Issue 10 - Article 13

Congo-Brazzaville (February 1998)

February 1, 1998
Pierre Gallien, Action Contre la Faim, France

A five-month civil war ravaged Congo Brazzaville when in June 1997 forces from president Lissouba surrounded the residence of one of his main political rivals Denis Sassou N’Guesso. Indiscriminate shelling and bombing led to intense destruction in the capital, with some 650,000 people becoming internally displaced, and 40,000 taking refuge in the Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire). Estimates are of 5–10,000 killed. Residential and commercial and administrative buildings, including those of the UN and the national Red Cross, were looted, and there has been widespread violence against women.


In October the militias of N’Guesso, supported by Angolan troops, pushed inland, consolidating a military victory over Lissouba and another political rival, B. Kolelas. N’Goussa has proclaimed himself president. There remain pro-Lissouba troops in the area between the town of Dolisie and the Gabonese border.

Following a rapid interagency assessment mission in October 1997 the UN launched a Flash Appeal for US$17.7 million, which has received only limited response. The main humanitarian concerns were and remain food security and nutrition, health and shelter. Congo Brazzaville is a net food importer and the war had disrupted commercial transactions. Most IDPs were hosted by relatives in their villages of origin, drawing on rural food stocks. Even though basic staples became available on the market again, high prices created problems of access. High levels of malnutrition among under-fives were reported. Aid agencies worked hard to provide emergency medical services and to get hospitals and health centres rehabilitated and resupplied.

After weeks of continued looting, the new president has moved to bring normalisation and his government appears relatively inclusive. Civil servants were asked to return to their posts and received two months of salary arrears. Militias were disarmed. By the end of November, most checkpoints in the capital had disappeared and administrative buildings were guarded. Due to the improved security, by January 1998 an estimated 70% of the population of Brazzaville had returned. So too had foreign companies like Elf, Electricité de France and the Lyonnaise des Eaux.

An analysis of the Brazzaville crisis needs to take into account several social, economic and political factors.

From an international perspective, some analysts have seen the Brazzaville crisis as a predictable domino consequence of the fall of Mobutu – the changes in Zaire have fundamentally altered the existing regional alliances and balances, and strengthened the position of Angolan president Dos Santos. There is little doubt that Angolan army’s support of N’Guesso’s militias has been decisive in the Brazzaville civil war. The position of Gabon, more in line with French policy, has been reserved. During the war Gabon has maintained a conciliatory attitude, but in the end it seems perfectly satisfied with the victory of the rebel movement.

In recent years however, the national economy of Brazzaville has been deteriorating, and the country is heavily indebted. Annual income per capita fell from US$1030 in 1992 to US$640 in 1994. With some 80,000 civil servants, Congo Brazzaville is one of the most extensively ‘administered’ African countries. The costs of this mediocre civil service weigh heavily on the budget. The intensive urbanisation (70% of the population of 2.6 million) has resulted in high unemployment rates even among educated youth. An ‘armed militia’ culture has been developing for some years in this seedbed of frustrations. Much of the destruction took place in the most deprived areas in the northern sector of Brazzaville city, where basic social needs were already high.

On the other hand, the beginning exploitation of the offshore oilfield of N’Koss, for which French and American companies have been competing, will fundamentally alter the parameters of the national economy. A debate has started on how best to manage the natural resources of the country.

Although the humanitarian emergency has subsided, the country is clearly far from recovery. The violence has caused deep social disruption, the economy and administration remain in need of reform and it must not be forgotten that the new government has been born from a military coup at a time when democratic elections were being prepared.


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