Congo-Brazzaville: Giving a wide berth
Posted on 14th March, 2022 in Director's Blog
The Republic of Congo (also known as Congo-Brazzaville to avoid confusion with the Democratic Republic of Congo whose capital Kinshasa lies just across the river) came to town in London last week.
The investment promotion road show was a very professional production. The brochure was glossy, the hotel top of the range, the hospitality generous and the ministers who came talked a good game. The Congo was a land of opportunities in energy, mining, agriculture and infrastructure. The government want to promote public-private partnerships in all areas and is open to investment from all corners. Processes would be simplified, a one-stop shop (guichet unique) for investors established and there would be comités de suivi to ensure promises were delivered and investments were fruitful. And above all, it was a peaceful and stable country, with a strong judiciary where past corruption was being firmly stamped on.
It sounded almost too good to be true. And maybe it was…
The ministerial delegation was led by the new Minister of International Cooperation and the Promotion of Public-Private Partnerships, Denis Christel Sassou Nguesso – not to be confused with Denis Sassou Nguesso, his father, who has been President of the Republic of Congo for the past 37 of his 78 years. The young M. Sassou Nguesso is very presentable: smart, fluent, well-educated, well-dressed and extremely upbeat – as befits someone reputedly worth many millions of dollars. Where all the money came from has been the source of much speculation and some detailed investigation by Global Witness and others.
That Congo-Brazzaville has room for development is abundantly clear. It has a steady income from oil production of around 250-270,000 barrels per day, but its population remains amongst the poorest in Africa, and many of its agricultural and other resources languish undeveloped. While there have been recent investments in the Pointe-Noire port complex, the lack of greater investment inflows could be the result of the government’s uncertain economic policy and the fragile state of the economy where, as the IMF politely puts it, “the risks are on the downside”.
The same might be said about its politics. Beneath the ostensible “stability” which the minister emphasised are turbulent undercurrents. These were exposed during the Presidential election campaign in 2016 when close and contested results, the President claiming victory by a narrow margin, led to protests, riots and violent repression. The President did not make that mistake again, making sure to win the 2021 elections by a healthily massive margin, claiming 89% of the vote, with his most credible opponent, Guy Brice Parfait Kolélas, sadly dying of Covid only days after the election itself.
According to some, the President did not particularly want to run again. But his efforts to engineer a smooth succession to his son were reportedly stymied by an attempted palace coup in 2020, possibly the result of the longstanding rivalry between the north and south of the country and the continuing popularity of the incarcerated former Army chief, General Mokoko.
The President appears to like the idea of keeping the job in the family. Of course, heredity has a long – if not very glorious – history as a way to manage political succession. It existed for many centuries in the kingdoms and empires of the world. In our own times, the Kims of North Korea are now on their third generation in charge – though whether that is a good thing or not for the country is moot.
Perhaps the Minister is genuinely keen to burnish his public reputation, not his private accounts, by bringing investment and jobs to the people of his country so that they will welcome him warmly as his father’s successor. But maybe not. And maybe Congolese citizens will decide to assert their desire to choose their own President whatever the incumbent wants.
So perhaps it is wise to give this Congo a wide berth for now. But if you do choose to sup with the devil, it would be wise to do so with a very long spoon – especially if he insists the spoon is silver-plated.
Nick Westcott is the director of the Royal African Society.