Congo leader Nguesso promises referendum over third term

image source, Getty Images
image captionDenis Sassou Nguesso took office in 1979 and was out of power for several years in the 1990s

Congo-Brazzaville's leader has said he will hold a referendum on whether to change the constitution to allow him to stand for a controversial third term.

"I decided to give the people a direct voice," said President Denis Sassou Nguesso, 71, who has ruled for more than 30 of the past 35 years.

The proposals would allow candidates aged over 70 to run for office and scrap the two-term limit.

No date was given for the referendum, but elections are due next year.

BBC Africa's Mamadou Moussa Ba says the main opposition coalition is against the move, saying it could destabilise the country. It also complains that it will not have the same access to the media to voice concerns.

It boycotted what President Sassou Nguesso called a "national dialogue" in July, when about 400 representatives of political groups, trade unions, war veterans as well as traditional and religious leaders were invited to discuss the constitutional amendments.

The forum was described as a "constitutional coup" by the president's critics.

media captionBarack Obama: "Nobody should be president for life"

Mr Sassou Nguesso, one of Africa's longest-serving rulers, was installed as president by the military in 1979 and lost the country's first multi-party elections in 1992.

He returned to power in 1997 after a brief but bloody civil war, in which he was backed by Angolan troops, and has since won two elections.

The issue of third terms is contentious in Africa.

Africa's longest-serving leaders:

image source, AFP
image captionAnti-third term protests were held in Burundi's capital earlier this year
  • 36 years: Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo - Equatorial Guinea, took power in a coup in August 1979
  • 36 years: Jose Eduardo dos Santos - Angola, took over after death of the country's first president in September 1979
  • 35 years: Robert Mugabe - Zimbabwe, won the country's independence elections in April 1980
  • 32 years: Paul Biya - Cameroon, took over after resignation of the country's first president in November 1982
  • 30 years: Denis Sassou Nguesso - Congo, installed by the military in October 1979, out of power from August 1992-October 1997
  • 29 years: Yoweri Museveni - Uganda, became president after his rebel group took power in January 1986

A popular rising in Burkina Faso last October ousted then-President Blaise Compaore after he tried to amend the constitution to allow him to run for a third term.

Burundi has suffered serious unrest since April, when President Pierre Nkurunziza said he would seek a third term in elections he later won.

His opponents said this contravened the constitution, which states a president can only be elected to two terms, but the president - backed by the constitutional court - said he was entitled to run again as he was first appointed to the role by parliament in 2005, rather than elected.

On a visit to Africa in July, US President Barack Obama warned that the continent would not advance if its leaders refused to step down when their terms end.

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