Republic of Congo

March 9, 2002

By Todd Pitman

BRAZZAVILLE, Republic of Congo (AP) _ Four years ago, Luc Magloire was fighting militiamen loyal to President Denis Sassou-Nguesso in gunbattles that left tens of thousands of people dead.

Now he's planning to vote for Sassou-Nguesso in presidential elections _ the first in Republic of Congo in a decade.

"We all hated Sassou back then," said Magloire, who was shot in the stomach and forced to flee the country after his Ninja militia lost the war. "But nobody wants more war. It's better to let him win this time too."

That seems to be the opinion of most people in Brazzaville, the pleasant and leafy French-speaking capital that was devastated by street fighting in two back-to-back civil wars that ended in 1999.

Sassou-Nguesso seized the presidency during fighting in 1997, and few here doubt he will win Sunday's vote.

His only serious political opponent, former Prime Minister Andre Milongo, withdrew from the race late Friday, decrying a lack of fairness and transparency and urging his supporters to boycott.

Milongo was the third to pull out of the race, leaving six remaining contenders already too divided among themselves to pose a threat to Sassou-Nguesso. If no candidate wins more than 50 percent of the vote, a runoff will be held April 7 between the top two contenders.

The prize is a seven-year term, renewable once, and a presidency recently invested with increased powers. Voters approved a new constitution in January that provides for a new legislature without the power to remove the president from office _ unlike the current Parliament.

Sassou-Nguesso, 59, first took power in a popular revolt in 1979, leading a one-party Marxist state until he organized the central African nation's first-ever democratic elections in 1992.

He lost that vote to Pascal Lissouba, but overthrew him five years later in fighting that broke out just weeks before elections in which both men were to have run.

Gunbattles erupted again in 1998, when fighters loyal to Lissouba and former Prime Minister Bernard Kolelas took up arms against Sassou-Nguesso.

The war finally ended in late 1999 after cease-fire agreements were signed by all sides.

Critics say Sassou-Nguesso is now trying to legitimize his power under the veil of democratic elections.

Sunday's vote is opposed by Kolelas and Lissouba, who remain Sassou-Nguesso's staunchest rivals. Both live in exile and cannot return _ courts here have convicted them in absentia for crimes committed during the fighting.

Sassou-Nguesso's main campaign theme has been the promise of peace and security. Ubiquitous billboards and posters assuring "serenity and stability" show him on the beach in a green-and-white jogging suit, looking out over a tranquil ocean.

On the streets of Brazzaville, his face is plastered on everything from T-shirts to plastic shopping bags to hats.

Long convoys of supporters skirted through the streets this week, cheering from buses, trucks, taxis and cars. At a campaign rally on Friday, helicopters and planes flew over head dropping flyers.

In contrast, the faces of only a handful of opposition candidates were visible on small posters _ some of them torn _ scattered on a few crumbling walls around town.

"You'd think nobody else had a campaign," said Emmanuel Kiala Matouba, a spokesman for Lissouba's party. "He's going to win easily, but nothing is going to change."

The European Union, which has deployed 43 observers, says it is satisfied with preparations for the vote, despite minor problems registering an estimated 1.7 million voters in the oil-rich nation of 2.9 million.

"You can't forget the context. There have been three very violent wars since the last elections in 1992," said Joaquim Miranda, head of the observer mission. "The most important thing is that this process consolidates peace and democracy."

Only around 7,000 of an estimated 25,000 militiamen handed over their weapons after the war, and the threat of renewed violence remains.

But many residents credit Sassou-Nguesso with securing peace by granting amnesty to enemy fighters and inviting them back home.

Under a U.N.-sponsored disarmament program, Magloire turned over six grenades and a machine gun. In return, he got money to start up a cigarette kiosk.

"I don't want to fight. I want to feed my family. I want to rent a house," Magloire said. "I can do that now, and it makes me want to vote for him."