Congo: One Explosion After Another

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December 23, 2013: After four years of peace, the situation in the Republic of Congo (the smaller one next to the larger Congo that used to be called Zaire) has gotten louder and more violent. On December 16 th a former senior intelligence official (colonel Marcel Ntsourou) and about a hundred people in his compound resisted an army attempt to enter and search the place. Over 40 people, most of them apparently civilians, were killed along with two soldiers. Ntsourou was arrested. President Denis Sassou Nguesso apparently feared that Ntsourou was planning a coup or offering evidence to ICC (International Criminal Court) investigators seeking to indict Sassou for crimes against humanity. Ntsourou apparently felt that Sassou was out to get him for any number of reasons. Coming from Ntsourou such allegations could be very damaging because as a senior intelligence official Ntsourou had insider information about Sassou’s notoriously corrupt activities. An earlier French investigation found over a hundred bank accounts for Sassou in France along with extensive property holdings. Sassou has been president since 2002 and the last election in 2009 was declared corrupt by foreign observers.

Ntsourou got into trouble after an ammo depot exploded in the capital last year and Sassou found himself in need of a scapegoat to place the blame on. He picked Ntsourou and prosecuted him for being responsible for the ammo depot being there and not being properly managed. Ntsourou was convicted and given a suspended sentence and released. Whatever deal the government made with Ntsourou apparently did not work because since the conviction last September there have been rumors that Ntsourou was plotting with other disgruntled officers and officials to stage a coup or otherwise cause Sassou some trouble. Apparently Ntsourou was suspected (by Sassou) of dissident views even before the ammo depot disaster last year and that was why Ntsourou was selected as the scapegoat.

It was on March 4th 2012 that ammunition stored at an armored regiment base in Brazzaville, capital of Congo, exploded. The fire was brought under control within 24 hours and before it could spread to ammo stored at another army base 100 meters away. Over 300 people were killed because, as is common in Africa, military units are often based inside major cities, the better to deal with any attempts to overthrow the government. Large quantities of ammunition are often stored on these urban bases, so the troops can handle any contingency. This particular disaster occurred because of faulty electrical wiring causing a fire that was not promptly extinguished. African armies tend to be poorly trained and led, which often expresses itself in sloppy safety procedures and hazardous handling of munitions. Thousands of people were homeless after the explosions and fire and many of them were injured. There was a lot of anger at the disaster and the public unrest was getting worse month after month because the government did nothing. Then it decided to prosecute Ntsourou and that has also gotten out of hand.

Sassou was officially re-elected (with over 78 percent of the vote) in 2009 to another seven year term. Sassou was, at that point one of the longest serving chief executives in Africa. He served as president from 1979 to 1992. He seized power in 1997 after heavy fighting broke out in Brazzaville between pro-government forces and forces loyal to him. Sassou received most of his support from tribes located in the north. A truce was declared in 1999, essentially a “north-south” truce. Sassou won the presidential election in 2002 with 89 percent of the vote. Despite significant petroleum reserves, the Republic of Congo remains very poor. A 2009 UN study estimated 16 percent of all children under the age of five suffered from severe malnutrition. Things like that have not improved since then.

 

 

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