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Congo holds its breath ahead of crucial election
Voters in the Democratic Republic of Congo will elect their new president on Sunday 30 December after two years of delay and political uncertainty. However, residents in Ebola-hit areas will be excluded from the vote until March, in a move that has sparked outrage.
"This decision is totally unfair," Johnson Ishara, the head of a civil society group in the eastern province of North Kivu, one of the regions where voting has been postponed, told RFI Saturday.
The national electoral commission (CENI) this week delayed voting in Beni, Butembo and Yumbi in the west, in response to insecurity and the Ebola outbreak in North Kivu and ethnic violence in Mai Ndombe.
But for Ishara, these fears are unfounded: "We have never experienced a peaceful election. In 2006, there were more than a hundred armed groups operating in North Kivu. Five years later, these same groups were still wreaking havoc, and elections still took place."
Congolese President Joseph Kabila has blamed a deadly Ebola virus outbreak for the last-minute decision to bar an estimated 1 million voters from Sunday’s poll, claiming it would be a “disaster” if someone infects hundreds of people.
False Ebola fears
"Everyday, people go to the market, children go to school, it's not because we now suddenly have an election that the Ebola virus is going to spread," reckons Ishara.
Voting is now delayed in the cities of Beni and Butembo--but not in other communities with Ebola cases--until March, long after the inauguration of Kabila’s successor in January.
Critics see the move as a manoeuvre by the government to suppress the vote in cities known as bastions of the opposition.
"It is a very critical environment to [Joseph] Kabila and the exclusion of 1.2 million voters who probably would have voted against Kabila, is seen by many people on the ground as a political decision," Kris Berwouts an independent Congo expert told RFI.
This latest delay in an election meant to occur in late 2016 is all the more baffling because just days beforehand, Congo's health ministry had said precautions were in place to allow people in Ebola-affected areas to vote.
The credibility of Congo's elections were already questionable even before this latest twist, not least because of the controversy surrounding new voting machines that Kabila's opponents fear will lead to fraud. It is now hanging by a thread.
"These elections have been so controversial, the government has done so much to avoid them, and so much to win them that the credibility is very low," comments Berwouts, one of several European and American observers barred from monitoring Sunday's election.
The most high profile reject is EU ambassador Bart Ouvry, who was ordered to leave the country by Saturday.
Congolese authorities said this was in retaliation for sanctions imposed on ruling party presidential candidate Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary, whom Kabila backs.
The president, who is stepping aside after nearly 18 years at the helm of the vast, resource rich nation, has insisted that the country is ready for the polls, saying in an interview to Le Monde newspaper that he had the "ultimate conviction that everything would go according to plan."
Praying for peace
Not everyone is convinced. "There is no scenario without contestation and without violence," reckons Berwouts. "Congo will remain in an unstable situation and in a political and constitutional crisis even after the election."
Or perhaps even before. Opposition frontrunners Martin Fayulu and Felix Tshisekedi were still wrangling with election officials late into Saturday on whether to sign a code of conduct to avoid post-election violence.
The text is a "commitment to peace, for transparent, calm and non-violent elections," Electoral commission head, Corneille Nangaa, told AFP.
But both Fayulu--until recently a little-known legislator and former oil executive who is now riding high in opinion polls--and Tshisekedi have said the text lacks balance.
Earlier Saturday, church leaders from the country's powerful Christian denominations held a service calling for peace.
"Worries still loom over our heads and fear covers our hearts," said archbishop of Kinshasa, Fridolin Ambongo.
Waiting for change
There has never been a peaceful transfer of power in Congo. Fears of unrest soared again last week, after a warehouse fire destroyed thousands of voting machines earmarked for the capital Kinshasa, prompting the election commission to delay the vote by one week.
Residents in North Kivu, who have the right to vote, want things to change.
"The population wants these elections," says North Kivu civil society director Johnson Ishara. "We have had to wait two years. The election commission must work to help us prevent the worst," he said.