo's population. The Centre-Nord province
is the heartland of Sassou Nguesso. His ethnic group the Mbochi (about
15 percent of the population), are disproportionately represented in the
army. Kolelas' constituency is the Pool region around Brazzaville. The
1993/94 crisis militarised Congo's political culture. Out of the PCT emerged
Sassou Nguesso's Cobra militia. Kolelas' Ninja militia were part of the
MCCDI. An alliance between the two forces was able to face down government
troops, whose loyalty was divided, and allowed them to wring concessions
from Lissouba and an uneasy compromise was reached in 1994. An estimated
2,000 people lost their lives in the fighting. Lissouba then also built
up two pro-government militia, including the Zoulous. Congolese specialists
say the existence of the militias compromised the chances of lasting peace
in the Congo. Agreements to disarm them were never implemented and they
grew in strength. Lissouba had inherited an economy in crisis. Under an
austere economic adjustment programme and with the 1994 devaluation of
the CFA Franc, government spending was slashed. Jobless young men joined
or were coerced into the ethnic-based militia. Lissouba was forced to mortgage
future oil revenue to raise money.
Tensions rose this year in the run-up to the July presidential elections.
Sassou Nguesso had been sidelined by the dominance of southern politicians.
However, as a consequence of the government's austerity programme, his
political stock was apparently rising. He issued dire warnings that he
"would not be responsible for the consequences" if internationally-observed
elections were not held on time. On June 5, government troops raided Sassou
Nguesso's home in the northern Brazzaville suburb of Mpila to arrest suspects
in the murder of four of his opponents. His Cobra militia resisted and
the fighting spread. By 9 June the Cobras, out-numbered but better disciplined
than their opponents, were in control of some two-thirds of the city. France
sent in 1,250 troops under 'Operation Pelican' to rescue some 3,400 foreign
[The material contained in this communication comes to you via IRIN,
a UN humanitarian information unit, but may not necessarily reflect the
views of the United Nations or its agencies. UN IRIN Tel: +254 2 622123
Fax: +254 2 622129 e-mail: email@example.com
for more information. If you re-print, copy, archive or re-post this report,
please retain this credit and disclaimer. Quotations or extracts should
include attribution to the original sources. IRIN reports are archived
on the WWW at: http://www.reliefweb.int
or can be retrieved automatically by sending e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.
A map of Congo-Brazzaville is available on the Web at:
Note: Additional commentary on the conflict in Congo (Brazzaville),
from African and other sources, can be found at http://www.africanews.org/central/congo
For those who read French, views of exiled Congolese critical of all sides
in the conflict can be found at http://www.mygale.org/~jecmaus/congo.html
This material is being reposted for wider distribution by the Africa
Policy Information Center (APIC), the educational affiliate of the Washington
Office on Africa. APIC's primary objective is to widen the policy debate
in the United States around African issues and the U.S. role in Africa,
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