Congo’s 30-year president calls referendum in bid to extend rule

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Congolese President Denis Sassou Nguesso attends a press conference in Brussels on March 3, 2015.

Congo Brazzaville’s President Denis Sassou Nguesso said Tuesday he was going ahead with a referendum on changes to the constitution that could allow him to extend his hold on power.

“I decided to give the people a direct voice” on the bill, Sassou Nguesso, who has ruled for 30 of the past 35 years, said in a statement on public radio and television, though he gave no dates for the vote.

A commission, the composition of which is not yet known, must propose a new draft constitution before a date is chosen for the referendum.

The 72-year-old president had previously convened a “national dialogue”, which came out “by a large majority” in favour of amending the constitution to remove an upper limit on the age of presidential candidates as well as the number of terms the head of state can serve.

‘Constitutional coup’

The changes effectively pave the way for him to stand for a third term in 2016. Opponents have branded the forum’s conclusions a “constitutional coup”.

Sassou Nguesso first led Congo Brazzaville, also known as the Republic of Congo, under a single-party system from 1979 until the introduction of multi-party politics, which culminated in elections that he lost in 1992.

He returned to power in 1997 at the end of a bitter civil war, and was elected president in 2002, then again in 2009, prompting cries of fraud from his foes.

Sassou Nguesso is one of a number of veteran African leaders who have sparked controversy with plans to extend their time in office through constitutional changes.

The president replaced two of his cabinet ministers last month after they took part in an opposition-organised meeting that called for resistance against any attempts to revise the constitution.

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