Sekondi Accra

President Denis Sassou-Nguesso seems to be handling his presidential duties with considerable aplomb. His policy of co-opting senior opposition figures into the power structure or offering exiles the chance to return home in exchange for their loyalty has removed unpredictability from the political landscape.

Even though occasional signs of discontent from some grassroots organizations do occur, there is no sign of any individual or movement offering a coherent alternative to the rule of Sassou-Nguesso's Parti Congolais du Travail and its allies in the Rassemblement pour la Majorite Presidentielle (RMP). Even the mystical leader of the Ninja-Nsiloulou rebels, Frederic 'Pasteur Ntoumi' Bitsangou, has decided to accept a token role in charge of national reconciliation. While some fighters remain at large in the rebel areas of the Pool Region, as a political-rebel movement, the Ninjas no longer have much meaning. Jacques-Joachim Yhombi-Opango's Rassemblement pour la Democratie et le Developpement, with support from the northern Kouyou ethnic group, now belongs to the RMP.

The national management of oil finances is no longer a campaigning issue. This is partly because the oil price rises and drops of the past two years came at just the right time, delivering government revenues on a scale that allowed it to accept International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank demands for tighter management and greater transparency. The government has had the financial strength to operate comfortably within the constraints of a long-term IMF program, and this enabled it to satisfy the criteria for completion of the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) debt-reduction program in January 2010. The debt-relief agreement will result in $1.9 billion dollars of forgiven debt.

That represents a real breakthrough, because completion of the HIPC process should bolster confidence and ease pressure on state finances. Further encouragement comes from the much improved performance of the non-oil sectors, which are forecast to increase by about 6.3% in 2011.

The agricultural sector, in particular, may be stimulated by deals consumated between South African businessmen and Congo on the back of a visit by South African President Jacob Zuma in April 2010. There has been the concern expressed by critics who have called the deals "land grabs".

Despite the dependence on oil exports and the low oil price, the IMF predicts that GDP growth will rise to 10.6% in 2010 and 8.7% in 2011. Oil receipts account for about 85% of the government's budget, and that dependency will increase as production rises. By early 2011, national production is due to surpass 300,000 barrels per day (bpd) due to the start of production of Total's Moho Bilondo field. Congo-Brazzaville is now challenging Gabon for the ranking of sub-Saharan Africa's fourth largest producer.

The government seems persuaded that it makes sense to accept the agenda of financial management reform set by donars. Sassou-Nguesso is under little external political pressure, but the insistence of the Bretton Woods institutions has been sustained.

An important signal of Sassou-Nguesso's acceptence of this came with the decision to close down Congolaise de Trading (Cotrade), the oil trading branch of national oil company Societe Nationale des Petroles du Congo. Led by the president's son, Denis Christel, Cotrade had been at the center of allegations about the mishandling of oil revenues.


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