KINSHASA (Reuters) - Congo’s President Joseph Kabila will not stand in the election scheduled for December, a spokesman said, finally agreeing to obey a two-term limit but picking a hard-core loyalist under European Union sanctions to stand instead.
The announcement on Wednesday by spokesman Lambert Mende that former interior minister Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary would represent Kabila’s ruling coalition in the Dec. 23 vote came just hours before the deadline to register candidates.
Ramazani, dressed in a light suit and flanked by supporters from the coalition, briefly addressed reporters after filing his candidacy later in the afternoon at the headquarters of the national electoral commission in the capital Kinshasa.
“(Kabila) said there would be no problem. He said there would be no third term. Today, he has kept his promise,” Ramazani said. “It is a great honor for me and, with time, we are going to offer a social program.”
Kabila was due to step down in 2016 at the end of his constitutional mandate. But the election to replace him was repeatedly delayed and he refused to commit explicitly to not seeking a third term.
That sparked protests in which the security forces killed dozens of people, and stoked militia violence in Democratic Republic of Congo’s volatile east.
Kabila had come under strong pressure from regional allies such as Angola as well as the United States and EU to stand down.
The selection of Ramazani, 57, is, however, a defiant move. He is under EU sanctions for alleged human rights abuses, including deadly crackdowns by security forces on protesters.
Kabila’s choice of a die-hard loyalist suggests that the president, who came to power after his father’s assassination in 2001, intends to remain closely involved in national politics. He will be eligible to run again in 2023.
A Ramazani victory could also lead to a continuation of Kabila’s policies, including a tough line on the mining sector, where foreign investors hope the government will walk back steep tax hikes approved earlier this year.
Congo is Africa’s top producer of copper and the world’s leading miner of cobalt, which is prized for its use in batteries for electric cars and other electronics.
Kabila will remain at the head of his People’s Party for Reconstruction and Democracy (PPRD) and has installed loyalists across the federal bureaucracy, including in the courts and in the military.
But the announcement that he will not run again will ease fears in the region and beyond that a Kabila candidacy would drag the country back into the civil wars of the turn of the century in which millions died, mostly from hunger and disease.
“What matters for the moment is that the constitution, whether willingly or not, has been respected,” said Senator Jacques Ndjoli of the opposition MLC party of former vice president and presidential candidate Jean-Pierre Bemba.
“Despite the multiple attempts to circumvent the constitution, President Kabila finally understood that the supreme law applies to everyone.”
U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley said in a statement that she welcomed the announcement but that much more needed to be done to ensure a credible election in December.
The election should herald Congo’s first democratic transition of power following decades marked by authoritarian rule, coups and deadly conflict.
Ramazani, a former governor of the eastern province of Maniema, served as interior minister from late 2016 until this February, when he was named permanent secretary of the PPRD.
He is a combative defender of Kabila and oversaw repeated crackdowns on protesters and pro-democracy groups as interior minister, especially in the aftermath of Kabila’s refusal to quit power when his mandate expired in December 2016.
In May 2017, the EU slapped a travel ban and asset freeze on him for his involvement in “planning, directing or committing acts that constitute serious human rights violations”.
Several opposition candidates, including Bemba and the president of Congo’s largest opposition party, Felix Tshisekedi, have also registered to run.
By the close of registration on Wednesday evening, more than two dozen candidates had filed their candidacies. The definitive list of candidates will be published on Sept. 19.
Opposition leaders fear the goodwill Kabila could earn from not seeking a new term could make it easier for his coalition to cheat and are concerned about electronic voting machines due to be used for the first time.
His supporters dismiss these concerns.
“Today, Kabila has shown that he is the father of democracy in Congo,” Patrick Nkanga, a PPRD official, told Reuters by telephone.
A nationwide opinion poll last month showed opposition candidates collecting a significant majority of the vote with potential candidates from the ruling coalition trailing far behind.
The joint leader in that poll, former provincial governor Moise Katumbi, was refused re-entry to Congo at the weekend after two years in exile and has been unable to register. Ramazani did not receive enough votes to be included in the poll’s results.
Additional reporting by Patient Ligodi; Writing by Aaron Ross; Editing by Tim Cocks, Alison Williams, William Maclean