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Congo-Brazzaville. Pool rebels asphyxiate Brazzaville before the elections.

Parliament and local elections are scheduled sometime between June and August. But they take place in a tense and morose atmosphere. The capital is literally asphyxiated by the Pool guerrilla attacks and politicians are divided in front of the challenge.

Life has become a real nightmare for the people in Brazzaville, tells SouthWorld, the ambassador of the Republic of Congo in Brussels, Roger-Julien Menga. At the end of April, shortages of fuel and butane gas. As a result, people are again consuming massive charcoal for cooking. Owing to the dramatic fall of oil prices, the national budget for 2017 has shrunk by 27 percent against the previous year. Oil accounts for indeed 65 percent of GDP and to 80 percent of the state revenues. As a result, during three days, between the 12 and the 14 April, the Brazzaville University went on strike to protest against the late payment of their salaries.

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The context has become more tense also because of the high inflation of above 30 percent which is caused by the interruption for the last ten months of the traffic on the CFCO railway line between Brazzaville and the port of Pointe Noire. Large tanks of gasoline and diesel which were loaded on the train in the harbour can no longer reach Brazzaville which is also cut from its breadbasket, the Pool region, where the rebels have established their sanctuary.
The sugar from the Moutéla refinery which is located between the Niari and Loudima rivers can no longer be found on the markets of the capital city. Most of the petroleum products, cement and food commodities are now transiting through the capital of the neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo, Kinshasa, just a few miles across the river from Brazzaville. Yet, the trouble is that Kinshasa itself relies for its own supply from the harbour of Matadi, on the maritime reach of the Congo River which is almost all the time completely congested and which is one of the world’s most expansive, since cargo vessels have to wait days before being unloaded.

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The Congo Ocean railway (CFCO) between Kinshasa and Brazzaville, is not only old and subject to derailments (one of them took the lives of 76 passengers in June 2010) but it is also the target of sabotages by the Nsiloulou Ninja militias led by Frederic Bintsamou  aka Reverend Ntumi. The leader of the ninjas, now in his fifties emerged first in the 1990s when he was trying to help mentally handicapped people in the streets of Brazzaville whom he then brought to the Pool, where at the age of 33, he declared himself as God’s envoy and initiated a guerrilla movement in the late 1990s.
While the ambassador describes Ntumi as “mad”, his supporters describe him on the contrary as a hero who defends them against the brutality of the armed forces, which are accused of planning the “extermination” of the Kongo tribe. At any rate, after having signed a truce in 2007 in exchange for the disarmament of his fighters, Ntumi went again on the path of war in April 2016, when his ninja militias attacked with automatic guns the Southern districts of Brazzaville, just before the proclamation of the results of the controversial presidential election won by President Denis Sassou Nguesso in March of that year.

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Since then, the situation has continued to deteriorate. In November 2016, the ninjas destroyed two bridges on the railway line. And on the 18 April, a major, a captain and their 16 men were killed in an ambush on the road between Brazzaville and Dolisie, on the way to Pointe Noire. Two months earlier, they had attacked a bus and the ambulance which came to the rescue of the passengers, killing three people including two military. Since then, road passengers who wish to make the trip to Pointe Noire need to take an alternative route through the Batéké highlands which takes ten hours more and costs a lot more money, deplores Ambassador Menga.
The economy in the Pool region is in shambles. All EU projects including the rehabilitation of the Mindouli-Kinkala road are on standstill. Instability has provoked the exodus of 30,000 internal displaced persons (IDPs) according to the Ambassador. But part of the responsibility is shared by the government, claims the Paris-based International Federation of Human Rights FIDH which protested in a recent report against the bombardment of civilians, forced displacements of people, arbitrary arrests committed by the army, the police and “unidentified armed groups”. According to the FIDH, there are at least 130 political detainees in the country’s gaols where conditions are described as “inhuman” as showed the death in custody of the opponent Marcel Ntsourou on the last17 February 2017.

Fear the spread of secession

Some circles in Brazzaville fear that a Southern alliance could build up including the ninja,  the supporters of the main opposition party, the Panafrican Union for Social Democracy (UPADS) who has a strong support in the Niari, Bouenza and Lékoumou areas and inhabitants from the Pointe Noire region. The authorities fear the spread of secessionist moves. On the last 3 May, the opposition politician Modeste Boukadia, who was accused to have planed the organisation of a “self determination referendum” for the creation of Southern Congo state was sentenced to 30 years prison for allegedly threatening the country’s state security. Links between Ntumi and some of members of the Bundu dia Kongo religious sect in DRC who dream about a state for the Bakongo recreating the former Kongo kingdom, encompassing territories in both Congos and Angola and the porosity of the borders which allow Ntumi to get arms supplies from the DRC, feed these fears.

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The Brazzaville authorities meet problems to cope with the situation. Attempts in the past to win Ntumi’s support promoting him as a deputy minister in 2007 have failed. At the same time, the hard-line does not prove either very efficient. Ntumi and his ninjas hide in a labyrinth of natural caves in the Pool areas, which makes it difficult to capture them. The government has spent lots of funds to rebuild the destroyed bridge, banking on the resumption of traffic by July. But peace has not returned yet. In the end, ambitious projects such as the expansion of the Pointe Noire deep sea harbour and the Special Economic Zone there, promoted by China, may have to be postponed.

Electoral governance

Yet, the ambassador is adamant that the elections will take place anyway as scheduled because unrest is only limited to the Pool region. Now, the Ntumi issue is a problem which divides the political circles in Brazzaville. The Prime Minister Clément Mouamba is in favour of a hard-line because Ntumi does not even come up with concrete claims accordingly. He also denies the allegations of violations of human rights by the government in the Pool region, he said on the last 4 May in a press conference. By contrast, UPADS is calling upon the army to stop the fighting unilaterally and for a “peace roundtable”.

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There is also a divide on the organisation of the forthcoming elections within the ranks of the opposition. Whereas UPADS has participated to consultations with the authorities last March for such purpose, the Initiative for Democracy in Congo-Republican Front for the Respect of the Constitutional Order and Democratic Change of Power said it would not take part to the elections, without guarantees about “electoral governance”. This coalition is concerned that the configuration of constituencies by the ministry of Interior can create sizeable imbalances in favour of President Sassou Nguesso’s ruling Congolese Workers Party.

François Misser

 

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