OXFAM Country Profile Republic of Congo - Congo Brazzaville

Situation Report
Originally published
Population: 2.8 million (1998), 5.7 million (2025)

Religion: The bulk of the population is divided into half animist and half Christians. There are fewer than 50,000 Muslims.

Ethnic Groups: The main ethnic groups are the Vili on the Atlantic coast, the Kongo in the Brazzaville area, and the Teke, M'bochi and Sanga in the central and northern plateaux.

Language: French, Munukutuba, Lingala

The main players in the current civil war

Denis Sassou-Nguesso Defeated Lissouba in June to October 1997 civil war. Was President from 1979 to 1992. Army backed by Angola. Allied to Cobra militia.

Bernard Kolelas Former President Lissouba's Prime Minister. Backed Lissouba in the unsuccessful civil war of 1997. Allied to Ninja malitia

Pascal Lissouba Former President, elected in the country's first multi-party elections in 1992. Allied to Cocoye militia

The politics of Congo-Brazzaville are triangular, representing three different parts of the country. Two sides of the triangle become aligned against the third, and those alliances are constantly shifting.

The three militia groups were created to serve as the private armies of the country's three main political leaders. Militia men are drawn mainly from the home areas of the respective leaders, a trend which has resulted in sharp cleavages between regional groups based on ethnic or regional lines.

The Cobra Militia

Denis Sassou-Nguesso, who had been President since 1979, lost to Lissouba in the country's first multi-party elections in 1992. Sassou's and Kolelas' militia groups were allied against Lissouba during the country's first civil war in 1993/4. That conflict followed controversial 1993 parliamentary elections in which both the Mouvement congolais pour la democratie et le development integral (MCDDI) and Sassou's socialist Parti congolais du travail (PCT) alleged voting irregularities. Although a compromise was reached the following year, the 1993/94 conflict militarised the Congo's political culture, with the Cobra and the Ninja emerging from the PCT and the MCDDI, respectively. Sassou's Cobra militia, supported by Angolan troops, defeated Lissouba' s forces in the 1997 war.

The Cobra members are drawn from Sassou's sparsely-populated northern Congo. Since Sassou's return to power, it has been difficult to make a clear distinction between the Cobra and the regular army.

The Ninja Militia

The Ninja are allied to Bernard Kolelas, who was former president Pascal Lissouba's last Prime Minister and Mayor of Brazzaville, until Lissouba was defeated by Sassou's forces in the June-October 1997 civil war. Kolelas remained neutral through most of the war and served as a mediator in the early part of the conflict. However, he later threw in his Ninja militia on the side of Lissouba in an unsuccessful joint attempt to defeat Sassou's forces. The Ninja then retreated into Kolelas' home region of Pool, which surrounds Brazzaville. The security situation in the Pool region has remained uncertain since then, with clashes between government forces and the Ninja intensifying in late September 1998. Kolelas, leader of the MCDDI, is now living in exile in Washington.

The Coyote Militia (Zulus)

Lissouba built up his own militia when his political opponents created the Ninja and the Cobra. Since the end of the 1997 war, his Cocoye militia, also called Zulus, have remained active in the southwestern regions of Niari, Bouenza and Lekoumou (known collectively as Nibolek).

Other forces

The regular army has traditionally been led by officers mainly from northern Congo. A portion of the army reportedly remained sympathetic to Sassou after his defeat by Lissouba in the 1992 elections. Since his return to power, Sassou's control over the army has, however, been tenuous. One of the problems has been irregular payment of soldiers' salaries.

The army is supported by Angolan troops, who have remained in the country since helping Sassou win the 1997 war. It is believed that Angolan troops are present in the country as part of efforts to combat the alleged cooperation between the rebel movements seeking to topple the governments of Angola, DRC and Congo-Brazzaville.

UNHCR have confirmed that some Rwandans who had been refugees in Congo-Brazzaville had joined the latest fighting in the country. It said 300-400 Rwandans from northern sites and "several hundred men" from the Kintele refugee camp near Brazzaville had been armed and deployed by the Congolese armed forces. Thousands of Rwandan refugees arrived in the country in May 1997 after fleeing their refugee camps in eastern DRC. Rwandan elements were reported to have participated on both sides of the conflict during the 1997 war in Brazzaville.

Opposition groups have said other foreign forces, including Cubans, are supporting Sassou, a claim denied by the government. The government, meanwhile, has alleged that Angolan UNITA rebels are supporting the Ninja, a claim denied by the opposition.

Brief Political History

A former French colony, Congo achieved independence in 1960 with staunchly pro-Western Father Fulbert Youlou, a Catholic priest, as President. The arrest of trade union leaders in 1963, led to a general strike, which provoked Youlou's resignation. Alphone Massemba-Debat became President and Africa's first openly Marxist political party, the National Revolutionary Movement (NRM), was formed. After a dispute between the army and NRM, Colonel Marien Ngouabi seized power in August 1986. The NRM was suspended and the Marxist-Leninist Congolese Worker's Party set up.

After several attempts on his life, Ngouabi was assassinated in March, 1977, and the armed forces chief of staff, Colonel Joachim Yhombi-Opango, replaced him. He was forced to resign two years later, following party infighting. Colonel Denis Sassou-Nguesso, a close Ngouabi associate and a pragmatist, became Party Chairman and President, ending years of political turmoil. Sassou-Nguesso, one of Africa's youngest heads of state, loosened the country's links with the Soviet bloc and turned increasingly to the West to cash in on Congo's oil boom. But in the country's first democratically elected presidential elections in 1992, Sassou was defeated by scientist Pascal Lissouba.

Ethnic and personal rivalry boiled over into bloody clashes early in Lissouba's presidency after a disputed 1993 parliamentary poll. At least 2,000 people died as Lissouba supporters fought militia loyal to 1992 runner-up Bernard Kolelas and to Sassou. Gabon's veteran president Omar Bongo and U.N. special envoy Mohamed Shanoun brokered a peace deal in 1994. Relations between the two men collapsed again in June 1997, just over a month away from a planned presidential election. Lissouba's troops sparked new fighting when they surrounded Sassou's Brazzaville home in a crackdown on his private militia, but by October, Sassou, with the help of Angola, had toppled Lissouba.

Soldiers loyal to Lissouba and his exiled former Prime Minister Bernard Kolelas went on the counter-attack at the end of 1998. More than 400 people died in clashes between rebels and government forces in southern districts of the capital in December.

Underlying Problems

The entrenchment of a militia culture in Congo-Brazzaville has been fuelled by several factors, including worsening socio-economic conditions, widespread unemployment and lack of opportunity, a sense of hopelessness, the legacy of the 1993/4 and 1997 civil wars, the pervasiveness of and easy access to weapons and instability in neighbouring countries.

Agreements reached after the 1993/4 civil war to disarm or dismantle the militia groups, including one initiated under UNESCO's Culture of Peace programme, were never implemented. The latest disarmament attempt, started by President Denis Sassou-Nguesso in December 1997, resulted in violent clashes. The militia are reluctant to relinquish their weapons because they serve as a source of power and revenue to them.

The Current Humanitarian Situation

An estimated 200,000 residents of southern Brazzaville and an undetermined number of people in Pool and southern regions have been displaced since December 1998 as a result of the latest conflict involving militia groups and government forces. The Congolese people, who had not yet recovered from the devastating 1997 civil war, are now embroiled in a new and more serious crisis.

Oxfam's Programme

The current programme in Brazzaville

Oxfam has constructed and has been providing water and sanitation facilities at 7 supplementary feeding centres in the capital, Brazzaville, since 26th July 1999. A further 3 centres were opened during November. A 256,500 euro proposal is with ECHO at the moment to fund the expansion of the current programme. Oxfam is in discussions with CARITAS and CRS (who are carrying out the feeding at these centres) about the opening of a further 5 feeding centres in Brazzaville, which will be constructed by Oxfam and at which Oxfam will be responsible for the provision of water and sanitation facilities. Plans are also being made to open 3 feeding centres in the Pool region, south of Brazzaville. Construction of these sites will depend on security improving.

In addition to plans to open 3 further centres on the northern side of the Djoué river, an assessment is planned in the quarters/villages of Brazzaville which are not reached by national water authority supplies. Here people are dependent on wells for their water supply. In order to enable the return of the large amount of people who have fled the city since December improvements are needed in these areas. Work, based on recommendations from the assessment, will be carried out by two local teams, who would analyse water supplies, clean and repair wells, pumps etc.

Further areas of work being explored

Water and sanitation and basic repair work in some of the primary health centres in the area are also being considered. Health centres in the city are closed, many have been looted and are in poor shape. Oxfam is considering work in conjunction with other NGOs working in the medical field. Work would be focused on rehabilitating capacity which existed before the present conflict.

It is envisaged that this programme of well repair and health centre rehabilitation would last three months.

The Oxfam programme in other parts of the Congo:


The town of Kinkala is 65km south west of Brazzaville. A large influx of displaced people is expected into Kinkala as soon as security improves and humanitarian assistance can be provided.

Once security in the area allows Oxfam plans to begin providing support to a local NGO (probably Secours Catholique Français) to open a supplementary feeding centre in the city. Oxfam would then be able to truck construction material, water and sanitation equipment, feeding kits and a team of constructors to carry out this work and would train SCF personnel in maintain this equipment etc.

Other areas of the Congo

The remainder of the Pool region is not accessible at the moment and it is not expected that the security situation in the area will improve sufficiently for some months.