25th anniversary of the signing of the Brazzaville Accord on Peace in Southern Africa, 11 Feb 2014
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The answer depends on whom you're asking. According to opposition groups, Sassou-Nguesso, who has been in power for the better part of three decades, changing the constitution is nothing more than a ploy to remove presidential term limits and pave his path to a third consecutive presidential term. The president is consulting constitutional experts to modify "the constitution to his advantage", claimed Mathias Dzon, president of the opposition Patriotic Union for National Revival, and is thus creating the ingredients of a "very grave" crisis.
Moreover, the current constitution (drafted by Sassou-Nguesso himself back in 2002 after he led the country out of a bloody civil war), includes a contentious article that forbids the scrapping of presidential term limits -- prompting opposition figures to surmise that Sassou-Nguesso's desire to cling to power goes so far that he is willing to write a new constitution from the ground up. As a result, after the ruling party called for political consultations with representatives of all political factions, the opposition walked out, calling the process a sham.
Although matters might seem transparent and eerily familiar for even the most casual Africa observer, Congo-Brazzaville's constitutional conundrum reveals a startling paradox: not all sitting African presidents seek infinite and absolute power and not all opposition forces are synonymous with a Joan of Arc-type fight for freedom.
Constitutional coup in the making?
Congo's first post-colonial constitution was adopted in 1963. A clunky document, it was changed in 1992 under the leadership of the perennial Sassou-Nguesso, allowing for the first multi-party elections to be held. He lost the elections, placing third with 17% of the vote but then backed Pascal Lissouba for the top job, who went on to win the second round with 61%. However, geopolitical struggles between the West and Russia (and more precisely, between France and the US) led to an increasingly tense political climate in the region, which simmered up to the point where a civil war erupted, pitting the forces of Sassou-Nguesso (backed by Angola) against those of Pascal Lissouba (backed by the other Republic of the Congo). After a two-year skirmish that left thousands dead, Sassou-Nguesso ascended to power, changed again the constitution and pacified the country.
The exceptional circumstances that accompanied the drafting of the current constitution should not be omitted when assessing the ruling party's plans for a new document. Written in the wake of the bloody civil war that had the ingredients of becoming an international crisis through the involvement of neighboring nations, each with their own political agendas, the 2002 constitution endows the presidential office with near absolute power. There are no significant checks on his prerogatives, there is no prime minister position (the president is the head of the government) and the Parliament is toothless. And while the opposition is claiming that Sassou-Nguesso's aims to deliver a constitutional coup d'etat by drafting a new fundamental law, the reality is slightly different.
The simple truth is that, "the historical role played by the [2002 constitution] has ended," said Thierry Moungalla, minister of telecommunications. "The constitution is not the bible. [It] was drafted by men in a specific political, social and economic context. What has been drafted by men at that period in time, influenced by major political circumstances, can be modified by these same men." What the ruling party has been advocating for is a return to the constitutional principles of the 1992 act, replacing the hyper-centralized presidential arrangement with a more balanced, parliamentary democracy system, that would increase the power of the legislature over the executive branch, water down the attributes of the president and ensure that a multiparty system can flourish. As things stand now, being elected to parliament is similar to being the American Vice President: you wield little actual power and occupy what is mostly a purely symbolic position.
Then why has the opposition been clamoring otherwise? Since the mainstream Western press operates on a given set of immutable principles that cannot be challenged, opposition figures in Africa are automatically awarded the moral high ground. Surely any reasonable person could expect that any individual who has been in power for 35 years would seek out new ways to stay to consolidate their grip and defang their opponents? However, there is a glaring discrepancy in the discourse of the opposition: arguing that they stand for democratic principles, while favoring at the same time the current constitution and running for what is, by any political standards, a profoundly undemocratic position. Yet this is precisely the course of action Congo's opposition has been actively pursuing.
The lesson here is that as Congo aptly demonstrates, sometimes taking a closer look at such far flung places in the world serves as a reminder that politics are never black and white, and that sometimes the real Keyser Soze hides where you'd least expect him.