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Congo opposition accuses Sassou Nguesso of pre-election fraud

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Friday, March 18th, 2016
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Three opposition candidates accused Congo Republic President Denis Sassou Nguesso on Friday of preparing for widespread vote-rigging two days before an election in which he is expected to win another term of office, extending his long rule.

Sassou Nguesso has led the oil-producing nation for 32 of the last 37 years and pushed through constitutional changes last October to remove term and age limits that would have prevented him from seeking re-election.

If he were to win again on Sunday it would be a setback to efforts to foster democratic transition in Africa, where a number of countries have had leaders in place for decades, analysts say.

The opposition has documented numerous examples of voters registered at multiple polling sites, individuals with multiple voter cards and the distribution of voter cards to non-citizens, said presidential candidate Andre Okombi Salissa.

“The system has been perverted by the desire to carry out an industrial and massive fraud,” Salissa told a news conference in Brazzaville, capital of the nation of 4.5 million people.

The government rejects the accusations and says its opponents are stirring up post-election chaos.

At least 18 protesters were killed ahead of the October referendum, which the president’s critics say was also rigged after the constitutional changes were approved by an overwhelming 93 percent of voters.

The opposition denies it is inciting violence but warned that people would not accept a tainted result on Sunday.

“It is not possible for President Sassou to win these elections,” said retired General Jean-Marie Mokoko, who joined Salissa and Guy Brice Parfait Kolelas at the news conference. “Everywhere we have travelled there has been a total rejection.”

Five of the eight opposition candidates have created their own electoral commission to monitor the official body, which they say answers to the president. The European Union decided not to send an observer mission, saying recent changes to the electoral law lacked transparency.

Campaigning wraps up on Friday with a rally by Sassou Nguesso in downtown Brazzaville. He has ruled the country from 1979 to 1992 and from 1997 until now, including disputed election victories in 2002 and 2009, and his supporters credit him with restoring stability and developing national infrastructure.

“He has brought us peace,” said Claire Epany, a street vendor in northern Brazzaville’s Ouenze neighbourhood, where many pedestrians wore hats and T-shirts emblazoned with the president’s face. “If he leaves, who will finish his work?”

Critics say the country’s oil wealth has enriched an elite only and point to the fact that around half of the population lives in poverty.

Eight opponents are running, including retired General Mokoko, who once served as security adviser to Sassou Nguesso. Five of them have promised to support the president’s opponent in the event of a run-off.

Yet even some critics fear an opposition win is unlikely, in part because the electoral commission is biased, they say.

“The president is going to use the machinery of the state to cheat,” said Joe Washington, president of the Ebina Foundation, an activist group in Brazzaville.

But oil companies including France’s Total, Italy’s ENI, London-listed Tullow and the U.S. firm Chevron operate in Congo, making western governments less willing to rock the boat, analysts say.

“Western powers have been relatively silent on Sassou’s third-term aspirations, in part because of more entrenched economic interests in Congo,” said Christoph Wille, Congo analyst at Control Risks. (Editing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg and Hugh Lawson)

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