Congo

Congo: Year-ender 2002 - Numerous gains overshadowed by crisis in Pool region

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NAIROBI, 17 January (IRIN) - The year 2002 began with great promise for the Republic of Congo (ROC): a five-year transitional period following a decade of recurrent civil war were brought to a close with a national referendum for a new constitution and elections that generally proceeded according to schedule for a national assembly, a senate, and a president.
However, the honeymoon was short-lived. Although the elections were widely believed to have been rigged in favour of President Denis Sassou-Nguesso's Parti congolais du travail (PCT) - with Sassou-Nguesso himself winning an improbable 89 percent of the vote after all serious rivals were either excluded from or dropped out of the election - they took place without major incident.

In his inaugural speech, noted Africa Confidential, Sassou-Nguesso railed against government corruption, lack of transparency, the mismanagement of public funds and the political exploitation of ROC's ethnic divisions - as though someone else had ruled for the past five years.

Then, in late March, fighting erupted in the Pool region between government forces and Ninja rebels, led by the Rev Frederic Bitsangou, alias Pasteur Ntoumi. Tens of thousands of people were forced to flee what then-UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson called "blatant disregard" by government forces and rebels for the safety and human rights of civilians trapped by fighting in Pool. While those who were able to escape Pool - fleeing to places such as the national capital, Brazzaville - were usually able to receive relief support, humanitarian access to the vast majority who were left behind would be sporadic at best, though more often impossible, for the remainder of the year.

The country bordered on the brink of sliding back into civil war, reaching a peak on 14 June when armed men believed to be Ninjas attacked Brazzaville's Maya-Maya airport, forcing some 10,000 people to flee the capital. Despite repeated offers of amnesty from Sassou-Nguesso to the rebels if they turned themselves in, which met with some success, the government refused to hold a dialogue with people they believed to be terrorists, with Sassou-Nguesso ultimately giving rebels a deadline of 18 December to surrender.

The year closed with dark clouds looming on the horizon of 2003: not only did instability in the Pool region remain unresolved, but a staggering debt burden and international donor confidence in the government's questionable fiscal management - particularly of its enormously lucrative petroleum sector - left a largely impoverished and food-insecure people with little to look forward to.

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