KINSHASA, Congo (AP) — Congo’s president is not running again in December’s long-delayed elections, easing concerns by the opposition and international community that he would try to stay in office and positioning one of Africa’s most turbulent nations for what could be its first peaceful, democratic transfer of power.
President Joseph Kabila will remain influential, however. He chose former interior minister Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary, the ruling party’s permanent secretary, as the candidate for the newly formed Common Front for Congo coalition. Kabila is considered its moral authority.
Government spokesman Lambert Mende announced the decision on Wednesday, just hours before the deadline for candidates to register.
The 57-year-old Shadary is among nine Congolese sanctioned by the European Union last year for obstructing the electoral process and related human rights violations.
International pressure had been growing on Kabila and his government over the election delay since late 2016, with the United States in June taking the unusual step of announcing visa bans on several Congolese senior officials but not naming names. It cited their involvement in “significant corruption” related to the electoral process.
Kabila, who came to power in 2001 after the assassination of his father, former President Laurent Kabila, by law cannot run again after his mandate ended in late 2016. Congo’s government has blamed the election delay on the difficulties of organizing a vote in the vast country.
Demonstrations over the delay have turned deadly, with Pope Francis and others appealing for calm after police in January used tear gas to disperse ambassadors and others at a mass at Kinshasa’s Catholic cathedral to honor protesters killed.
The Catholic Church immediately called the decision by Kabila “a big step,” while the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, welcomed the news but said Congo’s electoral commission must “take all steps necessary” to guarantee a free and fair vote. The U.N. said it welcomed “continued progress” toward that goal.
“Congo’s regional and international partners must continue to exert strong pressure for the country to have a truly democratic transition and to prevent further repression,” said Ida Sawyer, deputy Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “We are still very far from a credible electoral process, and many things can happen by December, including additional delays.”
Sawyer pointed to the barring in recent days of opposition leader Moise Katumbi from entering the country to register as a candidate. He fled Congo in 2016, months after resigning from the ruling party, as prosecutors announced their intent to try him on charges of hiring mercenaries, which he denied.
As submissions were closing Wednesday, more than two dozen candidates had been registered.
They include the leader of Congo’s largest opposition party, Felix Tshisekedi.
Former Vice President Jean-Pierre Bemba, fresh from acquittal of war crimes on appeal at the International Criminal Court, had registered last week. He had been convicted for murder, rape and pillaging committed by his Movement for the Liberation of Congo forces in neighboring Central African Republic in 2002 and 2003.
A surprise for many Congolese was the decision by Tryphon Kin-Kiey Mulumba, who had supported the idea of a third term for Kabila, to submit his candidacy.
Congo’s constitutional court still has to rule on potential candidates’ eligibility.
Whoever wins the Dec. 23 vote takes over a vast country with trillions of dollars’ worth of mineral wealth but with dozens of armed groups battling for a part of it. Millions of Congolese have been displaced by various internal conflicts.
Unrest in the northeast poses a challenge to Congo’s latest outbreak of the deadly Ebola virus, with health officials comparing the situation to a war zone and the U.N. peacekeeping mission offering support.