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World : Africa : Republic of Congo
Republic of Congo

First inhabited by pygmies, Congo was later settled by Bantu groups that also occupied parts of present-day Angola, Gabon, and Zaire, forming the basis for ethnic affinities and rivalries among those states. Several Bantu kingdoms--notably those of the Kongo, the Loango, and the Teke--built trade links leading into the Congo River basin. The first European contacts came in the late 15th century, and commercial relationships were quickly established with the kingdoms--trading for slaves captured in the interior. The coastal area was a major source for the transatlantic slave trade, and when that commerce ended in the early 19th century, the power of the Bantu kingdoms eroded.

The area came under French sovereignty in the 1880s. Pierre Savorgnon de Brazza, a French empire builder, competed with agents of Belgian King Leopold's International Congo Association (later Zaire) for control of the Congo River basin. Between 1882 and 1891, treaties were secured with all the main local rulers on the river's right bank, placing their lands under French protection. In 1908, France organized French Equatorial Africa (AEF), comprising its colonies of Middle Congo (modern Congo), Gabon, Chad, and Oubangui-Chari (modern Central African Republic). Brazzaville was selected as the federal capital.

Economic development during the first 50 years of colonial rule in Congo centered on natural resource extraction by private companies. In 1924-34, the Congo-Ocean Railway (CFCO) was built at a considerable human and financial cost, opening the way for growth of the ocean port of Pointe-Noire and towns along its route.

During World War II, the AEF administration sided with Charles DeGaulle, and Brazzaville became the symbolic capital of Free France during 1940-43. The Brazzaville Conference of 1944 heralded a period of major reform in French colonial policy, including the abolition of forced labor, granting of French citizenship to colonial subjects, decentralization of certain powers, and election of local advisory assemblies. Congo benefited from the postwar expansion of colonial administrative and infrastructure spending as a result of its central geographic location within AEF and the federal capital at Brazzaville.

The Loi Cadre (framework law) of 1956 ended dual voting roles and provided for partial self-government for the individual overseas territories. Ethnic rivalries then produced sharp struggles among the emerging Congolese political parties and sparked severe riots in Brazzaville in 1959. After the September 1958 referendum approving the new French constitution, AEF was dissolved. Its four territories became autonomous members of the French Community, and Middle Congo was renamed the Congo Republic. Formal independence was granted in August 1960.

Congo's first president was Fulbert Youlou, a former Catholic priest from the Pool region in the southeast. He rose to political prominence after 1956, and was narrowly elected president by the National Assembly at independence. Youlou's 3 years in power were marked by ethnic tensions and political rivalry. In August 1963, Youlou was overthrown in a 3-day popular uprising (Les Trois Glorieuses ) led by labor elements and joined by rival political parties. All members of the Youlou government were arrested or removed from office. The Congolese military took charge of the country briefly and installed a civilian provisional government headed by Alphonse Massamba-Debat. Under the 1963 constitution, Massamba-Debat was elected president for a 5-year term and named Pascal Lissouba to serve as Prime Minister. However, President Massamba-Debat's term ended abruptly in August 1968, when Capt. Marien Ngouabi and other army officers toppled the government in a coup. After a period of consolidation under the newly formed National Revolutionary Council, Major Ngouabi assumed the presidency on December 31, 1968. One year later, President Ngouabi proclaimed Congo to be Africa's first "people's republic" and announced the decision of the National Revolutionary Movement to change its name to the Congolese Labor Party (PCT).

On March 16, 1977, President Ngouabi was assassinated. Although the persons accused of shooting Ngouabi were tried and some of them executed, the motivation behind the assassination is still not clear. An 11-member Military Committee of the Party (CMP) was named to head an interim government with Colonel (later General) Joachim Yhomby-Opango to serve as President of the Republic. Accused of corruption and deviation from party directives, Yhomby-Opango was removed from office on February 5, 1979 by the Central Committee of the PCT, which then simultaneously designated Vice President and Defense Minister Col. Denis Sassou-Nguesso as interim President. The Central Committee directed Sassou-Nguesso to take charge of preparations for the Third Extraordinary Congress of the PCT, which proceeded to elect him President of the Central Committee and President of the Republic. Under a congressional resolution, Yhomby-Opango was stripped of all powers, rank, and possessions and placed under arrest to await trial for high treason. He was released from house arrest in late 1984 and ordered back to his native village of Owando.

After two decades of turbulent politics bolstered by Marxist-Leninist rhetoric, and with the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Congolese gradually moderated their economic and political views to the point that, in 1992, Congo completed a transition to multi-party democracy. Ending a long history of one-party Marxist rule, a specific agenda for this transition was laid out during Congo's national conference of 1991 and culminated in August 1992 with multi-party presidential elections. Sassou-Nguesso conceded defeat and Congo's new president, Prof. Pascal Lissouba, was inaugurated on August 31, 1992.

Congolese democracy experienced severe trials in 1993 and early 1994. President Lissouba dissolved the National Assembly in November 1992, calling for new elections in May 1993. The results of those elections were disputed, touching off violent civil unrest in June and again in November. In February 1994, all parties accepted the decisions of an international board of arbiters, and the risk of largescale insurrection subsided.

However, Congo's democratic progress was derailed in 1997. As presidential elections scheduled for July 1997 approached, tensions between the Lissouba and Sassou camps mounted. When on June 5, President Lissouba's government forces surrounded Sassou's compound in Brazzaville with armored vehicles, Sassou ordered his militia to resist. Thus began a 4-month conflict that destroyed or damaged much of Brazzaville. In early October, Angolan troops invaded Congo on the side of Sassou and, in mid-October, the Lissouba government fell. Soon thereafter, Sassou declared himself President and named a 33-member government.

In January 1998, the Sassou regime held a National Forum for Reconciliation to determine the nature and duration of the transition period. The Forum, tightly controlled by the government, decided elections should be held in about 3 years, elected a transition advisory legislature, and announced that a constitutional convention would finalize a draft constitution. However, the eruption in late 1998 of fighting between Sassou's government forces and a pro-Lissouba and pro-Kolelas armed opposition disrupted the transition to democracy. This new violence also closed the economically vital Brazzaville-Pointe Noire railroad; caused great destruction and loss of life in southern Brazzaville and in the Pool, Bouenza, and Niari regions; and displaced hundreds of thousands of persons. In November and December 1999, the government signed agreements with representatives of many, though not all, of the rebel groups. The December accord, mediated by President Omar Bongo of Gabon, called for follow-on, inclusive political negotiations between the government and the opposition. During the years 2000-01, Sassou-Nguesso’s government conducted a national dialogue (Dialogue Sans Exclusif), in which the opposition parties and the government agreed to continue on the path to peace. Ex-militiamen were granted amnesty, and many were provided microloans to aid their reinsertion into civil society. Not all opposition members participated. Ex-President Lissouba and ex-Prime Minister Kolelas refused to agree and have been exiled for all practical purposes. They were tried in absentia and convicted in Brazzaville of charges ranging from treason to misappropriation of government funds. Other members of opposition parties have returned and have opted to participate to some degree in political life. A new constitution was drafted in 2001, approved by the provisional legislature (National Transition Council), and approved by the people of Congo in a national referendum in January 2002. Presidential elections were held in March 2002, and Sassou-Nguesso was declared the winner. Legislative elections were scheduled for May and June 2002.


The Republic of the Congo has not provided data for any United Nations or INTERPOL surveys of crime; however, a statement about crime is given in the United States State Department's Consular Information Sheet which states that in the Republic of Congo, petty street crime targeting foreigners is relatively rare, but nighttime muggings sometimes occur, especially in Pointe Noire.


The security forces include the police, the Gendarmerie, and the armed forces; however, the functional distinction between these forces was not clear. In theory the police should be the first to respond to security incidents, with gendarmes and army units intervening later if necessary; in practice joint operations were common. Many new recruits who have joined the security forces since the 1997 civil war were former members of nongovernmental militias. The Government did not have full control over some individual members of the security forces. Since the end of the 1998-1999 conflict, the Government has established increasing control over progovernment "Cobra" militiamen who effectively had been autonomous. Some units of the Angolan armed forces remained in the country under a bilateral agreement to provide security, most of them near the Congolese border with Cabinda (Angola). Rwandan Hutu militiamen, as well as former soldiers from the DRC, remained in the country as refugees and no longer participate in government military operations. A major challenge for the country is reintegration of former militiamen from all sides in the 1998-1999 conflict who have stopped fighting under the terms of the peace accords. In some cases, joint military units comprised of army troops and former rebels provide security in former rebel-controlled areas, and several thousand former combatants have benefited from internationally supported programs to help their reintegration into society and to collect and destroy illegal arms. Some members of antigovernment groups supporting Lissouba or his Prime Minister, Bernard Kolelas, have been permitted to rejoin their previous employers, for example, in the Ministry of Interior. Some members of the security forces committed serious human rights abuses.

There were reports during the year 2001 of extrajudicial killings by security forces. For example, in September police shot and killed an individual accused of theft when he fled arrest. There was no report of an investigation or action taken on this case by year's end. In the fall, the bodyguard of a government minister shot and killed a person he believed threatened the physical security of the minister. There was an internal investigation; however, the results were not released nor was any action taken on this case by year's end. There were reports that security forces summarily executed soldiers responsible for abuses. For example, in August 2001 a soldier shot and killed a superior officer; he was arrested and summarily executed.

The Fundamental Act prohibits such practices; however, in practice security forces sometimes used beatings to coerce confessions or to punish detainees. Female detainees were raped. Members of the security forces beat citizens and looted their homes, and security forces sometimes extorted money from travelers at checkpoints. No action was taken against the responsible personnel by year's end. A survey of 2,000 persons conducted by the police in August and September indicated that, of the 81 percent who had contact with the police, more than 65 percent were dissatisfied with their treatment.

Unlike in previous years, there were no reports that undisciplined government forces committed abuses such as summary executions, rape, looting, and other violent acts. There continued to be reports of security forces summarily executing soldiers; however, it was unknown for what abuses the soldiers were executed.


The Fundamental Act prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention; however, security forces frequently commit such acts. The Code of Penal Procedure, which remains in force, requires that a person be apprehended openly and that a lawyer be present during initial questioning. The Code further stipulates that warrants be issued before arrests are made and that detainees be brought before a judge within 3 days and either charged or released within 4 months. In practice the Government often violated these legal provisions. However, detainees usually were informed of the charges levied against them, and lawyers and family members usually were given access to them. There is a system of bail called a "caution"; however, more than 70 percent of the population has an income below poverty level and usually cannot afford to pay the "caution" deposit.


The legal system is based on French civil law system and customary law. The Fundamental Act provides for an independent judiciary; however, in practice the judiciary continued to be corrupt, overburdened, under financed, and subject to political influence. Lack of resources continued to be a severe problem; almost nothing remains of judicial records, case decisions, and law books following the looting during the civil wars. The Ministry of Justice continued slowly to rehabilitate courthouses during the year 2001. A newly refurbished "Law Library and Information Center" was opened to the public during the year 2001.

The judicial system consists of local courts, courts of appeal, the Supreme Court, and traditional courts. In rural areas, traditional courts continued to handle many local disputes, especially property and probate cases, and domestic conflicts that could not be resolved within the family. In general defendants are tried in a public court of law presided over by a state-appointed magistrate. The defense has access to prosecution evidence and testimony and the right to counter it. In formal courts defendants are presumed innocent and have the right of appeal; however, the legal caseload far exceeded the capacity of the judiciary to ensure fair and timely trials. Some cases never reach the court system. In 1999 the Government announced plans to establish military tribunals to try soldiers for abuses committed during periods of conflict, and the Government introduced legislation to establish these tribunals; however, it was unknown whether the military tribunals were implemented by year's end.


Prison conditions remain poor due to overcrowded facilities and scarcity of resources to provide food or health care to the inmates. Prisons (Maisons d'Arret) functioned in Brazzaville and Pointe Noire and to a lesser degree in the smaller, more remote towns of Owando, Ouesso, and Djambala. The Ministry of Justice continued to repair some prisons during the year 2001, but efforts to improve physical facilities and to provide food and medicine were hindered by lack of funds. Detainees held at police stations often have been subjected to beatings, overcrowding, extortion, and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment. A group of 17 persons who spent 16 months in prison in Impfondo between 1998-1999 filed a complaint in Pointe Noire as a partie civile in 2000 against the Government alleging cruel and inhuman treatment, including torture, during their incarceration. In August dissatisfied with the pace of justice, they filed a complaint in a Belgian national court. Women were incarcerated with men, and juveniles were held with adults. Pretrial detainees were detained with convicted prisoners. It was unknown if there were any deaths in custody during the year 2001.

Access to prisons and detention centers by domestic and international human rights groups has continued to be granted. Local human rights groups, including the Congolese Observatory for Human Rights (OCDH), the Association for the Human Rights of the Incarcerated (ADHUC), and a Catholic Church organization visited prisons during the year 2001. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) conducted regular visits to prisons and detention centers throughout the country.


Domestic violence against women, including rape and beatings, has been widespread but reported rarely. Domestic violence has been handled within the extended family and only the more extreme incidents were brought to the police. There are no specific provisions under the law for spousal battery, apart from general statutes prohibiting assault. Rape is illegal, and widespread rape during the 1998-1999 civil conflict raised public awareness of violence against women. NGO's, such as the International Rescue Committee, continued to draw attention to the issue and provided counseling and assistance to victims.

Female genital mutilation (FGM), which is condemned widely by international health experts as damaging to both physical and psychological health, is not practiced indigenously, but may occur in some of the immigrant communities from countries such as Mauritania and Mali, where it is more common.

Marriage and family laws overtly discriminate against women. For example, adultery is illegal for women but not for men. Polygyny is legal; polyandry is not. While the Legal Code provides that 30 percent of the husband's estate goes to the wife, in practice the wife often loses all rights of inheritance upon the death of her spouse, especially in the context of traditional or common-law marriages. The symbolic nature of the dowry set in the Family Code often is not respected, and men are forced to pay excessive brideprices to the woman's family. As a result, the right to divorce is circumscribed for some women because they lack the financial means to reimburse the brideprice to the husband and his family. This problem was more prevalent in rural areas than in urban centers.

There were a number of NGO's that work on women's problems; however, their effectiveness varied widely. The Ministry of Public Service, Administrative Reform, and the Promotion of Women is responsible for coordinating government initiatives regarding the status of women.


Teenage girls sometimes have exchanged sex voluntarily or under pressure for better grades. This practice has resulted in both the spread of HIV/AIDS and unwanted, unplanned pregnancies, which are considered social problems.

FGM may be performed on girls in some immigrant communities.

There were indigent street children in Brazzaville, and their numbers appear to be growing as a result of civil conflict since 1997. In addition children from the DRC easily cross the river by stowing away on the ferry, which crosses several times per day, to seek improved living conditions. UNICEF estimated that at least 20 percent of street children in Brazzaville were from the DRC; however, NGO estimates were as high as 50 percent. DRC children also have been found in Pointe Noire. The children were not known to suffer from targeted abuse by government authorities or vigilante groups; however, they were vulnerable to sexual exploitation and often fell prey to criminal elements including drug smugglers. Many of the street children beg or sell cheap or stolen goods to support themselves. Some have turned to prostitution or petty theft.

There have been reports of isolated cases of child prostitution, particularly among the growing numbers of street children; however, the prevalence of the problem was unclear.


The law does not specifically prohibit trafficking in persons, and there were reports that persons were trafficked to, from, or within the country. An ILO study conducted in March and April 2000 in Yaounde, Douala, and Bamenda, Cameroon, indicated that regional traffickers transported children between the Republic of the Congo, and Nigeria, Benin, Niger, Chad, Togo, and the Central African Republic, through Cameroon.

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Dr. Robert Winslow
San Diego State University