, BRAZZAVILLE, Congo, Mar 20 – Congo began voting on Sunday under a media blackout, in a tense ballot expected to see President Denis Sassou Nguesso prolong his 32-year rule over the oil-rich but poor nation.
Polling stations opened promptly at 7:00am (0600 GMT), with voters lining up quietly outside, according to an AFP correspondent in the capital, Brazzaville. The polls will close at 6:00pm (1700 GMT).
On the eve of the vote, Interior Minister Raymond Mboulou ordered a 48-hour communications blackout, instructing telecoms firms to block all telephone, Internet and SMS services for “reasons of security and national safety”.
A government source told AFP the shutdown was intended to stop any “illegal” publication of the results.
Tensions have been running high in Congo since an October referendum when voters agreed changes to the constitution that removed a two-term limit, allowing 72-year-old former paratrooper colonel Sassou Nguesso to run in the election.
The vote also removed a 70-year age limit for the presidency that could have forced one of Africa’s five longest-serving leaders to step down.
The changes were approved in a referendum by 94.3 percent, dubbed “a constitutional coup” by the opposition. Even before the vote, protests erupted which left several people dead.
Sassou Nguesso has said he has no doubt he will beat his eight rivals, describing Election Day as a “penalty kick and then victory”.
On Friday, five rival presidential contenders — including former military chief Jean-Marie Mokoko — signed an agreement to back the strongest candidate among them in the event of a second round vote.
In down at heel Makelekele and Bacongo, southern parts of the capital where opposition support is strong, residents say Sassou Nguesso has failed to make good on his last election pledges.
“There’s no work, it sucks,” said a 31-year-old with a degree in public administration who gave his name as Eric.
Chatting with friends at a roadside cafe in an area where the muddied streets are potholed and the sewage is overflowing, he said he worked occasionally in restaurants but had “no stable job”.
“My parents are elderly and retired,” he said.
“I have a wife but have to wait to have children.”
– ‘Fears of instability’ –
While the Republic of Congo saw “robust growth” of five percent over five years through to 2014, with oil and timber providing its main revenues, the country remains in dire straits.
“(Congo) continues to suffer from high rates of poverty and inequality, large infrastructure gaps, and important development challenges,” a report by the International Monetary Fund released in July 2015 report said.
Unemployment hit 34 percent in 2013, the last data available, and stood at 60 percent for 15- to 24-year-olds.
The IMF fears “domestic instability” without progress in the battle to eliminate poverty.
“We’re really disappointed about what’s happening in Congo,” said 20-year-old student Yette. “Most young people have diplomas but no work.”
Sassou Nguesso acknowledges there is a problem.
His new election platform underlines government efforts in education while noting that “60 percent of graduates without work” qualified at the country’s sole university.
Sassou Nguesso has told voters he needs more time.
“Seven years were insufficient to fully make these solutions operational… which is why we need to continue the country’s modernisation and industrialisation,” reads the new platform.
Sassou Nguesso served as president from 1979 to 1992 and returned to power in 1997 following a civil war. He won two successive mandates in 2002 and 2009, but both tallies were contested by opposition parties.