UNITED24 - Make a charitable donation in support of Ukraine!


Denis Sassou-Nguesso

In President Obama's speech in Accra (Ghana's capital) he talked about 'the big man syndrome' and what is prevailing in the continent. The United Nations Commission for Africa just released a 2009 Africa governance report. And one of its major findings was this big man syndrome in which leaders are finding so many other ways to perpetuate themselves in office.

Denis Sassou Nguesso has been in power since 1979. Denis Sassou Nguesso is one of Africa's longest-serving leaders having first come to power three decades ago. A French-trained paratroop colonel, Mr Sassou Nguesso is seen as a pragmatist. During his first presidency in 1979-92 he loosened the country's links with the Soviet bloc and gave French, US and other Western oil companies roles in oil exploration and production.

A member of the Mbochi tribe, Denis Sassou Nguesso was born on 23 November 1943 in Edou, a small village located north of Brazzaville. The biography written by journalist Andre Soussan prepared the ground to make people think Denis Sassou Nguesso was born to rule, since as he claims, he was chosen by clan elders at the expense of his older brothers to be initiated into the tribal cult in their village of Edou. In 1956, he was admitted to the regular high school of Paillet Dolisie Raymond, one of the leading educational institutions of the country, in southwestern Congo.

Denis Sassou Nguesso remained in the school until he joined the military in the early 1960s, when he was admitted into the Reserve officers’ program at the Mixed Cherchell School in Algeria. His early military career was however marked by the growing interest of Denis Sassou Nguesso in national politics. He became a Lieutenant in the School of Infantry of Saint-Maixent, France. He returned to Congo-Brazzaville to be one of the first officers to supervise the new Congolese army.

Sassou- Nguesso was a colleague of the distinguished governmental and political figure Marien Ngouabi, who was the founder of the Congolese Labor Party that sought to bring to bear the principles of scientific socialism to the development of the Congolese nation. Sassou-Nguesso was involved in the revolution of 1963 which overthrew the neocolonialist regime. In 1968, he became a member of the National Revolutionary Council. With Marien Ngouabi, the third President of the Congo, he participated in the formation of the Congolese Labor Party (PCT) in 1969 and six years later, became the Minister of Defence and Security in the Marien Ngouabi Government.

Denis Sassou-Nguesso became head of state and chairman of the central committee of the PCT in 1979. Sassou-Nguesso represented a more radical wing within the PCT - the M-22 - but was at the same time able to establish good relations with Western countries, particularly France. Like Ngouabi, he was from the North, albeit from a different ethnic group, the M’bochi, whereas Ngouabi as well as YhombiOpangi were members of the Kouyou ethnic group. In July 1987, 20 army officers most of whom belonged to the Kouyou ethnic group were arrested under suspicion of attempting a coup d’état against President Sassou-Nguesso.

At the Third Extraordinary Congress of the Congolese Labor Party in 1979, he was elected Chairman of the Central Committee. In 1980, he was elected president of the Congolese Labor Party (PCT) and President of the Republic of Congo. In the early years of his tenure, Denis Sassou Nguesso initiated a process of political and economic opening-up that brought stability to the country. In the field of foreign policy, D. Sassou-Nguesso guided the Congo on an anti-imperialist and anticolonialist course, as well as actively participating in the affairs of the Organization of African Unity and the Non-alined Movement.

At a dinner given 13 May 1981 in honor of President D. Sassou-Nguesso, L.I.Brezhnev gave a speech in which he welcomed the Congolese delegation and referred to the Congo as a country that represents the new, free Africa — the community of young states proceeding along the path of political and social progress. The Congolese President gave a reply speech thanking the Soviets for their hospitality and their support against colonialism and oppression. A treaty of friendship and cooperation between the USSR and the Congo was signed in the Kremlin by L. I. Brezhnev and D. Sassou-Nguesso. They also signed an agreement on cooperation between the Soviet Communist Party and the Congolese Labor Party.

At the invitation of the Central Committee of the Soviet Communist Party and Soviet Government, Denis Sassou-Nguesso, Chairman of the Congolese Labor Party Central Committee, President of the People's Republic of the Congo, and Chairman of the Council of Ministers, was in the Soviet Union from 12 through 17 May 1981 on an official friendly visit at the head of a party and state delegation. The Congolese delegation emphasized during its meetings that it intends to continue firmly to follow an anti-imperialist, anticolonial course in its foreign policy, intensify the socioeconomic transformations of its revolution, and consolidate the economic independence of its country.

In 1986, he became the Chairman of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU), now African Union (AU) and that of the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS). The work with African countries led him to become a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council. It was in this capacity that he participated as a mediator in the political negotiations which resulted in the signing of the New York Agreement among Angola, Cuba and the Republic of South Africa, in 1988. The same process paved the way for other achievements of the African continent, namely the independence of Namibia and the release of Nelson Mandela, two years later.

Nguessou ruled from 1979 until 1992, when democratic change swept parts of Africa after Soviet communism collapsed in Europe. Nguessou’s African-style Marxism got along very nicely with Moscow, and, in his day, with French President Chirac. In a reaction to the events in Eastern Europe and the implosion of the Soviet Union, the PCT convened in an extraordinary congress at the beginning of the nineties: a multi-party system was to be introduced and the role of the PCT in social organisation should be reduced. All political leaders were invited to discuss the path for the future of Congo-Brazzaville. The army-dominated PCT leadership did not want to give up power.

He returned to power in 1997 after a brief but bloody civil war in which he was backed by Angolan troops. Denis Sassou-Nguesso was returned to the presidency of the country after a number of internal problems that the country had had under President Pascal Lissouba, who had won the first democratic elections held in the country in 1994. During this period, President Sassou-Nguesso organised the National Forum for Reconciliation, Unity and Reconstruction of Congo-Brazzaville.

Eventually, the presidential elections were scheduled together with the legislative elections for July and August 1997. Sassou-Nguesso returned from abroad and tried to mobilise his supporters in the North. Internal discord and factional fighting overshadowed the preparations for the elections; the efforts to agree on a government of national unity failed. A civil war started in June 1997. In the five months between the beginning of the war and November 1997, an estimated 10,000 to 20,000 people were killed. In October 1997, Sassou Nguesso's troops / militia ousted Pascal Lissouba who, like his recently appointed prime minister Kolélas, fled the country. In November 1997, Sassou-Nguesso was inaugurated as president.

Despite the appearance of stability, political competition among the military and ministerial elite is intense and varied. Since Sassou-Nguesso's return to power after the 1997 civil war, elites have sought to demonstrate their political relevance to the government. Disgruntled military leaders occasionally foster violent conflict in the countryside; frustrated civilian leaders mobilize dissidents. Elite competition was even more violent during Sassou-Nguesso's first reign, between 1979 and 1992, when he was the frequent target of coup d'état attempts.

In 2002 and 2009, he was successively re-elected president of the Republic of Congo. At the beginning of his mandate, he continued the process of forging national unity and launched the project "Le Chemin D'Avenir" (The Way Forward), which proposed a plan of structural reforms for the country up to the year 2025.

Elected for the second time, in 2006, as Chairman of the African Union and non-permanent member of the UN Security Council, he participated in the process that aimed at finding an end to the violence in Darfur, Sudan. President Sassou Nguesso was also, in the same period, the mediator in the peace negotiations between Chad and Sudan. Since his re-election as President of the Republic in 2009, President Sassou Nguesso transformed the Congo into a huge construction site.

The conciliatory spirit of President Denis Sassou Nguesso led him to the struggle for peace in the Central African Republic and the process that eventually led to the signing of an agreement in Brazzaville, which established the new political transition framework. President Denis Sassou Nguesso, especially from 1999, was also involved, in the sub-region of the Gulf of Guinea, in the establishment of a framework of peace, security and cooperation among States to guarantee the harmonious development of the region. Thus, having embraced the dream manifested in the Libreville Summit of 19 November 1999, President Denis Sassou Nguesso was a key driver of the process that led to the signing on 3 July 2001 of the Treaty Establishing the Gulf of Guinea Commission with the Presidents of Angola, Gabon, Nigeria and Sao Tome and Principe.

Nguesso, who was 72 years old, decided to run for a third Presidential term in fall of 2015. Under the country’s constitution, Mr. Nguesso was not eligible to run for a third term, and was also disqualified due to his age. In order to remove these obstacles, his government changed the country’s constitution to enable him to run for a third term.

At the end of December 2015, President Sassou announced his decision to advance the presidential election, initially scheduled for July 2016, to March 20, in order to accelerate the establishment of the institutions resulting from the new constitution. Nine candidates were validated by the Constitutional Court on 24 February. The voting took place without violence but in a tense context, with a disconnection of communications for more than 4 days. On 20 March 2016 the Republic of Congo held presidential elections considered flawed; marred by widespread irregularities, a media blackout during the polls, an imbalanced and restrictive media environment, significant disparity in access to state resources, a short time frame for electoral preparations, and restrictions on freedoms of expression, communication, and association in the pre-election period.

Announced on March 24, official results gave Sassou a win in the first round (with 60%), followed by Kolelas (15%) and General Jean-Marie Michel Mokoko (14%) - results validated by the Constitutional Court on 4 April.

On 22 April, President Sassou appointed Prime Minister, Clément Mouemba, former Minister of Finance of Lissouba, who had joined the presidential majority and then, on 30 April, a new government with 38 ministers, including 16 new ones. The priorities of the new government are the recovery of Congo's financial situation, better control and efficiency of public spending and youth employment.

To prevent elite conspiracies, Sassou-Nguesso employed a range of survival strategies designed to recruit elites into the coalition, induce their compliance with his orders, and then monitor their activities. He encumbers some elites in marriage networks, forces others to join secret societies, subjects some to a parallel government, and prefers everyone to live in close geographic proximity. These survival strategies, historians find, are common in autocracies. Yet contemporary political science does little to illuminate these dynamics. Political scientists generally believe autocrats create legislatures or political parties to enable commitments with their elite, moderating incentives for coups d'état.

In fact, autocrats typically inherit political institutions upon claiming power. Sassou-Nguesso inherits formal and informal political institutions: the party and electoral system, and a set of military and financial elites. These institutions determine the survival strategies available to the autocrat.

Join the GlobalSecurity.org mailing list