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Note: This document is from the archive of the Africa Policy E-Journal, published by the Africa Policy Information Center (APIC) from 1995 to 2001 and by Africa Action from 2001 to 2003. APIC was merged into Africa Action in 2001. Please note that many outdated links in this archived document may not work.

Congo (Brazzaville): IRIN Briefing

Congo (Brazzaville): IRIN Briefing
Date distributed (ymd): 971028
Document reposted by APIC

+++++++++++++++++++++Document Profile+++++++++++++++++++++

Region: Central Africa
Issue Areas: +political/rights+ +security/peace+
Summary Contents:
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.

+++++++++++++++++end profile++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

Department of Humanitarian Affairs
Integrated Regional Information Network for the Great Lakes
Tel: +254 2 622147 Fax: +254 2 622129 e-mail:

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 by Lissouba.

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 following year.

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 nationals.


[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: 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: or can be retrieved automatically by sending e-mail to 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 For those who read French, views of exiled Congolese critical of all sides in the conflict can be found at

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, by concentrating on providing accessible policy-relevant information and analysis usable by a wide range of groups and individuals.

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