Brazzaville, the political capital of Congo, is routinely appended to the country’s name so as to distinguish it from the much larger Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC, formerly Zaire) next door. Brazzaville was once the capital of French Equatorial Africa, one of France’s two main African colonial regions. The city used to be affectionately known as Brazza la souriante (smiling Brazza) during the 1970s and 1980s. But by the late 1990s Brazzaville had become a mere shadow of itself – those parts of it which were not like a graveyard. Large parts of the capital were left in ruins following the civil war between troops of the then former President, Denis Sassou-Nguesso, and the national army under the command of President Pascal Lissouba.
The origins of the civil war are complicated. After 13 years in power, Sassou-Nguesso was resoundingly defeated by former UNESCO employee Lissouba in the first democratic presidential elections in 1992. But regular clashes between government troops and armed opposition groups erupted into full-scale war in June 1997 when Lissouba, who was approaching the end of his five-year term, attempted to arrest Sassou-Nguesso and disband his armed faction. In the end it was opposition forces which prevailed, thanks in part to substantial outside support, especially from Angola and France, and Sassou-Nguesso walked back into the capital and the presidency on 15 October 1997. According to Lissouba, oil was, as so often, at the heart of the conflict: he had more than doubled taxes on international oil companies, incurring the wrath of the French Elf corporation in particular. Lissouba has taken Elf to court in France over its role in his downfall. Sassou-Nguesso, meanwhile, has reduced oil taxes by more than a third.
A distinguishing feature of Brazzaville, which contributed to its welcoming or smiling image in times of peace, is the greenery so much in evidence to the new visitor who passes dense forest on the relatively short journey from the Maya-Maya airport into the centre of the city. Just after the forest you pass the national soccer stadium, Stade de la Revolution. The reference to revolution in the stadium’s name is an echo of the Marxist path pursued immediately after Congo gained its independence from France in 1963. Alphonse Massemba-Debat established a one-party state but found it impossible to cope with the French-trained army and was deposed in a coup in 1969 – only to be replaced by a much more rigorous Marxist-Leninist in Captain Marien N’Gouabi. It was two coups later that Sassou-Nguesso, himself an army colonel, came to power and pursued a more pragmatic path in economic and foreign policy.
Now that relative peace has returned, Brazzaville is trying to recapture the vibrant attractiveness of the past, typified by its main districts: Poto-Poto in the centre; Mpila and Ouenze to the north; and Bacongo in the south. Here bars play music almost all night; together with the DRC, Congo is seen as the cradle of modern African music. It is part of daily life here to see people spontaneously breaking into dance in the playground, in the street, or even while eating – without even being prompted by music.
But the problems remain. The country is supposed to be undergoing a three-year transition period on the way to the restoration of democratic and constitutional rule at the beginning of 2002. But dates for the general and presidential elections have not yet been fixed and, given that voting in Congo tends to be on ethnic lines, Sassou-Nguesso will be aware that his northern roots make it unlikely he would win a free election. But would the international community care if the election never happened? The difference between its positive attitude to Congo’s President and its armed intervention to stop a democratic leader being ousted in Sierra Leone has not gone unnoticed.
Leader: President Denis Sassou-Nguesso.
Economy: GNP per capita $670 (DRC $110, France $23,480).
Monetary unit: African franc (CFA).
Main exports: Crude petroleum (85%), timber (10%) – 37% of exports go to the US.
Main imports: Machinery and transport equipment, metals, food – 42% come from France.
The oil industry dominates the economy to an unhealthy extent, though a third of the workforce is still devoted to agriculture. Most farming is for subsistence though coffee, cocoa, tobacco and sugar are grown as cash crops.
People: 2.9 million. Population density 8 per square kilometre (France 107).
Health: Infant mortality 81 per 1,000 live births (DRC 128, France 5). 27 doctors per 100,000 people (France 280).
Environment: The middle of the country is still sparsely populated and covered by dense rainforest. The more pressing environmental problems come from haphazard development, pollution and inadequate sewerage in the cities.
Culture: All peoples are Bantu-speaking in origin but the Bakongo predominate in the south, the Teke in the centre and the Sanga and Vilil in the north.
Languages: French (official), Kongo and various local dialects.
Religion: The vast majority practise traditional African religions, with varying elements of assimilated Christianity.
Sources: World Guide 2001-2002; State of the World’s Children 2001; Africa Review.
Previously profiled July 1985
President Sassou-Nguesso is certainly making an effort to prove his democratic credentials - not least in the Special National Dialogue earlier this year mediated by President Bongo of Gabon. But his failure to announce election dates is provoking suspicion of foul play - and the new opposition coalition, the Alliance for Democracy and Progress, is certain to test his commitment.