- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 12, 2002

President Denis Sassou-Nguesso of the Republic of Congo expressed high hopes yesterday that the discovery of vast new oil reserves off the Gulf of Guinea will bring prosperity to the whole of West Africa.

"Our nation is working hard to attract joint investments by oil firms as part of our overall plan for development," Mr. Sassou-Nguesso told editors and reporters at The Washington Times.

At present, the American corporation Chevron and Elf-Acquitaine of France are the major players in his country, which is sometimes confused with its larger neighbor, the Democratic Republic of Congo, formerly Zaire. The two oil companies have alternatively been partners and rivals.

Mr. Sassou-Nguesso is expected to stress the country's oil prospects in a speech today to the Corporate Council of Africa, whose members command substantial investment funds that could be committed to the region.

The president's hopes for foreign investment-driven development are shared in part by U.S. officials, who are encouraged by the return of stability to the country after two bloody civil wars in the 1990s.

These struggles for power occurred, at least in the eyes of the present government, because its predecessor, the regime of Pascal Lissouba, was unwilling to relinquish power.

"We led the way on our continent to a change to multiparty democracy in the early '90s and stepped down after losing an election," the Congolese president said.

"Our opponents did not trust the army or the people, so they formed militias to attack us. So we did the same."

Mr. Sassou-Nguesso's militia, which he called the Cobras, carried the day in 1997, routing the forces of Mr. Lissouba and a second rival, the former mayor of Brazzaville, Bernard Kolelas.

These developments were overshadowed by the sheer size and agony of the Democratic Republic of Congo, whose capital, Kinshasa, is just across the Congo River from Brazzaville.

Kinshasa was in turmoil during much of 1990s, marked by the end of the dictatorship of Mobutu Sese Seko and the intervention twice of Rwanda, which led to a six-nation war.

These events tended to obscure the consolidation of power in Brazzaville by Mr. Sassou-Nguesso.

The Congolese leader's success was validated at the polls this year, when he captured about 74 percent of the vote.

"We are now in the process of holding elections at all levels of government to assure that the democratic process takes hold," he said yesterday.

While there are still hit-and-run attacks by opponents of the government formerly allied with the militia of Mr. Kolelas, these appear to be only a minor threat.

Until recently Africa's oil wealth was being tapped by three countries, Nigeria, Gabon and Angola.

"Now the whole region from the Bight of Biafra in Nigeria to the Cabinda enclave in Angola is being viewed as a vast pool of oil," a U.S. official, who spoke anonymously, said yesterday.


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