Last week President Barack Obama hosted nearly 50 African heads of state for a three-day U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit, the first such event in the United States.
One of those guests stands out in a crowd. Denis Sassou Nguesso, president of the Republic of the Congo and two-time chairman of the African Union, is also one of the most experienced leaders in the global fight against terrorism.
As one the most respected politicians in the region, he is actively involved in bringing peace to this notoriously unstable region. Two weeks ago, he played a key role in an agreement that ended violence in the Central African Republic, and he is currently facilitating political dialogue between the opposition and President Joseph Kabila in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Leading the country with the second biggest rainforest area in the world, Nguesso is a vigorous advocate for environmental conservation.
But he is not free of controversy; Nguesso was criticized by the Washington for involvement in the constitutional change that would allow him to become president for the third time. Metro asked Nguesso about this controversy, his relationship with U.S. and the situation in his region.
In this exclusive interview, we catch up with Denis Sassou Nguesso, president of the Republic of the Congo to learn about Africa's relationship with the United States, terrorism, constitutional controversies and environmental conservation.
Metro: Do you think that Congo is or should be an important partner of America’s?
President Obama’s initiative to invite the leaders of African countries to a U.S.-Africa Summit, and the enthusiastic response from our side, answers your question. In Congo, we see three areas of cooperation.
1. American assistance in the training of and supply of equipment for our military and security forces to better combat the advances of international terrorism that threatens us. Make no mistake, we Congolese, we Africans, have to be responsible for our own security and, if required, fight for it. I would also add that in the area of regional and pan-African security, America could assist us all by effectively supporting a collective African response to these important challenges
2. With some of the highest economic growth rates in the world, Africa should be a magnet for American investment and business. Congo is certainly no exception. It forms part of what I would like to call the world’s new economic frontier.The backbone of our modern economy is the oil sector, where Chevron plays an important role. But there are plenty of other opportunities: telecommunications, eco tourism and financial services, to name a few.Our Atlantic port, Pointe Noir, has all the prerequisites for a major point of transit for the Central African area.
3. The time has come for a massive U.S.-African partnership in the field of education. Young Africans all over the continent yearn to attend American universities, whose reputation [places them] among the world’s leading institutions.
China has recently made a number of high-profile investments in Congo. A short time ago, you visited Beijing. Is there room for an American business
presence in your country?
Of course there is. We believe strongly in the benefits of American entrepreneurship and the ability of American business in general to help bring about economic development in our country. In Congo, as in Africa in general, there is room for everybody. We welcome American businessmen with open arms.
Many leaders proclaim democratic rule in their countries while human rights are being violated. What is the true state of affairs in Congo?
I will answer this question, but first I think that for most Africans, most Congolese, other problems seem far more important. Among these would be poverty, unemployment, lack of hope and future, a feeling of injustice and exclusion, frustration at inequitable divisions of natural resources, lack of educational opportunities; weakness of institutions of the state, threats of instability, unrest and armed conflict. Congo, like other African countries, is a young nation, thus it lacks the institutions and the strength of old, established states to effectively provide responses to these daunting challenges and problems.
Now to your question. Congo harbors no political or journalistic prisoners. Political parties and the press exercise their rights and freedoms without limitation. We have established a national watchdog for human rights, Observatoire National des Droits de l’Homme, in which all political parties are represented.
There is a debate whether to change the constitution of the country to allow a sitting president to run for a third term in office. Such constitutional change would enable you, subject to an election victory, to stay in office. Is this the “democratic way”?
First I want to point out that in 1992 I was defeated in a presidential election. I accepted this defeat and left the field to the winner. I therefore do not feel that I have to defend my democratic credentials. Now to your question, I believe in the sovereignty of the Congolese people, among whom the debate on this issue is freely taking place — and very publicly, too. If the people finally decide on a referendum on this matter, then who am I or any other politician to question this decision. It is not as if term limits signify a mark of democracy. Angela Merkel has just secured a mandate for a third period in office as chancellor. We all recall Margaret Thatcher’s parliamentary victories, which three times secured for her the prime ministership of the United Kingdom.
I would like to add that the question for debate and public decision today is merely whether a sitting president in Congo would be able to present his candidacy three times instead of two times. The question is not whether I should be shooed in as president. Under the circumstances, I have not even decided on my course of action in this regard.
Through your country’s mediation, and intervention, in the Central African Republic, located to the north of the Congo, and your work to establish political concord in the Democratic Republic of Congo, to the south, you have gained a reputation as an effective promoter of African security? How do you view the state of peace and security in Africa — in particular, your region?
The inability of our continent to prevent crisis and reduce the number of bloody conflicts is aggravated by the humiliation of having to call upon the former colonial powers, first of all France, but also Great Britain, to solve them. The lack of logistic and modern military means is not the only cause. However, the most important thing is our own political will. In the past, there has not been enough of it, but now there is. I believe that it is time for Africa to take control of its fate by reacting more decisively, and earlier. Africa must take its destiny in its own hands.
Congo’s security, stability and national development is directly threatened from different directions. From the Gulf of Guinea, where piracy at sea has taken on worrying proportions, to north Cameroun, not far from our border, where terrorists belonging to Boko Haram have set up bases. Terrorists are also present in the Central African Republic, where we have deployed forces and where I, myself, act as a mediator in this country’s internal strife. To the south, the Democratic Republic of Congo continues to experience much political instability, which over time repeatedly has translated into armed violence.
Congo hosts the second largest rainforest in the world. At the global environment conference “Rio+20” in 2012 you represented Africa, nominated by the African Union. What are your policy recommendations for the preservation of Congo’s and Africa’s ecology?
The Earth is in danger. Saving it is a battle in which all our states must stand on the front line. And each of our nations must face up to its responsibilities to do this and to do it now. For us, we know what the international community expects from us. First and foremost, it expects Congo, my country, to help save the vast Congo basin, which is the home to one of the largest terrestrial biodiversity conservation zones in the world. To this end, my country puts the sustainable management of forest ecosystems at the heart of its priorities and works tirelessly with a view to bringing about common policy and legislation for the forests of Central Africa.