Voting in a presidential election in Congo Republic opened on Sunday under a government-imposed communications blackout as long-time leader Denis Sassou Nguesso sought to extend his rule over the Central African oil producer.
Sassou Nguesso is heavily favored to win the polls. He faces eight opponents, including retired General Jean-Marie Mokoko who is seen as the strongest challenger.
The government also banned the use of motor vehicles nationwide during the vote, and police checkpoints were erected across the capital Brazzaville to verify that those circulating had obtained special permission.
Voters queued outside a polling station in Brazzaville’s Mafouta neighborhood ahead of the scheduled 7 AM (0600 GMT) start time for the election but faced more than two hours of delays.
“I want this to go well. I don’t want war, which is often what happens after these elections,” said Damien Kiongazi, who returned home from Paris to vote in the poll.
Having ruled from 1979 to 1992, when he lost an election, Sassou Nguesso regained power in 1997 after a brief civil war and then went on to win disputed elections in 2002 and 2009.
He pushed through constitutional changes in October to remove term and age limits that would have prevented him from standing again.
His supporters credit him with restoring stability and developing the country’s infrastructure. Critics, however, say Congo’s oil wealth has enriched a small elite. Around half of the population of 4.5 million lives in poverty.
The polls will be watched closely by other leaders in Africa – notably in neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo – where a number of long-serving presidents are seeking to stay on beyond constitutionally mandated term limits.
A government official said on Saturday that mobile phone companies MTN Congo and Airtel Congo had been ordered to interrupt service on March 20 and 21 “for reasons of security and public tranquillity”.
The opposition criticized the decision, which they said would hamper the work of elections monitors.
The opposition said on Friday it had documented preparations for widespread vote rigging, including voters registered at multiple polling sites, individuals with multiple voter cards and the distribution of voter cards to non-citizens.
The government rejected the accusations, claiming its opponents were preparing the ground for post-election chaos. The opposition in turn denied it was inciting violence but warned that people would not accept a tainted result.
At the polling station in Mafouta, in southern Brazzaville’s opposition stronghold, some of those waiting to cast their ballots on Sunday morning complained that the posted voter list contained the names of people who had died years before.
A Reuters reporter saw three names repeated twice, listing the same birthdays and parents.
“I’m not confident. I see already that our voices are being stolen. The real results will not be given,” said voter Boclelon Ganga, 28, as he smoked a cigarette waiting for voting to begin.
Former colonial power France criticized the conditions of October’s constitutional referendum, saying they did not allow an accurate assessment of the result. And the European Union has decided not to send a mission to observe Sunday’s vote.