THE real battle in a weekend referendum to enable Congolese President Denis Sassou Nguesso to extend his 31-year stay in office looks to have been over the turnout, with the opposition claiming only 10% came out to vote, while the government put the figure at seven times that.
But no matter the percentage, more than 90% of people voting in the controversial referendum in the Republic of Congo approved the bid, according to official results announced on Tuesday.
A total of 92.96% of voters approved the constitutional change, which has now been adopted, Interior Minister Raymond Mboulou said.
The draft text of the new constitution has been adopted and will come into force as soon as it is put into effect by the president of the republic, he added.
Official results showed turnout was high at 72.44%, though on Monday opposition leader Pascal Tsaty Mabiala had said only 10% of Congolese voted.
The opposition has also rejected the results. “From what we could see on the day of the vote, the announcement that turnout was more than 72 percent is extremely scandalous,” Clement Mierassa told AFP, branding the results a “fraud”.
Mierassa heads the Congolese Social Democratic Party and is a leading member of an alliance that had called for a boycott of Sunday’s referendum.
According to reports by several AFP journalists in the capital Brazzaville, second city Pointe-Noire and several other areas of the central African country, people largely avoided voting offices.
There were however long queues of voters near the presidential palace where Sassou Nguesso, one of Africa’s longest-serving leaders, cast his own ballot.
The referendum proposed two changes to the constitution, which currently disqualifies Sassou Nguesso from running for re-election in 2016 because it stipulates a maximum age of 70 for presidential candidates and limits the number of mandates to two.
Sassou Nguesso is over the age limit and has already served two consecutive seven-year terms.
Mabiala, of the country’s biggest parliamentary opposition party, the UPADS, on Monday told news wire AFP.said the claimed low voter turnout was “a slap in the face” for the longtime leader.
Mabiala said this showed that voters had followed the opposition’s calls to boycott a referendum they described as “a constitutional coup d’etat”.
“There were no crowds or enthusiasm,” said a source in city hall at Ouesso in the north.
“A good number of voters didn’t show up,” a military source told AFP in the city of Owando.
“Let’s not say that all those who didn’t vote agree with the opposition,” Congolese government spokesman, Thierry Moungalla had cautioned ahead of the official results.
Cut for sixth day running
Congo was rocked by protests in the run-up to the vote, including clashes Tuesday between opposition demonstrators and security forces in Brazzaville and the economic hub Pointe-Noire that authorities say left four people dead.
But opposition leader Paul-Marie Mpouele claimed Friday that at least 20 people had died in the unrest.
On Monday, the Internet, text messaging services and French radio RFI’s popular FM signal, were all cut for the sixth day running.
“After everything we’ve gone through, harassment, arrests, abuse, unbelievable violence… we will continue our civil disobedience,” Tsaty said.
Opposition demonstrators have rallied on the streets of the capital to protest the president’s plan to cling to power under the cry “Sassoufit”, a pun on the French expression “ca suffit”, or “that’s enough”.
The low turnout in Congo if true, though extreme, is not unique. It represents a general trend in most of the continent, except for a handful of countries, where voters, not expecting that much will change, are staying away in droves from ballots. (READ: Poll weekend: Africans love democracy but hate elections. Why so few of them bother to vote).