Magazine article New Internationalist

Country Profile: Congo [Brazzaville]

Magazine article New Internationalist

Country Profile: Congo [Brazzaville]

Article excerpt

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. …

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