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article imageSassou Nguesso: From Congo paratrooper to political strongman

By AFP     Oct 25, 2015 in World

Republic of Congo's President Denis Sassou Nguesso, who could extend his three-decade stay in office after Sunday's constitutional referendum, began his career, like many African leaders, in the military.

One of Africa's longest-serving leaders, having first come to office in oil-rich Congo in 1979, he epitomises those who used the army as a springboard to power, while allegedly amassing great wealth.

In the country's last presidential election in 2009, he won nearly 79 percent of the vote, with half of his 12 opponents boycotting the polls.

Sassou Nguesso had came under pressure in former colonial power France about his lavish lifestyle, with rights groups pressing for a probe into how he acquired luxury residences and expensive automobiles.

Congolese President Denis Sassou Nguesso pictured in May arriving for the inauguration of the Nigeri...
Congolese President Denis Sassou Nguesso pictured in May arriving for the inauguration of the Nigerian president Muhammadu Buhari
Pius Utomi Ekpei, AFP/File

French judges have been investigating the supposedly vast "ill-gotten gains" of the Congolese leader and his extended family, despite a warning by Sassou Nguesso in 2013 to lay off "domestic affairs".

A lawyer for anti-corruption watchdog Transparency International, William Bourdon, said Sassou Nguesso embodied "a caricature of kleptocracy, of a rich head of state that leads a poor country."

When asked in April 2013 whether he was losing sleep over the issue, Sassou Nguesso replied with a jovial "Certainly not!"

Sassou Nguesso's first 13-year stint in power ended in 1992 when the Marxist-Leninist leader was voted out of office.

After three years in exile in Paris the former paratrooper colonel returned to Congo in 1997 and seized power in an armed uprising. Five years later he became president for the second time, succeeding Pascal Lissouba in disputed 2002 elections.

As both head of state and government, he ruled over the poor nation of 4.5 million people by facing down challenges from rebels and accusations of corruption and mismanagement of resources, especially in the state-run oil sector upon which Congo heavily depends.

- 'Neither fair, nor transparent' -

Sassou Nguesso, an ethnic Mboshi, was born in 1943 in Edou, a town 400 kilometres (250 miles) north of Brazzaville.

He had the affectionate nickname of "Otchouembe", which means "palm nut" in his local language and is commonly used to describe a wrestler with muscles as hard as ebony.

From the age of 13 he trained to become a schoolteacher, before enrolling in an Algerian military academy in 1961, followed by another in Saint-Maixent, France, two years later.

Back in Congo, Sassou Nguesso supported a 1968 movement that toppled president Alphonse Massamba-Debat and brought Marien Ngouabi to power.

Named head of a commando unit and then defence minister, Sassou Nguesso became the regime's ideological head and co-founded the Marxist-oriented Congolese Labour Party (PCT) in 1969.

In 1979, two years after Ngouabi was assassinated, Sassou Nguesso became head of state.

He was forced to introduce multi-party elections in 1991 and was defeated by Lissouba in a presidential poll a year later.

The decade that followed brought three civil wars, from which Sassou Nguesso ultimately emerged victorious.

Back in power he organised a presidential election in 2002, which he officially won with a score of almost 90 percent.

His 2009 victory, which was supposed to mark the start of his last term, was cleared by monitors from the African Union and Economic Community of Central African States but deemed "neither fair, nor transparent, nor balanced" by the Congolese Observatory of Human Rights.

His Congolese Labour Party won a large legislative majority in August 2012 in a vote that "witnessed the same fraud and irregularities that marked the previous round of voting", according to opposition leader Martin Kimpo of the Pan-African Union for Social Democracy (UPADS).

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