by Naomi Ndifon
The Republic of the Congo, also known as Congo-Brazzaville, concluded its presidential elections on 21 March 2021, with incumbent President Denis Sassou Nguesso reelected with 88.57% of the vote for a fifth five-year term. Sassou Nguesso, 77, has been in power for an accumulated 36 years, first taking the helm of the Central African State in 1979, 19 years after its independence.
Due to the two-term restriction specified in the 2002 Constitution, President Sassou-Nguesso, who first seized power in a 1979 coup and returned to office in 1997 following a civil war, was constitutionally forbidden from standing in the 2016 elections. In 2015, a referendum approved a new Constitution that extended the limit for the presidency to three terms and removed the upper age limit (70 years), allowing the incumbent to seek re-election in 2016. His primary opponent, Guy Brice Parfait Kolélas, died on election day. Kolélas, the son of a former prime minister who was a leading government critic, died from COVID-19 complications aboard a medical plane that flew him to Paris on polling day. Out of 7 candidates for the presidential elections, there were no women.
The elections recorded 2,645,283 registered voters, of whom 1,776,786 (67.1%) voted on election day. Prior to the presidential election day in March 2021, over 50 organisations from the #KeepItOn coalition sent an open letter to the country's President, officials, and primary telecommunications companies. The letter urged the President, officials and telecommunications companies to "ensure that the internet, social media platforms, and all other communication channels are open, secure, and accessible throughout the election period, scheduled for March 17 and 21, in the Republic of Congo and thereof." However, the internet went down just after midnight, several hours before the opening of polling stations at 7:00 am (0600 GMT).
The Republic of the Congo has a bicameral parliament system. The President serves as the Head of State and the Prime Minister as the Head of government.
Women’s Political Participation
Very few women have broken into Congo’s heavily patriarchal political scene. Women made their first entrance into Congo’s parliament three years after the nation’s independence in 1960. Micheline Golengo, a member of the National Movement of the Revolution (MNR), ran for parliament in 1963. She was elected to the National Assembly from the Brazzaville constituency with no opposition. Together with Mambou Aimée Gnali and Pierette Kombo, Micheline is one of the first three women to serve in parliament. Pierrette Kombo was an active member of the Revolutionary Union of the Women of Congo. In 1999, Mambo Aimée Gnali was appointed Minister of Culture and the Arts, in charge of Tourism for the Republic of the Congo.
Notably, Angèle Bandou was the first woman to ever stand for president in the Republic of the Congo. She was the only female candidate to contest the 1992 Congolese presidential election. She received less than one per cent of the overall votes. Angèle also ran for president in 1997. However, the 1997 election was not held. Instead, she ran as one of 10 candidates in the 2002 presidential election, finishing in third place with 2.32% of the total votes. Joseph Kignoumbi Kia Mboungou of the Pan-African Union for Social Democracy garnered 2.76% of the votes, and future President Denis Sassou Nguesso of the Congolese Party of Labour with 89.4% of the votes. In 2004, she was murdered by intruders in her house.
Since the country’s independence, women’s participation in Congo’s parliament has risen from 5.45% to 11.26% in the most recent 2017 elections, with significant oscillation in women’s representation in the intervening years. Following the 2017 parliamentary elections, women occupied 11.3% of the total proportion of seats in the National Assembly and 18.8% of seats in the Senate.
According to the Republic of the Congo’s Constitution of 2015, women shall have the same rights as men. The law guarantees their promotion and representation in all political, elective, and administrative offices. (Article 8 (3) of the 2002 Constitution).
The Electoral Law additionally supports women’s political participation, stating that candidate lists must take into account the representation of women in a proportion of at least 15%. Local government councillors are elected through a list proportional representation system from closed candidate lists. These lists must consider the representation of women in a proportion of at least 20% (Article 67 (3) of the Electoral Code as amended in 2007). Therefore, the defined quota is 15% at the national level and 20% at the local level. However, there are no legal sanctions for non-compliance with these quota systems.
While women make up 49.9% of the total population in the Republic of the Congo, their political representation remains considerably low despite benchmark provisions in the electoral law. For example, there is one female Senator in Congo's Upper House for every 4.3 male Senators. Advocating strict implementation of the electoral law and quota systems is critical to improving the country’s female political representation in the long run. Nonetheless, expectations for female representation in the 2021/2022 parliamentary elections are still uncertain. Organizations such as the African Women’s Development Fund (AWDF) and the Organization of African First Ladies (OAFLAD) - through its president, Antoinette Sassou Nguesso, the First Lady of the Republic of Congo, have continued to push conversations on enhancing women’s participation in decision-making processes to the forefront.
The Republic of Congo ratified the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) in 1982 and the Protocol to the African Charter on Human Rights and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa (Maputo Protocol) in 2011. Notwithstanding, gender-based violations, including crimes of sexual violence committed during armed conflict, are still being perpetuated without full justice being meted out. Implementation of these laws and quota systems to ensure Congo’s women’s rights to personal safety, political participation, and economic inclusion should be a priority in the coming days.
Congo-Brazzaville’s March 2021 Presidential Elections saw the incumbent, Denis Sassou Nguesso, reelected for a fifth term as President, garnering 88.57% of the vote. No women candidates contested the election. Despite a regional campaign by civil society, including women’s organisations, internet service was interrupted on election day, thus reducing transparency and trust in the election. Ahead of the 2022 parliamentary elections, there is a need to ensure citizens are able to communicate freely prior to and on election day. TTo ensure women can contest the election and be fairly represented in parliament, political parties must meet the minimum 15% quota legislated in the Electoral Law. Thus far, it has been disregarded. As a State Party to the Maputo Protocol and various treaties guaranteeing women's rights, the Republic of Congo must now implement and follow through on its commitment to delivering gender equality.