Democratic Republic of Congo’s leader says “there is no further reason” to prevent Sunday’s presidential election after two years of delays, but he blames an Ebola outbreak for the last-minute decision to keep an estimated 1 million voters from the polls.
In an interview with The Associated Press, President Joseph Kabila says it would be a “disaster” if people vote on Sunday in two large communities in the Ebola outbreak zone, asserting that “a single person” could infect scores or hundreds of others.
His comments on Thursday evening contradict those of his own health officials, who have said precautions had been made in collaboration with electoral authorities so people could vote in the outbreak zone. World Health Organisation also has said precautions were in place, including tons of hand sanitizer and screening of all voters entering polling stations.
Kabila, however, asserted that people could be infected as they use DRC’s voting machines, which require tapping on a touchscreen to select candidates. A polling station could have 500 to 600 voters, and “this assumes that a lot of people will be contaminated,” he said. Health officials have said voters will be told to disinfect their hands before and after using the machines.
The voting is delayed in opposition strongholds Beni and Butembo – but not in other communities with confirmed Ebola cases in this outbreak – until March, long after the inauguration of Kabila’s successor in January. That has angered the opposition, which accuses the government of trying to ensure that Kabila’s preferred successor is elected. Many Congolese believing Kabila will continue to wield power behind the scenes.
Protests broke out in Beni on Thursday over the delayed vote, with some attacking an Ebola response centre and sending 21 patients fleeing. While the health ministry said most had tested negative for the virus, the vandalism was the latest setback in efforts to contain what has become the second deadliest Ebola outbreak in history.
Protesters pointed out that life has continued in the outbreak zone, with schools open, people going to church and candidates holding campaign rallies. Kabila responded on Thursday by saying such activities don’t involve voting machines.
Sunday’s election will have no trouble, Kabila said: “Rest assured, there will be peace.” Police will be prepared to secure the population, he added. He dismissed opposition allegations that their campaigns had faced restrictions in recent weeks.
In the AP interview, DRC’s president also sounded defiant in the face of international pressure over the election, which has been delayed since late 2016. Kabila’s foreign minister on Thursday ordered the European Union ambassador to leave the country within 48 hours, citing EU sanctions on Kabila’s preferred successor , Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary.
Shadary, a former interior minister, is under an EU asset freeze and travel ban for obstructing DRC’s electoral process and for a crackdown against protesters angry over the long-delayed vote. The EU prolonged the sanctions earlier this month after DRC’s foreign minister pleaded with EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini to lift the sanctions, even for a “probationary period.”
Kabila, when asked what advice he had for Shadary, replied: “The biggest recommendation is that he listen to the voice of the Congolese and not follow that of the United States, Europe or elsewhere.”
DRC has resisted what it considers international meddling in the election, vowing to fund the vote itself. Western observer groups are notably absent.
“I have already said that Congo is not a beggar country,” Kabila said.