BRAZZAVILLE, REPUBLIC OF CONGO - The main opposition party in the Republic of Congo on Tuesday said it would boycott talks this week with the government over constitutional changes it fears are designed to allow President Denis Sassou Nguesso to serve a third term in the oil-rich central African nation.
Sassou Nguesso called the "national dialogue" this Saturday through Tuesday to discuss reforms. These are expected to include scrapping a two-term limit on presidents — a sensitive issue across Africa, where a number of veteran leaders have triggered protests with plans to extend their time in office.
Sassou Nguesso, a 71-year-old former military commander, has not said publicly whether he plans to seek a third seven-year term next year. He would also currently be barred by a ban on candidates older than 70.
Pascal Tsaty Mabiala, head of the main opposition party, the Pan-African Union for Social Democracy (UPADS), said a coalition of opposition parties was against any changes to the constitution and had declined the invitation to talks.
"We will open talks only if the president says clearly and loudly that he is not a candidate for re-election in 2016 and will respect the term limits in the constitution," Tsaty Mabiala told Reuters by telephone.
The opposition leader also said he had been prevented by police on Monday from boarding a flight to France and informed that he was forbidden from leaving the country.
A government spokesman was not immediately available for comment.
About 400 representatives of political groups, trade unions, ex-combatants, and traditional and religious authorities have been invited to take part in the talks, but the absence of FROCAD would be a blow to efforts to forge a national consensus.
Sassou Nguesso ruled the former French colony from 1979 to 1992, and took power again in 1997 at the end of a civil war before winning disputed polls in 2002 and 2009.
Congo is on track to leapfrog Equatorial Guinea to become sub-Saharan Africa's third-largest crude producer by 2017. Half of its 4.5 million population lives in poverty, according to the World Bank.