Africa analyst sees growing gap between continent's rulers and its ruled

by Toni Marshal
June 26, 1997

Christopher Fomunyoh is regional director for West Africa at the National Democratic Institute. He discussed the fighting and electoral problems in the Congo with reporter Toni Marshall.

Question: Is the conflict in Brazzaville related to the upheaval in former Zaire?

Answer: Some observers may find elements in the present crisis in Congo Brazzaville that could be viewed as an overflow from the recent crisis in former Zaire - the influx of refugees . . . the presence in Congo of remnants of the Zairian army, personal relationships between some of the personalities on both sides of the border; and even the notion that one can achieve political power through the barrel of the gun. However, in my opinion, the two cases are very different, because in Congo Brazzaville you have Mr. Sassou-Nguesso's militia taking up arms against a regime whose legitimacy was not being questioned.

Q: Historically, this is not the first dispute between President Lissouba and Mr. Sassou-Nguesso. Is he just a sore loser?

A: Indeed they have been political rivals for a long time. But they have also been coalition partners. During the second round of the presidential elections of 1992, Mr. Sassou-Nguesso, who did not qualify for the runoff, endorsed then-candidate Lissouba . . . [who] won the election . . . And both individuals agreed to form a governing coalition within the Cabinet and in parliament. It is only after that coalition collapsed that Mr. Lissouba dissolved parliament and called for new legislative elections in 1993. The results of the 1993 legislative elections were contested by opposition parties, including Mr. Sassou-Nguesso's Congolese Labor Party, leading to the first outbreak of civil war that you just referred to.

Q: How bleak is the situation in Brazzaville, and can it escalate to the level of the violence in former Zaire?

A: I do not believe that the violence in Brazzaville could escalate to the level of what recently happened in former Zaire. The potential was there for that to happen in the early days of the armed conflict, when the rest of the world seemed to have been taken by surprise. At this moment, there are mediation efforts under way in Libreville and elsewhere, and I believe that, with time, cooler heads will prevail.

Q: Is there one deep-seated cause for the civil unrest in sub-Sahara Africa?

A: If you want a short answer, it is the absence of democratic institutions and practices. As we recently witnessed through the last seven years in former Zaire - and can [see] in other African countries - there still is enormous resistance to change on the part of most political leaders on the continent. You still find regimes that lack legitimacy and that spend tremendous efforts trying to impose themselves on their people. There is an increasing disconnect between the aspirations of the governed and those who govern in a number of countries in the subregion. . . .

Q: Did Brazzaville's economy benefit more from Mr. Lissouba's presidency or the former leader's?

A: Mr. Sassou-Nguesso ruled Congo Brazzaville as a Marxist-Leninist. Today, the country is changing along with the rest of the world, and President Lissouba has been more open to free-market ideas. . . .

Q: Should the United States become involved?

A: The United States does not need to become involved in the conflict in the military sense of it. What most observers would expect is that through its support for democracy, the U.S. will remind both sides that political leadership is acquired through the ballot box. [Washinton] can also weigh in on current diplomatic efforts being undertaken by the U.N., the [Organization of African Unity] and neighboring countries. . . .

Q: Is French policy in Africa going through a major change?

A: I believe that the citizenry in Africa has been asking silently for less French interference in African politics. There is a new generation of Africans that are watching the world evolve, and will want their countries to tag along. They would wish that certain monopolies were broken so Africans could benefit, like everyone else, from open and competitive markets; and more important, so that regimes and elected officials in Africa could learn to seek legitimacy directly from their citizenryand less from some coffeeshop or obscure network in Paris or elsewhere.