Denis Sassou Nguesso (born November 23, 1943) is a Congolese politician who has been the President of Congo-Brazzaville since 1997; he was previously President from 1979 to 1992. During his first period as President, he headed the single-party regime of the Congolese Labour Party (PCT) for 12 years. Under heavy pressure, he introduced multiparty politics in 1990 and was then stripped of executive powers by the 1991 National Conference, remaining in office as a ceremonial head of state. He stood as a candidate in the 1992 presidential election but was defeated, placing third.
Sassou Nguesso was an opposition leader for five years before returning to power at the conclusion of the June–October 1997 civil war, in which his rebel forces ousted President Pascal Lissouba. Following a transitional period, he won the 2002 presidential election, which lacked meaningful opposition participation; he was again re-elected under controversial circumstances in the 2009 presidential election.
Sassou Nguesso is backed by a variety of political parties, the most important of which is the PCT. He is the President of the PCT Central Committee.
A member of the Mbochi tribe, Sassou Nguesso was born in Edou in the Oyo district in the north of the country.
He joined the army in 1960 just before the country was granted independence. He was marked for prominence and received military training in Algeria and at Saint Maixent, France before returning to join the elite paratroop regiment.
He had socialist leanings and supported the opposition to Fulbert Youlou in Les Trois Glorieuses of August 1963. He was later part of the 1968 military coup that brought Marien Ngouabi to power and was a founding member of the Congolese Labour Party (Parti Congolais du Travail, PCT) in December 1969.
In 1970 Sassou Nguesso was made Director of Security and a minister in the new presidential council. When Ngouabi was assassinated in March 1977, Nguesso played a key role in maintaining control, briefly heading the Military Committee of the Party (CMP, Comité Militaire du Parti) that controlled the state before the succession of Colonel Joachim Yhombi-Opango. Sassou Nguesso was rewarded with a promotion to colonel and the post of vice-president of the CMP. He remained there until February 5, 1979 when Yhombi-Opango was forced from power in a technical coup accused of corruption and political deviancy. On February 8, the CMP chose Nguesso as the new President, and at the Third Extraordinary Congress of the PCT his position was unanimously approved on March 27, 1979.
Sassou Nguesso surprised many observers who saw only a military strongman by revealing a strong commitment to Marxism as well as a streak of practical politics. He negotiated loans from the International Monetary Fund and allowed foreign investors from France and the Americas to operate in the vital oil and mineral extraction operations. He also traveled to Moscow in 1981 to sign a twenty-year friendship pact with the Soviet Union.
Sassou Nguesso was re-elected for a five year term as President of the PCT Central Committee and President of the Republic at the party's Third Ordinary Congress on July 27–July 31, 1984; he was sworn in for his new term on November 10, 1984, and on this occasion he announced the release of Yhombi-Opango. He was not slow to moderate the Marxist policies of the government as the situation demanded. He was Chairman of the Organization of African Unity from 1986 to 1987. In late 1987 he faced down a serious military revolt in the north of the country with French aid.
At the PCT's Fourth Ordinary Congress on July 26–31, 1989, Sassou Nguesso was re-elected as President of the PCT Central Committee and President of the Republic. Subsequently he saw the collapse of the socialist states of Eastern Europe and, under pressure from the French, began to prepare the process of bringing the country to capitalism. In December 1989 he announced the end of government control of the economy and declared a partial amnesty for political prisoners. Into the following year he attempted to improve the failing economic situation and reduce the outrageous levels of corruption. From September 1990 political parties other than the PCT were allowed and Sassou Nguesso undertook a symbolic state visit to the United States of America, laying the grounds for a new series of conditional IMF loans later that year.
In February 1991, a national conference began; the opposition gained control of the conference, and the conference's declaration of its own sovereignty was not challenged by Sassou Nguesso. The conference, which concluded in June 1991, chose André Milongo as Prime Minister during the transitional period leading to scheduled elections in 1992. Milongo was given executive powers, leaving Sassou Nguesso as effectively a figurehead president. Sassou Nguesso's power was so limited by the Conference that he was barred from travelling outside of Congo without the transitional government's approval. He was also subjected to serious criticism and allegations during the Conference, including a claim from some delegates that he was involved in Ngouabi's 1977 assassination. His eventual response to the criticism on 26 April was "repentant rather than defiant" in tone.
In the parliamentary election of June–July 1992, the PCT won only 19 of 125 seats in the National Assembly; the Pan-African Union for Social Democracy (UPADS) was the largest party, with the Congolese Movement for Democracy and Integral Development (MCDDI) another strong force. In the August 1992 presidential election, Sassou Nguesso was eliminated in the first round, in which he placed third with 17% of the vote; although he performed strongly in the north, he fared poorly in the rest of the country. The second round was held between Pascal Lissouba (UPADS) and Bernard Kolelas (MCDDI); Sassou Nguesso backed Lissouba, who won in the second round with 61% of the vote, although he and the PCT quickly went into opposition after the PCT received fewer positions in government under Lissouba than it had anticipated.
Lissouba began his rule dogged with accusations of voting irregularities and he had to act with increasing repression to maintain his power. From November 1993 to the end of that year clashes between supporters of Kolelas and Lissouba left almost 1500 people dead. In 1994 Sassou Nguesso prudently left the country for Paris. He returned to Congo on January 26, 1997 and intended to contest the presidential election scheduled for July.
Return to Presidency
In May 1997, a visit by Sassou Nguesso to Owando, Yhombi-Opango's political stronghold, led to the outbreak of violence between his supporters and those of Yhombi-Opango. On June 5, 1997, government forces surrounded Sassou Nguesso's home in the Mpila section of Brazzaville, attempting to arrest two men, Pierre Aboya and Engobo Bonaventure, who had been implicated in the earlier violence. Fighting broke out between the government forces and Sassou Nguesso's fighters, called Cobras, and led to the outbreak of a civil war. By October, Sassou Nguesso, who was aided at the end of the war by Angolan troops, was in control of the country, and he was sworn in as President on October 25.
Sassou Nguesso declared that he was willing to allow a return to democracy and began a three-year transition process in 1998, but renewed fighting with opposition groups led to the collapse of the endeavor. With the government forces in ascendancy and following peace agreements in 1999, elections were re-scheduled for 2002, although not all rebel groups signed the accords. On March 10 Sassou Nguesso won with almost 90% of the vote; his two main rivals Lissouba and Kolelas were prevented from competing. The only remaining credible rival, André Milongo, withdrew his candidacy three days before the election day, claiming that the election would be rigged. A new constitution was agreed upon in January 2002 which granted the president new powers and extended presidential terms from five to seven years. While the 2002 elections were hailed as being free of violence, they conferred little legitimacy on Sassou Nguesso's regime due to the lack of meaningful participation by opposition parties. Sassou Nguesso was sworn in on August 14, 2002.
Having already served as the Chairman of the Organisation of African Unity in 1986 to 1987, he was elected Chairman of the African Union, the OAU's successor body, in January 2006. His election was the result of a compromise reached to prevent the chairmanship from going to Omar al-Bashir, President of Sudan. Despite making frequent trips around the continent and around the world during his year-long tenure as AU chairman, Sassou Nguesso's achievements in the office were limited.
Sassou Nguesso was re-elected as President of the Central Committee of the PCT at the party's Fifth Extraordinary Congress in December 2006.
In January 2007, Sassou Nguesso's international reputation suffered a blow after a panel of judges in France reopened an official investigation into the alleged role of Sassou Nguesso's government in the 1999 disappearance of 353 Congolese refugees.
Re-elected in the July 2009 presidential election with 78.61% of the vote amidst an opposition boycott, Sassou Nguesso was sworn in for another seven-year term at a ceremony in Brazzaville on 14 August 2009. He said that his re-election meant continued "peace, stability and security", and he called for an end to "thinking like ... freeloaders" in reference to international aid received by the country. Sassou Nguesso also made an important announcement at his inauguration, saying that he would set in motion an amnesty bill to pardon Pascal Lissouba, who had gone into exile after his 1997 ouster and was convicted of crimes in absentia. Sassou Nguesso said that he wanted the amnesty bill to be presented to Parliament by the end of 2009.
As Congo-Brazzaville prepared to celebrate the 50th anniversary of its independence from France in 2010, Sassou Nguesso noted that the country had far to go in fully realizing the dream of independence: "Our country will not be totally independent until our people are free of the yoke of poverty." He presided over a large parade in Brazzaville, featuring thousands of soldiers and civilians, to celebrate the anniversary on 15 August 2010.
Allegations of Extravagance and Corruption
When Sassou Nguesso attended the United Nations General Assembly meeting in September 2006, almost £14,000 of room service at the Waldorf Astoria was added to his bill during another five-night stay. His entourage, including several members of his family, occupied 44 rooms which together ran up a bill of £130,000. The bills on September 19 included two bottles of Cristal champagne charged at £400. This was pointed out by the British newspaper The Sunday Times to be "comfortably more than the £106,000 that Britain gave the Republic of Congo in humanitarian aid in 2006."
As of June 2007, Sassou Nguesso, along with President Omar Bongo of Gabon, is being investigated by the French police due to claims that he has used millions of pounds of embezzled public funds to acquire lavish properties in France. He has been cited in recent years during French criminal inquiries into hundreds of millions of euros of illicit payments by Elf, the former French state-owned oil group.
In July 2007, British NGO Global Witness published documents on its website that appear to show that the President's son, Denis Christel Sassou Nguesso, may have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars of money that may derive from the country's oil sales on shopping sprees in Paris and Dubai. The documents show that in August 2006 alone, Denis Christel, who is the head of Cotrade - the marketing branch of Congo's state oil firm SNPC - spent $35,000 on purchases from designers such as Louis Vuitton and Roberto Cavalli. Attempts were made by Schillings Solicitors to suppress this information but the application failed (see law report at http://www.lawgazette.co.uk/inpractice/lawreports/view=details.law?GAZETTEINPRACTICEID=357873).