Background Brief on Congo-Brazzaville

News and Press Release
Originally published
Department of Humanitarian Affairs
Integrated Regional Information Network
for the Great Lakes
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[This brief is intended as background information for the humanitarian
community and does not necessarily reflect the views of the UN]

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CONGO-BRAZZAVILLE: 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

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

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 of 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

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.

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