Over two days in January, two significant events connected to the security establishment occurred in the Republic of the Congo. First, general-turned-media mogul Norbert Dabira was arrested. Then the head of the Republican Guard, General Nianga Ngatsé Mbouala, was sacked.
The arrest of Mbouala’s chief of staff in May last year had led to speculation about infighting within the national security apparatus. But President Denis Sassou Nguesso waited eight months to fire Mbouala.
Dabira’s arrest and Mbouala’s dismissal show deep-seated discontent in the face of a rigid regime. These events followed the demise of Africa’s oldest-serving president – Robert Mugabe – by a ‘smart coup’ in Zimbabwe, and a foiled Christmas Eve coup plot against Equatorial Guinea’s long-serving president Teodoro Obiang Nguema.
Dabira is in good company in Brazzaville’s central prison. He joins ex-chief of army staff and presidential candidate Jean-Marie Michel Mokoko (J3M), who has been held without trial since June 2016. Dabira, who served as high commissioner for the reintegration of ex-combatants until August last year, was arrested on allegations of coup plotting. A source in Brazzaville claims that J3M is in jail for refusing to recognise Sassou Nguesso’s victory in the 2016 presidential election. Whatever the allegations, there is more to these arrests than meets the eye.
Disputes around constitutional reform sparked a political crisis in the Congo in 2015. Worsening economic conditions have seen the Congo accrue record levels of debt as the country struggles to meet its financial obligations. The resulting slowdown in delivery of public services and inconsistent salary payments have stoked social disaffection.
As the Congo’s economic crisis has worsened, the recourse to praetorian governance has grown. A new Institute for Security Studies (ISS) report finds that a coercive security sector is protecting Congo’s pseudo-democratic structures. These structures in turn legitimise the ruling regime. In this way, regimes have survived by centralising the security apparatus in the presidency, and undercutting responsive and accountable governance.
Since the Congo gained independence in 1960, it has experienced only 13 years of purely civilian leadership – under Fulbert Youlou and Alphonse Massamba-Débat from 1960 to 1968, and Pascal Lissouba from 1992 to 1997.
After independence, multiple political crises fuelled by ethnic tensions between the North and South made the political space vulnerable to military incursions. The ruling Congolese Labour Party emerged as a political movement from within the ranks of the military after the first successful coup d’état in 1968. While a coup brought Sassou Nguesso to power in 1979, he was defeated at the polls in 1992. A bloody civil war followed, after which there was a civilian return to the presidency when Sassou Nguesso again took power in 1997.
Soldiers shedding their fatigues to control politics has laid the foundation for military governance in Congo. This prevailed until the pro-democracy demands of the late 1980s.
But the Brazzaville regime’s logic of relying on military domination is paradoxical. By weakening political opposition, the regime’s only viable competition comes from the security establishment on which it depends for power. A securocratic government might well keep Congo’s regime in power, but it makes political transitions uncertain and inherently unstable.
Dabira, Mokoko and Mbouala all hail from the president’s Cuvette region, as does the head of the national security council, retired Admiral Jean-Dominique Okemba. But these ethno-regional ties have not ensured loyalty in the inner circles of power upon which military governance depends. If anything, internal rivalries of this kind make transitions less predictable.
The arrest of former military leaders occurs against the backdrop of economic, social and political crises. The regime is unwilling to embark on the deep governance reform that is needed, and so repression among its ranks is the only hand it has left – and the only hand it plays.
Of the Congo’s six post-independence presidents, four have been ousted by coup d’état or civil war. With the security sector dominating the political space, successive regimes have been reluctant to establish independent political institutions that could help build a robust civil society.
Labour unions and student unions have been undermined by the infiltration of state agents, the arrest of activists, and intimidation. Public demonstrations are not allowed. Meanwhile the Congo’s opposition is splintered along moderate, republican and hard-line factions, which only serves the purposes of the regime in power.
Security sector reform is essential to address the structural conditions at the root of the Congo’s current crisis. As difficult as such reforms will be, it is imperative they take place ahead of preparations for the 2021 presidential elections.
Written by Fonteh Akum, Senior Researcher, Peace and Security Research Programme