Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) President Joseph Kabila will not stand for re-election in December, a government spokesman has announced.
Kabila’s ruling coalition nominated former interior minister Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary as its presidential candidate, Lambert Mende, the government spokesman, said on Wednesday.
The move put an end to years of speculation on whether Kabila would defy terms limits.
The government waited until the last moment to announce Kabila’s decision not to run. The electoral commission’s deadline for candidates to register was Wednesday afternoon.
The Catholic Church immediately called the decision by Kabila “a big step,” while the US 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.
“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.”
Kabila, whose second term officially ended in 2016, is constitutionally ineligible to run in December’s poll, although his rivals accused him of wanting to stay in power.
Shadary counts as one of Kabila’s most loyal followers but, as a politician, is not very popular among DR Congo’s roughly 80 million people. He was sanctioned by the European Union for alleged human rights violations in 2017.
Several opposition candidates have registered for the poll, including former Vice President Jean-Pierre Bemba, who had convictions for war crimes and crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court overturned in June.
Felix Tshisekedi, leader of the largest opposition party Union for Democracy and Social Progress, who is the son of late opposition activist Etienne Tshisekedi, also filed his candidacy.
Opposition candidate Moise Katumbi was, however, refused entry to the country last week, after spending two years in exile in Belgium.
The former governor of the wealthy Katanga province and former Kabila ally was convicted in absentia for real-estate fraud in 2016. He has denied the charges, saying they were used to obstruct his political career.
Whoever wins the December 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.
Kabila came to power in 2001 after the assassination of his father, Laurent-Desire Kabila, the country’s third president.
He was elected in 2006 in the DRC’s first democratic election since it gained independence from Belgium in 1960.
Kabila secured a second term in 2011, though that election was plagued by allegations of widespread voter fraud.
Compiled from Agency reports