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Republic of Congo: 10 facts about “Emperor” Denis Sassou Nguesso

By Olivier Caslin
Posted on Tuesday, 16 February 2021 19:48

In power since 1997, Denis Sassou Nguesso (received here at the Élysée Palace in 2015 by President Hollande) has known six French heads of state. © Vernier / JBV NEWS

The Congolese President announced on 23 January that he will run for a fourth term in the presidential election on 21 March. The 77-year-old former parachutist officer will represent the Parti Congolais du Travail (PCT) and the 17 parties that make up his presidential majority.

1. “Emperor”

It was the president of Guinea, Alpha Condé, who first coined this nickname. However, it was Côte d’Ivoire’s Alassane Ouattara, who, by taking it up publicly for the first time on 14 December in Abidjan, solidified it within the pan-African tradition. Denis Sassou Nguesso’s longevity in power (thirty-six years accumulated over two consecutive terms then separated by a period of five years) has a lot to do with why he has earned this nickname, as well as his strict discipline as a former parachutist officer and the impeccable cut of his suits.

2. Mwene

When he holidays on his ancestral lands of Oyo and Edou, which he frequently does, he is honoured to be addressed by his title of traditional Mbochi ethnic group chief. His ranch, with a slaughterhouse and a milk and cheese production unit, is home to several hundred Brazilian cattle and South African ostriches, whose meat is marketed under the brand name Bon Bœuf.

3. Dynasty

Responding eight months ago to journalists who reported rumours that he was preparing his son Denis Christel to succeed him, the Republic of Congo’s President dismissed this hypothesis as a “legend”, urging them to “ask serious questions”.

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Among his children, only his daughter Claudia holds an official position (she is his special adviser in charge of communication). She is also an MP, as is Denis. Stella, another of his daughters, is mayor of Kintele, in the Brazzaville suburbs.

4. Mediator

From Libya to the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the current president of the Communauté Economique des États de l’Afrique Centrale has had a long career as a conflict mediator. He had his heyday in the 1980s, when he was involved in discussions about Namibia’s independence and the Cuban withdrawal from Angola. DRC President Felix Tshisekedi, Togo’s Faure Gnassingbé and Guinea Bissau’s Umaro Sissoco Embaló regularly seek his advice. He often receives them in Oyo, on the banks of the Alima River.

5. Eco-friendly

Since the Rio summit in 1990, he has understood that Congolese “soft power” is also based on the environment. The man who has not missed a single COP launched the Congo Basin Blue Fund four years ago and presides over the climate commission of the second-greenest lung on the planet after the Amazon. This position enabled him to sign an agreement on forest protection with France’s President Emmanuel Macron in 2019. The recent discovery of large peat bogs in the north is another string in his bow.

6. ‘Ill-gotten gains’

Ever since NGOs filed the first complaint against him and several of his African peers for “ill-gotten gains” in France in 2007, these legal proceedings have been a thorn in Sassou Nguesso’s side. All the more so as it has since involved several members of his family. The cases are still open and regularly sours relations between Brazzaville and Paris.

7. Uncompromising

Comforted by the United Nations Human Rights Council’s dismissal of the case brought to it by several NGOs in October 2019, Sassou Nguesso is nevertheless accused of imprisoning former general Jean-Marie Mokoko and his former minister Okombi Salissa for “undermining the internal security of the state” since 2016. Uncompromising, he refuses to see them as political prisoners.

8. A holder of many cards

From former president Valéry Giscard d’Estaing to Macron, he has known six French heads of state. But also Fidel Castro, Leonid Brezhnev, Deng Xiaoping, Ho Chi Minh, Thomas Sankara, Nelson Mandela and half a dozen US presidents…

9. Antoinette

Married in 1969, he and his wife Antoinette have been inseparable ever since. From the dark hours of the national conference and the civil war to electoral victories, she has been at his side. Active in humanitarian work, this former schoolteacher is also – because of her origins in Porte-Noire – a geopolitical asset for her husband.

10. Last presidential term?

Under the terms of the new constitution adopted in 2015, Sassou Nguesso will still be able – if he is re-elected in March – to stand for a final five-year term. One thing is certain: For “Otchouembé” (“the wrestler”), this is not his last fight.

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