BRAZZAVILLE (Reuters) - The President of Congo Republic, Denis Sassou Nguesso, said on Friday he expected a referendum on a change to the constitution that would allow him to stand next year for a third term at the helm of the oil-producing nation.
Sassou Nguesso has ruled the central African country for most of the last 35 years and any bid to extend his tenure would be closely watched on a continent where several leaders are approaching the end of their mandates.
In an interview with Reuters Sassou Nguesso declined to say if he wanted another term, but acknowledged that a referendum would be sought that would make it possible for him to stay in power.
"A moment will come when we will decide for the people to pronounce (on a constitutional revision) by referendum," he said at the presidential palace in the capital Brazzaville.
"We must not link my candidature to the debate over the constitution. The debate over the constitution is going to take place and the moment will come when I will pronounce," he said.
The constitution of 2002 limits the number of presidential terms to two and excludes candidates of more than 70 years of age.
That would rule out the 71-year-old Sassou Nguesso, a former military commander who took power in 1997 at the end of a civil war before winning disputed elections in 2002 and 2009. He had previously ruled the former French colony from 1979 to 1992.
Congo's neighbor the Democratic Republic of Congo is led by President Joseph Kabila, who is due to stand down at elections next year. Critics have said he is looking to extend his time in power.
Last October, the longtime president of Burkina Faso, Blaise Compaore, surrendered power after days of mass protests against a plan to change the country's constitution to allow him to stand for a third term.
Despite oil wealth from offshore deposits, about half of Congo's population lives in poverty, according to the World Bank. The country was ranked 152 out of 175 by Transparency International's 2014 corruption perceptions index.
Sassou Nguesso defended his record and said he had helped bring stability and development to a country riven by war in the 1990s. He said young people face difficulties but he warned against any effort to manipulate them into supporting radical Islam.
Editing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg, Toni Reinhold