by Aidan O'Donnell
Article published on the 2009-07-10 Latest update 2009-07-12 13:37 TU
Alain Akouala Atipault is Minister of Communications in the government of the Republic of Congo (Congo Brazzaville) and the spokesperson for the government. But at the moment he is working on the election campaign, in charge of foreign relations, for incumbent president Denis Sasso Nguesso.
Akouala was in the French capital as campaigning for the 12 July presidential election in the Republic of Congo entered its final week.
Twelve candidates are seeking to dislodge incumbent Denis Sasso Nguesso. He has been in power since 1979, apart from a five-year hiatus before he returned to power in 1997 after winning a civil war. He went on to win the 2002 elections, which were largely boycotted by the opposition.
On Monday there were fresh calls for the presidential vote to be postponed. The candidates Mathias Dzon, Clément Miérassa and Guy-Romain Kinfoussia have all called for more time because of what they term “anomalies in the electoral roll”.
“It’s a certain wing of the opposition, the radical opposition,” Akouala says, “It’s maybe two or three per cent of the 13 candidates. Clearly they have another plan. They don’t want to go to elections because they know they cannot win because the Congolese people don’t know what they intend to do [if elected].”
Dzon is a former Minister for Finance and Kinfoussia is the head of the United Front of Opposition Parties (Fupo).
Is it reasonable to describe Dzon as a radical minority when he is regarded by many as one of the strongest challengers to Nguesso?
Akouala says there are no surveys to suggest that one candidate is stronger than another, “Every candidate is equal,” he says, describing the claims of “anomalies” by the three challengers as “not realistic”.
Nonetheless, two more candidates, Bertin Pandi Ngouari and Bonaventure Mizidy, have added their voices to those already calling for the vote to be pushed back.
The African Union (AU) announced this week that it would send around 30 observers to the elections. This comes after it identified irregularities in previous legislative (2007) and local (2008) elections and after opposition criticism of Congo’s Commission for the Organisation of Elections (Conel).
“Today we have made things better,” says Akouala, when asked if the authorities have listened to the AU's criticism of Conel-run elections. He points out that each party is represented in all the voting centres across the country and adds that “every party has a little money in order to let them organise their campaign”.
Fupo spokesman Pascal Tsaty Mabiala has complained of a need for “equal access to state media”.
“Every candidate has the same time to access the media, state media and private media,” Akouala says.
“Politicians believe that freedom of expression means that they can say what they want,” he says and warns of the dangers of “ethnic reflexes”, saying that the country is obliged to “be careful”.
“The problem in Africa is that the people who don’t have any vision, any programme, and […] most of the politicians who don’t have any vision build their political base on an ethnic base."
Congolese authorities have been watching the media closely in the run-up to the election. The Vice-President of the Higher Council for Free Communication (CSLC), Ekiaye-Ackoly Wamené, was in Niari region in early July to remind journalists that Congolese law forbade the broadcasting of messages which “do not support peace and national unity”.
This, Akouala says, is necessary given Congo’s history.
“Ten years ago the debate was not on the [political] project, the debate was ‘Yesterday this ethnic group was in power. Today it’s our ethnic group that must be in power’ and after that you have conflict.
“It takes time to make all the country, all the people - politicians, soldiers, journalists etc. - have a good level of democratic culture."
The CSLC has also been addressing the unique situation of the two Congolese capitals, which are only separated by the Congo river.
It is ensuring that no unwanted messages come into the country from the DRC capital Kinshasa after a June agreement with the equivalent broadcasting authority in the DRC.
“We have the same audio-visual space and that can be very bad for the climate, the mood of the election,” says Akouala, in reference to the dozens of private radio and television stations that usually broadcast to Brazzaville from Kinshasa.
He warns of the “the risk of a message” that might be broadcast from Kinshasa, and alludes to Radio Mille Collines, the station that fuelled the 1994-genocide in Rwanda. Despite the CSLC’s stated aim to crack down on broadcasting from beyond its jurisdiction, two pro-Nguesso stations managed to send campaign ads across the river on 5 July.
With potential political conflict put forward as the underlying justification for the authorities’ current attention on the Congo’s media, how does the Minister justify the recent removal of a short, relatively apolitical, documentary from the Republic’s TVs?
Ku Nkelo à la recherché de l’eau (Batou, 2008) is a short film that follows children searching for water. It documents the anger of some inhabitants of Brazzaville whose water supply is patchy at best, if not entirely absent. It was broadcast just once, in 2008, on Télé Congo before the national water company, Société nationale de distribution d’eau, contacted the television station to successfully prevent any further broadcasts of the film.
Akouala describes the removal of the film as a “little incident”. He says he pointed out to the water company that it was not necessarily a bad thing for infrastructure shortcomings to be highlighted, as “it was something that could remind the government or show to the government the problem”.
But can any state agency simply take it upon itself to dictate broadcasting policy without the prior approval of the Ministry of Communications?
People are free to call each other up, he says, and the head of the water company is free to talk to Télé Congo about what he thinks of their programming, “They can give a call and say ‘we don’t agree with that’.”
“After that I’m informed,” he says. “That’s the proof that we’re in a free country”.