Congo President Nguesso seeks to extend his 36 year hold on power in Sunday’s presidential election.

The Republic of Congo votes in presidential elections on Sunday, 21 March, with incumbent Denis Sassou Nguesso aiming to extend his decade-long hold on power in the Central African state.

Sassou Nguesso has accumulated 36 years in office, he was most recently re-elected in 2016, after which the opposition was effectively sidelined and his two main rivals sentenced to 20 years’ forced labor.

The 77-year-old retired General appears favored to win a fourth term in Sunday’s ballot. The largest opposition group, the Pan-African Union for Social Democracy, is already boycotting the ballot.

Sassou Nguesso hopes for a first-round victory over six challengers, including former minister Guy-Brice Parfait Kolelas who was runner-up in 2016.

Sassou Nguesso has placed youth and the development of agriculture at the heart of his campaign, decrying it “shameful” that the country imports most of what it consumes despite its farming resources.

But his pitch to youth seems to have raised a mixed response in a country where most of the population of five million are people aged under 25 who have never known another president.

Sitting between Gabon and its giant neighbor the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Republic of Congo has significant oil reserves and 80 per cent of its budget comes from petroleum.

But the former French colony, also known as Congo-Brazzaville, has been hit hard by cycles of falling world crude prices and is also hobbled by corruption and poor infrastructure.

Two other Sassou Nguesso rivals, former army general Jean-Marie Michel Mokoko and ex-minister Andre Okombi Salissa, who contested the 2016 vote result, were later sentenced to prison for breaching state security and illegal detention of weapons.

Congo’s Catholic Church episcopal conference has already expressed “serious reservations” about the transparency of the ballot and fears a possible internet shutdown on Sunday, as in the 2016 election.

Authorities have refused to accredit election observers from the church

A former elite paratrooper, Sassou Nguesso first ruled from 1979 under a one-party system, stepping down in 1992 when he placed third in multi-party elections.

He then returned to power in 1997 at the end of one of Congo’s civil wars. He won votes in 2002 and 2009, although both victories contested by the opposition.

A controversial 2015 referendum removed a 70-year age limit and a ban on presidents serving more than two terms, allowing Sassou Nguesso to run again the following year.

That election sparked protests in Brazzaville and an armed conflict by anti-government rebels in the southern Pool region.

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