Freedom in the World 2023 - Republic of the Congo

/ 100
Political Rights 2 / 40
Civil Liberties 15 / 60
17 / 100 Not Free
Global freedom statuses are calculated on a weighted scale. See the methodology.


President Denis Sassou Nguesso has maintained nearly uninterrupted power for over 40 years by severely repressing the opposition. Corruption and decades of political instability have contributed to poor economic performance and high levels of poverty. Abuses by security forces are frequently reported and rarely investigated. While a variety of media operate, independent coverage is limited by widespread self-censorship and the influence of owners. Human rights– and governance-related nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) scrutinize state abuses, but also self-censor to avoid reprisals. Religious figures are also known to self-censor.

Key Developments in 2022

  • In February, curfews affecting the cities of Brazzaville and Pointe-Noire—and originally imposed under the pretext of the COVID-19 pandemic—were lifted, as were national border controls.
  • In the July parliamentary elections, the ruling Congolese Labor Party (PCT) took 112 lower-house seats while the opposition Pan-African Union for Social Democracy (UPADS) and Union of Humanist Democrats–YUKI (UDH-YUKI) each won 7. The elections were marred by opposition boycotts, credible allegations that the vote would be rigged, opposition accusations of fraud, and low turnout.

Political Rights

A Electoral Process

A1 0-4 pts
Was the current head of government or other chief national authority elected through free and fair elections? 0 / 4

The president is directly elected to five-year terms. The 2002 constitution restricted the president to two terms and set an age limit of 70. However, a 2015 constitutional referendum proposed by President Denis Sassou Nguesso removed those restrictions, allowing him to run again. The referendum passed amid widespread protests and claims of fraud.

Sassou Nguesso has held power since 1979, with the exception of a five-year period in the 1990s. In March 2021, he secured a fourth presidential term since returning to power in 1997, claiming 88.4 percent of the vote. The election was marked by a boycott from the UPADS, intimidation, and an internet shutdown. Authorities also restricted assembly rights ahead of polling day. Guy Brice Parfait Kolélas, who died of COVID-19 soon after the election, won 8 percent.

A2 0-4 pts
Were the current national legislative representatives elected through free and fair elections? 0 / 4

Congo’s parliament consists of a 72-seat Senate and a 151-seat National Assembly. Councilors from every department elect senators to six-year terms. National Assembly members are directly elected to five-year terms.

The two-round July 2022 legislative elections were boycotted by several opposition parties amid credible allegations that the vote would be rigged. Sassou Nguesso’s PCT claimed 112 National Assembly seats when the polls were fully concluded, while its allies won 12 in the first round. The opposition UPADS and UDH-YUKI each won 7. Opposition groups alleged that the elections were fraudulent; voter turnout was low.

A3 0-4 pts
Are the electoral laws and framework fair, and are they implemented impartially by the relevant election management bodies? 0 / 4

The 2015 constitutional referendum to increase presidential term limits consolidated the PCT’s dominance of the political system by allowing Sassou Nguesso to run for a third term. Elections are administered by the Independent National Electoral Commission, which was established in 2016 and is widely regarded as an instrument of presidential authority.

B Political Pluralism and Participation

B1 0-4 pts
Do the people have the right to organize in different political parties or other competitive political groupings of their choice, and is the system free of undue obstacles to the rise and fall of these competing parties or groupings? 1 / 4

Political groupings exist, but the government represses those not aligned with the PCT, including by persecuting their leaders. In 2016, opposition leader Paulin Makaya of the United for Congo (UPC) party was sentenced to two years’ imprisonment for inciting disorder over his participation in protests against the constitutional referendum. Makaya was released in 2018 but was blocked from leaving the country on several occasions; Makaya was allowed to seek medical treatment abroad in 2021.

Sassou Nguesso’s two most prominent opponents in the 2016 presidential election received prison terms after that contest. In 2018, retired general Jean-Marie Michel Mokoko was sentenced to 20 years’ imprisonment for threatening state security. In 2019, André Okombi Salissa, who had led the opposition Initiative for Democracy in Congo coalition, was sentenced to 20 years of forced labor for the same charge.

Private campaign contributions are banned, leaving opposition parties and candidates dependent on limited public financing.

Political parties are sometimes denied registration without cause. In 2020, the government suspended a number of parties, including the UPC, excluding them from its list of approved parties.

B2 0-4 pts
Is there a realistic opportunity for the opposition to increase its support or gain power through elections? 0 / 4

There is little opportunity for the opposition to gain power through elections, and opposition leaders frequently experience harassment, intimidation, and arrest. During the 2016 presidential race, opposition candidates Mokoko and Okombi Salissa were repeatedly harassed and were subsequently imprisoned. In 2021, Kolélas complained of movement restrictions, while authorities cancelled some campaign events.

B3 0-4 pts
Are the people’s political choices free from domination by forces that are external to the political sphere, or by political forces that employ extrapolitical means? 0 / 4

The Sassou Nguesso government routinely uses military and police forces to intimidate citizens. Employers engage in widespread discrimination in hiring and regarding other decisions, based on political beliefs.

B4 0-4 pts
Do various segments of the population (including ethnic, racial, religious, gender, LGBT+, and other relevant groups) have full political rights and electoral opportunities? 1 / 4

Although there are no legal restrictions on political participation by religion, gender, sexual identity, or ethnic group, members of Sassou Nguesso’s northern Mbochi ethnic group occupy key government posts. Insofar as the government includes representatives from other regional and ethnic groups, their ability to shape policy is very limited. The government routinely suppresses political parties that draw support from Congo’s southern regions, which have long opposed Sassou Nguesso.

Women, whose political participation is limited by societal constraints, are underrepresented in government. Women won only 25 National Assembly seats in the July 2022 elections and held only 13 Senate seats as of year’s end. Evelyne Tchitchelle of the PCT became the country’s first female mayor when she was elected in Pointe-Noire in September 2022. Tchitchelle had not been sworn in by year’s end.

C Functioning of Government

C1 0-4 pts
Do the freely elected head of government and national legislative representatives determine the policies of the government? 0 / 4

Government policy is set by President Sassou Nguesso, who won reelection in a deeply flawed process in March 2021. There is little oversight from the parliament, which is dominated by the ruling PCT and protects the executive from accountability.

C2 0-4 pts
Are safeguards against official corruption strong and effective? 0 / 4

Corruption is endemic, and domestic prosecutions for corruption are often politically motivated. The president’s family and advisers control the state-run National Petroleum Company of Congo (SNPC) without meaningful oversight, and offshore companies are allegedly used to embezzle SNPC funds.

Sassou Nguesso’s family has long been dogged by credible allegations of corruption. In June 2022, French investigators seized a Paris property belonging to Denis Christel Sassou Nguesso, the president’s son, though prosecutors said in September that no indictment had been lodged against him. In August, French outlet Mediapart reported that authorities there suspected him of laundering €19 million ($19.9 million).

C3 0-4 pts
Does the government operate with openness and transparency? 0 / 4

Government operations are opaque. Although the constitution guarantees access to information, there is no implementing legislation, nor is there a specific law mandating public access to official information. Public procurement procedures are nontransparent. Authorities generally do not publish draft legislation or regulations.

In 2020, Global Witness reported that the SNPC held as much as $3.3 billion in undisclosed liabilities, some of which resulted from activities unrelated to oil production, while dividends owed to the government had gone missing.

Civil Liberties

D Freedom of Expression and Belief

D1 0-4 pts
Are there free and independent media? 1 / 4

While the constitution provides for freedom of speech and press, the government routinely pressures, threatens, and incarcerates journalists. While there are numerous media outlets, many are owned by government allies who influence their coverage. Widespread self-censorship among journalists discourages independent reporting in practice.

Augias Ray Malonga, interim editor of the Sel-Piment newspaper, was arrested in Brazzaville in late December 2021 and was released in January 2022. Later in January, Congo’s media regulator suspended the publication of Sel-Piment for six months after it republished an article alleging corruption on the part of the country’s treasurer; the article was originally published by an exile-run website. In December, the regulator suspended VOX TV, accusing the private broadcaster of disseminating information that could “disturb public order.”

D2 0-4 pts
Are individuals free to practice and express their religious faith or nonbelief in public and private? 3 / 4

Although religious freedom is generally respected, pastors are reticent to make statements that could be construed as hostile to the government. In 2015, the government banned the wearing of the niqab, the full face veil, in public, citing security and terrorism concerns.

D3 0-4 pts
Is there academic freedom, and is the educational system free from extensive political indoctrination? 1 / 4

Academic freedom is tenuous. Most university professors avoid discussions of or research on politically sensitive topics. In 2018, the government announced that it would ban a book, published in Paris, about widespread human rights abuses perpetrated by the military in the Pool Region between 2016 and 2017.

D4 0-4 pts
Are individuals free to express their personal views on political or other sensitive topics without fear of surveillance or retribution? 1 / 4

The government surveils electronic communications of private individuals and maintains an extensive surveillance apparatus, which includes secret police and local informants. Surveillance is reportedly prevalent in public spaces in Brazzaville and Pointe-Noire. Citizens who speak out against the government are often arrested.

E Associational and Organizational Rights

E1 0-4 pts
Is there freedom of assembly? 0 / 4

The government restricts freedom of assembly. Groups must receive official authorization from local and federal authorities to hold public assemblies, and permission is routinely denied. Government forces sometimes employ violence against protesters or disperse assemblies.

The government imposed curfews and assembly restrictions under the pretext of limiting the spread of COVID-19 in previous years. While curfews affecting Brazzaville and Pointe-Noire were lifted in February 2022, citizens remained concerned about the threat of repression; no prominent antigovernment protests were reported during the year.

E2 0-4 pts
Is there freedom for nongovernmental organizations, particularly those that are engaged in human rights– and governance-related work? 0 / 4

Although the constitution guarantees freedom of association, NGOs must register with the Interior Ministry. Those critical of the government often encounter a more burdensome registration process. Arbitrary arrests of civil society figures have continued in recent years, contributing to a reduction in activity. Groups still operating commonly curtail reporting on human rights abuses or word criticism of authorities carefully to avoid reprisals or harassment.

In September 2022, security forces reportedly ransacked the offices of the Congolese Observatory of Human Rights (OCDH), which has published reports critical of the government, and another human rights NGO.

E3 0-4 pts
Is there freedom for trade unions and similar professional or labor organizations? 2 / 4

Although union rights are nominally protected, laws protecting union members are not always enforced. The government has intervened in labor disputes by harassing and arresting laborers and pressuring union leaders, particularly against the country’s largest labor union, the Congolese Trade Union Confederation.

F Rule of Law

F1 0-4 pts
Is there an independent judiciary? 0 / 4

Congo’s judiciary is dominated by Sassou Nguesso’s allies, crippled by lack of resources, and vulnerable to corruption and political influence. In 2015, the Constitutional Court’s confirmation of the constitutional referendum results was viewed as a rubber-stamp approval of Sassou Nguesso’s efforts to remain in power. In 2021, the Constitutional Court rejected legitimate objections to the conduct of that March’s elections.

F2 0-4 pts
Does due process prevail in civil and criminal matters? 1 / 4

Defendants, including the government’s political opponents, are routinely denied due process. Arbitrary arrests and detentions are constitutionally prohibited but are nevertheless common. Other fair-trial rights guaranteed by law, including the right to legal assistance for those who cannot afford it, are not always honored in practice.

F3 0-4 pts
Is there protection from the illegitimate use of physical force and freedom from war and insurgencies? 0 / 4

Citizens in some neighborhoods are at risk of intimidation and violent crime by groups of young men known as bébés noirs. There have also been reports of arbitrary arrests and physical abuses by police attempting to curb the activities of such groups. Reports of human rights violations by security forces are generally not investigated by the government.

F4 0-4 pts
Do laws, policies, and practices guarantee equal treatment of various segments of the population? 0 / 4

Employment discrimination against women persists. The government prevents refugees and other foreign workers from holding certain jobs, and refugees sometimes face harassment and arrest by authorities.

While no law specifically prohibits same-sex sexual relations between adults, LGBT+ people experience occasional police harassment.

Minority ethnic groups experience severe discrimination in employment, housing, and education. Some communities often live in substandard housing on the outskirts of villages, and occasionally are targeted in acts of violence committed by members of the majority Bantu population.

The government exhibits widespread discrimination against residents of Congo’s southern regions. They are routinely denied high-paying public-sector jobs, as well as admission to the public university. By contrast, residents of Congo’s northern regions are disproportionately appointed to key government positions and the civil service.

G Personal Autonomy and Individual Rights

G1 0-4 pts
Do individuals enjoy freedom of movement, including the ability to change their place of residence, employment, or education? 2 / 4

Although private citizens generally enjoy freedom of movement, activists and opposition leaders can face restrictions and confiscation of their passports.

The government imposed curfews, border closures, and internal travel restrictions in response to the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. While curfews expired in much of Congo that year, nighttime curfews in Brazzaville and Pointe-Noire remained in effect until February 2022, when borders were also reopened.

G2 0-4 pts
Are individuals able to exercise the right to own property and establish private businesses without undue interference from state or nonstate actors? 2 / 4

Legal protections for business and property rights can be undermined by bureaucracy, poor judicial safeguards, and corruption. The government directly or indirectly controls property in key industries such as oil, minerals, and aviation.

G3 0-4 pts
Do individuals enjoy personal social freedoms, including choice of marriage partner and size of family, protection from domestic violence, and control over appearance? 1 / 4

Violence against women, including domestic violence and rape, is widespread but rarely reported. There are no specific laws forbidding domestic violence other than general assault statutes.

Men are legally considered the head of the household, and divorce settlements are thus skewed against women. Adultery is illegal for both men and women, but women convicted of the crime face a potential prison sentence, while the penalty for men is a fine.

G4 0-4 pts
Do individuals enjoy equality of opportunity and freedom from economic exploitation? 1 / 4

Congo is a source and destination country for human trafficking, and allegations of complicity have been lodged against government officials. However, the US State Department reported in its 2022 Trafficking in Persons Report that authorities made some efforts to increase antitrafficking efforts by finalizing an updated action plan, providing more assistance to victims, and opening investigations of trafficking cases.

According to local NGOs, members of minority groups have been conscripted into forced farm labor by members of the Bantu ethnic majority. Child labor laws are reportedly not effectively enforced.