“WE ARE CELEBRATING the victory of our president,” says Arnaud Oyaba, standing next to a sweaty, chanting crowd. “And because they will give us some money to buy juice,” he adds, as an afterthought. The president of the Republic of Congo, Denis Sassou-Nguesso, won an election on March 21st with 88% of the vote, despite being deeply unpopular. The celebration outside his party office when the results were announced two days later was about as authentic as his victory. Plump members of his Congolese Labour Party walked around handing out cash to enthusiastic dancers and those making the most noise. Everyone was kitted out in free T-shirts and hats, adorned with photos of the president. From time to time, Mr Sassou-Nguesso’s son appeared on the roof of the tall party office and gestured at the crowd to chant louder.

Voters in Brazzaville, the sleepy capital of the smaller of the two Congos, had not seemed in a hurry to cast their ballots in the presidential election. At a polling station in the centre of the city, a handful strolled in an hour after it opened. Many stayed at home, knowing that Mr Sassou-Nguesso would win, whether or not he got the most votes. Mr Sassou-Nguesso is Africa’s third-longest-serving president, behind only the strongmen of Cameroon and Equatorial Guinea. Nicknamed “the emperor” for his sharp suits and reluctance to leave office, he has been in power for almost 37 years, with a short break in the 1990s. Most people in Congo have never been governed by anyone else. In 2015 he removed the presidential age limit of 70 (he is 77) and amended the constitution so that he could stand in elections for ten more years.

One of his main opponents, Guy-Brice Parfait Kolélas, died from covid-19 on March 22nd during his evacuation to France in a private plane. The evening before the vote he released a video from his hospital bed, struggling for breath and feebly clutching an oxygen mask. “I am fighting death, but even so, I ask you to get up and vote for change,” he gasped. Two days later his weeping supporters claimed, implausibly and without evidence, that the president had poisoned him. “He saw his charisma and decided to destroy him,” bellowed one man over a wailing crowd. Although Mr Sassou-Nguesso seems to have few qualms about locking up his opponents (two opposition candidates were sentenced to 20 years of hard labour after contesting the result in 2016), there is no reason to believe that he has branched out into murder.

Allegedly, many people were paid to vote for the president, just as they were paid to celebrate his victory. Policemen and soldiers were reminded by their bosses of where their loyalties lay. If there were government bullies inside polling stations, nobody noticed because most observing missions were blocked. The UN and EU were not invited into the country. The Catholic church, which was poised to deploy around a thousand observers, was refused access at the last minute. The internet was switched off on polling day and only switched on again days later. In the meantime journalists congregated on the banks of the Congo river in order to get a broadband signal from Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo, on the other side of its muddy waters.

“This country is a total mess,” says Mathias Dzon, an opposition candidate and former finance minister. “The dictator is running the country with his family.” Although Congo is sub-Saharan Africa’s third-largest oil producer, its public debt is more than 100% of GDP. Global Witness, an international anti-corruption watchdog, claims that the president’s son, Denis Christel Sassou-Nguesso, has stolen millions of dollars from the opaquely managed national oil company, SNPC. Last year prosecutors in America asked a court to seize an apartment worth $3m in Miami they said had been bought with embezzled cash.

Meanwhile, nearly half of the population survive on less than $2 a day. More than a third of Congolese are unemployed. Few think that much will change as long as the emperor stays put.