Joseph Kabila will not be a candidate in December elections in the Democratic Republic of Congo, according to government officials.
Many had predicted that the 47-year-old president, in power since 2001, would run for a third term, despite being barred from doing so by the constitution. Kabila’s candidacy was opposed by the US and EU, as well as significant regional actors.
Hours before the legal deadline for deposing candidatures for the polls expired, a government spokesman said that the little-known Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary, a former interior minister, would be the ruling coalition’s candidate.
Analysts say the move does not signal Kabila’s retirement from active politics, but was a reluctant strategy forced on him by intense public and diplomatic pressure that will still allow the Congolese leader to retain huge influence during the campaign and if Shadary is victorious.
Shadary is a Kabila loyalist without a following of his own. He is under EU sanctions for his involvement in alleged human rights abuses.
Many welcomed the move, however. Kabila’s candidacy would have prompted massive protests and a possible opposition boycott of the scheduled polls.
“It’s good news and there is a sign of hope coming in this country,” said the opposition politician Martin Fayulu.
The uncertainty had increased political tensions, leading to anti-Kabila protests that have been bloodily repressed.
The elections are due to be held in December and will pit Shadary against heavyweights such as Jean-Pierre Bemba, and Félix Tshisekedi, son of one of the DRC’s most well-known opposition politicians.
Bemba, who returned to the DRC last week after being acquitted of war crimes by the international criminal court, has a powerful support base. Experts described his return as “a huge wildcard”.
Authorities last week barred Moïse Katumbi, 53, a wealthy businessman and former governor of the province of Katanga, from returning home to file his bid. The multimillionaire faces court cases in DRC on charges that he says are trumped up. He has been in self-imposed exile in Europe for more than two years.
A recent poll by the Congo Research Group at New York University shows roughly equal support – between 17% and 19% – for Bemba, Katumbi and Tshisekedi. It put support for Kabila at about 9%. The pro-Kabila Common Front for Congo is an election platform combining two groups, the Presidential Majority and the People’s Party for Reconstruction and Democracy (PPRD).
Kabila took over from his father, Laurent-Désiré Kabila, who was assassinated by a bodyguard in 2001. Kabila has remained in power despite his second term ending in 2016, under a constitutional clause that enables a president to stay in office until a successor is elected.
The vast mineral-rich country has a reputation for corruption, inequality and unrest. The Transparency International watchdog ranked it 156 out of 176 countries in its 2016 corruption index.
Many provinces are in the grip of armed conflict and millions have had to flee from their homes.
Officials in DRC claim only 230,000 people have been displaced, which is a fraction of the UN’s estimate of 4.5 million.
The DRC, which has significant natural resources, has never known a peaceful transition of power since it gained independence from Belgium in 1960, and some experts fear the December elections will trigger a bloody conflict.