Sunday, March 20, 2016

Congo-Brazzaville Presidential Election Opens Under Communications Blackout

BRAZZAVILLE (Reuters) - Voters went to the polls in Congo Republic on Sunday under a government-imposed communications blackout as long-time leader Denis Sassou Nguesso sought to extend his rule over the Central African oil producer.

Sassou Nguesso is heavily favoured to win the polls. He faces eight opponents, including retired General Jean-Marie Mokoko who is seen as the strongest challenger.

The government also banned the use of motor vehicles nationwide during the vote, and police checkpoints were erected across the capital Brazzaville to verify that those circulating had obtained special permission.

"I want this to go well. I don't want war, which is often what happens after these elections," said Damien Kiongazi, who returned home to Brazzaville from Paris to vote but was forced to wait until his polling station opened more than two hours late.

Having ruled from 1979 to 1992, when he lost an election, Sassou Nguesso regained power in 1997 after a brief civil war and then went on to win disputed elections in 2002 and 2009.

He pushed through constitutional changes in October to remove term and age limits that would have prevented him from standing again.

His supporters credit him with restoring stability and developing the country's infrastructure. Critics, however, say Congo's oil wealth has enriched a small elite. Around half of the population of 4.5 million lives in poverty.

"I think the vote marks progress for our democracy. And I can say that the new republic is setting out under a good omen," Sassou Nguesso said after voting in Brazzaville. "The vote is unfolding calmly in my opinion."

The polls will be watched closely by other leaders in Africa - notably in neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo - where a number of long-serving presidents are seeking to stay on beyond constitutionally mandated term limits.

A government official said on Saturday that mobile phone companies MTN Congo and Airtel Congo had been ordered to interrupt service on March 20 and 21 "for reasons of security and public tranquillity".

The opposition said on Friday it had documented preparations for widespread vote rigging, including voters registered at multiple polling sites, individuals with multiple voter cards and the distribution of voter cards to non-citizens.

The government rejected the accusations, claiming its opponents were preparing the ground for post-election chaos. The opposition in turn denied it was inciting violence but warned that people would not accept a tainted result.

At the polling station in Mafouta, in southern Brazzaville's opposition stronghold, some of those waiting to cast their ballots on Sunday morning complained that the posted voter list contained the names of people who had died years before.

"I'm not confident. I see already that our voices are being stolen. The real results will not be given," said voter Boclelon Ganga, 28, as he smoked a cigarette waiting for voting to begin.

A Reuters reporter saw three names repeated twice, listing the same birthdays and parents.

However, Dileita Mohamed Dileita, a former Djibouti prime minister who is heading the African Union's elections observer mission, said he believed the polls were "going very well".

"We noticed there is calm ... We see the enthusiasm that has created," he said.

Former colonial power France criticised the conditions of October's constitutional referendum, saying they did not allow an accurate assessment of the result. And the European Union has decided not to send a mission to observe Sunday's vote.

(Writing by Joe Bavier; Editing by Hugh Lawson)

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