Congo Republic voted yesterday in an election widely expected to give President Denis Sassou-Nguesso another seven years in power, but turnout appeared low after an opposition boycott.
There were no reports of widespread violence, but scuffles were reported between former militia fighters and soldiers in the volatile Pool region, scene of fighting during a 1997-2002 conflict in the central African state, Reuters reports.
Investors seeking to diversify the economy in Africa’s fifth biggest oil producer are watching to see whether the vote sparks a repeat of the conflict and rows that have marred previous elections and disrupted political and economic stability.
“There have not been big crowds,” Roger Bouaka, executive director of Congolese Human Rights Observatory.
“The vote was calm and without any major incident except in the Pool region, where there was disruption in some places.”
Congo produces more than 220 000 barrels of crude oil per day but Sassou-Nguesso’s critics say that only small elite has benefited. He is one of three African presidents whose wealth is being investigated by a French judge.
Opposition parties, citing irregularities in voter lists and cards, had called for the vote to be postponed to allow for the creation of a new election commission and the clean up of voter lists, which were a source of complaints during 2002 polls.
The EU has also already criticised the lack of progress made in Congo since the elections in 2002.
Few took part in demonstrations called by the opposition in the lead up to the vote but there was voter apathy amongst many of the 2.2 million eligible voters.
“Nothing will change in this country whether I vote or not. People make promises that they break once they are elected, what will I gain from voting?” said Claudette Goma, an unemployed 31-year-old in the capital, Brazzaville.
Sassou-Nguesso, who has mobilised large crowds at campaign rallies and told his followers this week not to fear political violence, voted under a heavy security presence.
Congo’s vote took place a day after US President Barack Obama visited Ghana and encouraged Africans to hold their leaders accountable and criticised those on the continent who used coups or change constitutions to stay in power.
Sassou-Nguesso has been in and out of power since a 1979 coup, losing multiparty elections in 1992 before sweeping back into power in a war that destroyed much of the capital in 1997.
He won the last election in 2002, when his main rivals were banned or withdrew, citing irregularities.
“In terms of the electoral process, not much has evolved since 2002 in terms of an administration which does not give clear figures on registration, electoral lists or the process itself,” Miguel Amado, head of the EU mission in Congo said.
“We expected more progress from the government,” he added.
The EU said it was not sending observers to monitor the vote due to priorities elsewhere.
Investors are looking for signs of stability before they diversify into other sectors of the economy such as mining and agriculture, and several deals hinge on the outcome of the poll.
A group of South African farmers have been told they must wait until after polling day to find out if they have secured a multi-million hectare land deal in Congo, one of the largest such deals on the continent.