A referendum held Sunday in the Republic of the Congo to extend limits on presidential terms and the 70-year age limit on cadidates ended with near-empty ballot boxes and empty streets.
In his 31st year in office, President Denis Sassou-Nguesso, 72, has been cracking down on vocal opposition to his plan to extend his mandate, mirroring the recent unrest in Burkina Faso and Burundi. Traffic was only open to police and election monitors in the capital Brazzaville, and since Tuesday, mobile Internet, texting, and the popular radio station RFI were cut.
Reporters noted that the polling stations were noticably quiet, with a handful of ballots in areas with thousands of registered voters. By midday, less than 10 percent of registered voters had turned up in a southern district of Brazzaville, according to the local director of elections.
A coalition of opponents to Sassou-Nguesso's move have called for a boycott of the referendum amid growing tensions in the country. After his announcement of a referendum last month, protesters hit the streets in the largest protests in the capital since his 1997 return to the presidency.
Though the demonstrations were peaceful, protesters were met with violence by police who fired tear gas and grenades on the crowds Tuesday, while the government banned protests in the capital. Rallies against Sassou-Nguesso's "constitutional coup" in Brazzaville and Pointe-Noire left four people dead and about 20 injured, according to local reports. The people responded burning tires and calling the president to step down.
The sign reads “The Congo is not the property of N'guesso” in protest of proposed constitutional reform that would enable the president ot seek yet another term. | Photo: Reuters
@VP good morning mr vice president , what do you think about the referendum organized by the dictator sassou nguesso of congo brazza ?— Chaka Chocolate (@ChakaChocolate1) October 25, 2015
After the demonstrations, Interior Minister Raymond Mboulou claimed the protest he called unrest was an "organized and coordinated insurrection" targeted at "symbols of the republic, such as the headquarters of the police or the gendarmerie.
"Protesting is normal. But that doesn't justify indulging in terrorism," said Pierre Ngolo, secretary-general of Sassou-Nguesso's Congolese Party of Labour, in an interview with Le Monde.
Opposition leader Paul-Marie Mpouele said that at least four protesters had died and reinforced the opposition's call to boycott the referendum. At a press conference on Wednesday, 18 activists were arrested, and four opposition leaders were arrested the next day.
Due to the absence of opposition leaders, a diplomatic meeting was called off on Thursday. One of two opposition ministers dismissed by Sassou-Nguesso said that 50 soldiers showed up at his house the same day. The results of the referendum are expected to be announced later this week.