Access to the internet and social networks were cut on Sunday on presidential election day in the Republic of Congo, where long-standing President Denis Sassou N”Guesso is seeking a new five-year term.
“Network data show a near-total collapse of national connectivity from midnight local time. The incident is ongoing as polls are due to open,” the London-based tracking service Netblocks reported.
AFP journalists also noted that the internet access stopped from shortly after midnight on Saturday and was still down as polling stations opened on Sunday.
The Congo Republic’s 2016 presidential election, which Sassou N’Guesso won with 60% of the vote, was also marked by a communications shutdown.
The 77 year-old is the third-longest serving president in Africa, having ruled for a total of 36 years over two terms in this nation often overshadowed by its vast neighbour, the Democratic Republic of Congo.
On March 16, some 50 organisations, including Internet Without Borders, invited President Sassou N’Guesso in an open letter to “keep the Internet open, accessible and secure throughout the period of the 2021 presidential election.”
The internet and social networks “provide a space for communication, public debate, research of information on electoral processes and candidates, to report and document events and results,” they insisted. “Cuts to the internet attacks human rights, disrupt emergency services and cripple economies.”
Main opposition candidate has COVID-19
Sunday’s vote was cast into doubt when it was revealed that the leading opposition candidate was in hospital after being diagnosed with COVID-19. The central African country’s constitution stipulates that an election can be delayed if a candidate dies or is unable to participate in the vote.
Guy Brice Parfait Kolelas — one of six rivals to Sassou N’Guesso — had skipped his final campaign event on Friday after telling some reporters a day earlier that he feared he had malaria.
A video circulating on social media dated Friday showed him wearing an oxygen mask and with a blood pressure cuff on his arm as he lay in a hospital bed.
“My dear compatriots, I am in trouble. I am fighting death,” the candidate says in a weak-sounding voice after removing his oxygen mask. “However, I ask you to stand up and vote for change. I would not have fought for nothing.”
A campaign spokesman confirmed the video as authentic. Two people at the hospital who had seen Kolelas’ test results confirmed to the AP late Saturday that he had tested positive for the coronavirus.
The 61-year-old is diabetic and at higher risk of complications from COVID-19. A relative who spoke on condition of anonymity said plans were under way for Kolelas to be evacuated abroad for further treatment.
Concern over early vote transparency
There was no immediate reaction to the developments from the government or President Sassou N’Guesso, who ruled from 1979-1992 and then again since 1997.
Kolelas came second to Sassou N’Guesso in the 2016 election with about 15% of the vote. The opposition figure has been particularly critical of the incumbent leader in recent days, declaring that Republic of Congo had become “a police state.”
On Wednesday, between 55,000 and 60,000 members of the security forces voted in advance. This early vote is seen as a potential source of fraud by opponents of the incumbent president.
The Catholic Church’s episcopal conference, which expressed serious reservations about the transparency and credibility of this presidential election, was refused accreditation allowing it to send election observers to polling stations.
Republic of Congo has had fewer than 10,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 since the pandemic began, with 134 confirmed deaths.