Opposition leaders call for protests in DR Congo after new election delay

DRC Election overview

Independent Electoral Commission rapporteur Jean-Pierre Kalamba gives a press conference in Kinshasa on December 26, 2018. PHOTO | MARCO LONGARI | AFP

A DR Congo opposition bloc called Thursday for a nationwide stoppage and police clashed with demonstrators in two eastern cities after upcoming elections were placed on hold in their region.

Lamuka, a coalition of parties supporting opposition candidate Martin Fayulu, called for cities to be brought to a standstill on Friday, two days before polling day.

The election was due to be held on 23 December nationwide, but was postponed by a week . Many Congolese voters who travelled from neighbouring countries to cast their ballots had to leave before they could do so.

On Wednesday the national electoral commission (CENI) announced a delay of the vote in Beni, Butembo and Yumbi and surrounding rural areas until March, long after the new president is due to be sworn in.

The commission blamed the DRC’s devastating outbreak of Ebola and potential terrorist attacks for the delay, which may lead to votes in the three affected areas not being counted in the election.

“Elections lead to important movements of voters toward polling places, thus leading to concentrations of people … raising the risk of propagation of this disease and providing the conditions for terrorist attacks,” the CENI said in a statement.

CENI also blamed a warehouse fire that destroyed election equipment.

But it said the vote would continue to take place in the rest of the country as scheduled on December 30, and the next president will be sworn in on January 18.

The health ministry had previously said the Ebola outbreak, which has killed 354 people in eastern Congo and is the second largest to date, would not prevent the vote from going ahead.

PROTESTORS

In the eastern city of Beni, armed men fired live rounds and teargas at protesters demonstrating against the changes.

Protesters allegedly attacked the office of the agency coordinating the Ebola response and invaded an isolation centre, causing dozens of patients to flee.

Several hundred people protest in Beni, eastern DRC, against the postponement of the general election. Photograph: Alexis Huguet/AFP/Getty Images

In the province of North Kivu, the region most affected by the delay, several hundred demonstrators gathered on Thursday in the administrative district of the city of Beni.

Gunshots were heard over a roughly hour-long period, apparently fired by police to disperse protestors.

In Goma, the provincial capital, demonstrators set up barricades in the districts of Majengo and Katimbo and at the entrance to the university.

Police fired teargas and made at least half a dozen arrests, AFP reported.

Sunday’s election will be the DRC’s first presidential ballot in seven years. Legislative and municipal elections are being held at the same time.

POWER

The latest electoral delay in Africa’s second-biggest country will exclude more than 1.2 million people from the 30 December vote and is expected to favour the ruling party and its candidate, Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary, handpicked by the incumbent, Joseph Kabila.

The government has not explained how it will take account of the delayed votes in Beni, Butembo and Yumbi.

Kabila, who came to power after his father was
assassinated in 2001 , won elections in 2006 and 2011. But when his mandate expired in 2016 and he was prevented by the constitution from running again, he did not step down.

But he remained in office, invoking a caretaker clause under the constitution.

Istead the CENI announced it had not held a census to find out how many voters there were and did not have the $1bn (£790m) it said it needed to conduct an election.

Opposition leaders said Kabila was behind the decision to postpone the election, and this was buttressed by a constitutional court ruling that he would stay on as president in the event of electoral delays.

Millions of Congolese are struggling to survive. Five million have been displaced and 13 million are in need of help after decades of conflict.

Hundreds of armed groups contribute to the instability in the east, while people in Kasai are struggling to recover from the 2016 conflict between government forces and the Kamuina Nsapu movement .

The epidemic of rape , which activists say began in the mid-1990s, has continued unabated throughout Kabila’s presidency; in October the new Nobel peace prize winner Denis Mukwege told the Guardian he held the president personally responsible for not protecting the country’s women, along with his “illegal and illegitimate” government.

PEACE

In 1996-1997 and 1998-2003, the DRC became the theatre of two wars that left millions dead and homeless and sucked in countries from around central and southern Africa.

The UN and western powers have repeatedly urged the DRC to have peaceful, transparent and free elections — a call echoed on Wednesday by the presidents of Angola, Botswana, Namibia, Zambia and the neighbouring Republic of Congo.

The five leaders said they would send envoys to Kinshasa on Thursday.

Despite the problems, the head of the UN’s mission to Congo, Leila Zerrougui, said this year’s elections compared favourably with the 2011 ballot, marked by bloodshed and allegations of vote-rigging.

“I think this campaign has proceeded somewhat more smoothly,” she said in an interview with Jeune Afrique (Young Africa) magazine.

CONTENDERS

The main contenders are three men who are heading a field of 21 candidates in Sunday’s presidential race.

They are Kabila’s hand-picked successor Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary, a hardline former interior minister; Fayulu, a little-known legislator and former oil executive; and UPDS chief Felix Tshisekedi.

SOURCE: MKARIMU MEDIA AND NEWS AGENCIES

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