The Republic of Congo has quietly purchased some 500 tonnes of weapons from Azerbaijan, according to an investigation by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP).
The report comes as the central African country, also called Congo-Brazzaville, gears up for the March 21 presidential election in which President Denis Sassou Nguesso is seeking a new mandate to extend his 36-year rule.
Since 2015 Azerbaijan has delivered weapons at least 17 times to Congo-Brazzaville, said the OCCRP, which labels itself as "a group of investigative journalists founded in 2006".
It said the last delivery was in January 2020: "More than 100 tons of weaponry was sent from Azerbaijan to Congo-Brazzaville’s Republican Guard, including 775 mortar shells and over 400 cases of rockets designed to be launched out of trucks."
The latest transfer has sparked opposition concerns that Sassou-Nguesso is "prepared to use force if necessary to maintain power as the country’s March 21 election nears", the organisation said.
Opposition figures claim that previous shipments of weapons from Azerbaijan were used to fuel a brutal post-election offensive in 2016 that led to a humanitarian crisis.
The report added that Saudi Arabia was listed as a “sponsoring party” in at least two arms consignments sent in 2016 and 2017, around the same time Congo-Brazzaville’s admittance to OPEC was being negotiated.
These arms deliveries were made with complete discretion. Congo-Brazzaville "has not reported any delivery of arms for three decades", according to the investigation. The country is not under an embargo and therefore has no obligation to declare its arms imports.
Authorities in Brazzaville did not respond to questions in the report, as did those in Baku requested by AFP.
History of bloodshed
One month before the election, the atmosphere in Brazzaville is less tense than in 2016.
The country staged a referendum in 2015 to remove a 70 year age limit and a ban on presidents serving more than two terms.
The move paved the way for Sassou Nguesso to secure a third term in elections in March 2016, which sparked bloodshed.
His rivals, former general Jean-Marie Michel Mokoko and former minister Andre Okombi Salissa, disputed the results.
They were arrested, put on trial and each handed 20 years in jail on charges of undermining state security.
Congo is an oil-rich but impoverished country.
It is in the grip of a deep economic crisis, triggered by the slump in oil prices but worsened by long-standing debt and the impact of the coronavirus pandemic.