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The Election No One is Talking About

The Huffington Post logo The Huffington Post 7/03/2016 Becky Allen

On March 20, citizens of the Republic of Congo will vote in the country's next presidential election. But, this election can hardly be called democratic in an increasingly authoritarian nation. While there are ten opposition candidates, there is little doubt that incumbent President Sassou Nguesso will assume power for a third term.

The media and U.S. government have been virtually silent regarding these early elections, originally expected to occur in July 2016. However, if history has taught us anything, the media and the U.S. government should have their eyes on the Republic of Congo to prevent an election marred by fraud and violence.

To begin, Sassou Nguesso's regime is rife with corruption. Last October, he succeeded in securing a constitutional change that permits him to run for a third consecutive term. Sassou Nguesso has already ruled for nearly three decades, making him one of Africa's longest-serving leaders. While Congo's electoral commission claimed 92 percent of people voted in favor of the referendum, both the opposition and State Department spokesperson John Kirby characterized the process as one of violence and intimidation. At least four people were killed by the government's security forces and several opposition leaders were placed under house arrest.

This outcome is strikingly similar to Congo's previous presidential election in July 2009. Sassou Nguesso allegedly won 78 percent of the vote. However, NGOs cited significant human rights abuses including arbitrary arrests, rape, lack of transparency, and widespread corruption.

Indeed, Sassou Nguesso's entire near-three decade reign has been characterized by a disregard for human rights. Last year, Freedom House deemed Congo "Not Free," citing violations of civil liberties and political rights. The country ranked 146 out of 167 countries and territories on Transparency International's 2015 Corruption Perceptions Index.

The people of the Republic of Congo not only deserve realization of their human rights, but also freedom from violence. Though often overshadowed by neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo, Congo has suffered from on-and-off violence and political unrest since its first civil war in 1993. Refugees, such as my friend Daphne, have been forced to flee their homes, vying for spots in camps and nearby cities. If you were lucky like Daphne, you might have even snatched one of the few spots in the United States.

Despite the continued violence, refugees from neighboring countries are flooding across Congo's borders in pursuit of relative safety. As of December of last year, the UNHCR reported 20,000 refugees from the Central African Republic, 17,650 from the Democratic Republic of Congo, 8,100 from Rwanda, and 460 from various other neighboring nations. When accounting for asylum-seekers and additional persons of concern, numbers total over 49,000 people who have come to Congo seeking safety.

This highlights the second reason we must turn our eyes to Congo's March 20 election. Congo is not just responsible for it's own people's safety. It is responsible for the safety of more than 49,000 other human beings. Electoral violence and an increasingly authoritarian regime are not the path to human rights and welfare. We need observers on the ground and attention by the U.S. government and the media to ensure a truly fair and free election process.

Lastly, it is worth emphasizing that Congo is one of Sub-Saharan Africa's major oil producers. In fact, Congo's primary export to the United States is oil and the two countries ratified a bilateral investment treaty in 1994, encouraging and protecting U.S. investment. However, Congo's state oil company is controlled by the president's family and his advisors. Recent reports have indicated that the company has been used to siphon money to Sassou Nguesso's cronies.

The United States has an opportunity to economically pressure the Republic of Congo into free and fair elections - perhaps even without Sassou Nguesso's participation. Will the U.S. government seize the opportunity? It doesn't appear likely.

The U.S. government has its plate full. The Syrian conflict continues despite an attempted ceasefire. The so-called "Islamic State" appears to have shifted tactics, now advocating attacks on the West. Relations with Iran, Russia, and Cuba all require attention. However, there is no need for collapse in Congo. The Republic of Congo is a fragile state, but its stability can still be salvaged.

The United States government and media can begin to help Congo by raising awareness about Congo's March 20 presidential election.

It is time for real free and fair elections in the Republic of Congo. It is time for implementation of the freedoms guaranteed by Congo's constitution. And perhaps, it is time for a change in leadership after three decades.

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