Republic of Congo president calls referendum to extend rule

Congolese President Denis Sassou N'Guesso has announced a referendum on changes to the country's constitution. The poll appears to be intended to allow him to run for a third term in next year's election.

"I have decided to directly give a voice to the people in order for them to decide on the draft law formulating the fundamental principles of the Republic," said Sassou N'Guesso.

The president called a national forum in July to discuss reforms including raising the maximum age for presidential candidates and scrapping the two-term limit, feeding expectations that he might seek to extend his rule in polls next year.

Sassou N'Guesso, 71, who has ruled Congo for 31 years in two separate spells in office, is banned by the current constitution from seeking another term on account of his age. The constitution states that prospective candidates must be 70 years old or younger.

He first ruled the country of some 4 million people from 1979 until a 1992 election defeat, and seized power again in 1997. He was elected in 2002 and then again in 2009 for what was to be his second and final seven-year term. He won the 2009 election with more than 78 percent of the vote, though the opposition claimed there had been vote-rigging and intimidation.

Comparison with other African nations

Sassou N'Guesso is one of a number of veteran African leaders who have sparked controversy with plans to extend their time in office through constitutional changes. Earlier in the year, a crisis broke out in Burundi as President Pierre Nkurunziza was sworn in for a third term in power following protests and a failed coup.

In Burkina Faso, long-term President Blaise Compaore was ousted in a popular uprising last year after he tried to modify the constitution in parliament so he could stay in office longer than the 27 years he had already served. The transition to civilian rule there has been difficult, with a military coup last week threatening the country's stability.

ss/cmk (AP, Reuters)