Congo President Joseph Kabila bans voting in opposition stronghold due to potential Ebola ‘disaster’
The electoral commission has delayed voting in the country’s east until March. (AP: Al-hadji Kudra Maliro)
Leaders in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC Congo) are going to deny almost a million people the vote in the country’s first democratic elections this Sunday.
- The President says Ebola may spread by touch screen voting machines
- Health workers already planned Ebola mitigation strategies
- Critics say the last-minute decision is politically motivated
Protests have erupted in affected areas in the east of the country — which is seen as a stronghold for opposition candidates — after the electoral commission (CENI) ruled to deny the vote because of Ebola outbreak fears.
In an interview, President Joseph Kabila contradicted his own health officials and experts with the World Health Organisation, who have said precautions were taken in collaboration with electoral authorities so people could vote.
Those included providing tonnes of hand sanitiser (Ebola is spread via infected bodily fluids) and the screening of all voters entering polling stations.
Mr Kabila claimed that the virus could spread as people use touchscreen voting machines, which he says may be a “disaster” if someone infects scores or hundreds of others.
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 would sanitise their hands before and after voting.
Ebola wasn’t an issue until last week before election
Until this week, the Ebola outbreak declared on August 1 had been a challenge, but not a barrier, to the election.
Voting is now delayed in the cities of Beni and Butembo — but not in other communities with confirmed Ebola cases — until March, long after the inauguration of Mr Kabila’s successor in January.
Residents had largely supported Mr Kabila in past elections but sentiment has turned in recent years amid persistent insecurity.
This latest delay in an election meant to occur in late 2016 has angered both residents and the opposition, which accuses the Government of trying to ensure that Mr Kabila’s preferred successor is elected.
Many Congolese believe that the incumbent will continue to wield power behind the scenes and protect his assets in a country with vast mineral wealth.
Protesters just want the right to vote
Protests broke out in Beni again on Friday, with hundreds of people demanding the right to vote on Sunday with the rest of the country.
Police and the army used live ammunition and tear gas to disperse the marchers who barricaded streets.
Some protesters carried crosses displaying “RIP Kabila” and saying his preferred successor, Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary, “will never be our president”.
Beni’s civil society urged residents to turn out en masse on Sunday.
“We don’t fear Ebola,” said one of the marchers, Claude Vianney.
On Thursday, some protesters attacked an Ebola response centre and sent 21 patients fleeing.
While the health ministry said most had tested negative for the virus and 11 people had already returned, the vandalism was the latest setback in efforts to contain the second deadliest Ebola outbreak in history.
Nearly 600 cases have been reported, with more than 350 confirmed deaths.
Voting delays have disturbed Ebola containment
The uproar over the voting delay has “badly disturbed” Ebola response work in Beni and Butembo, Congo’s health ministry said.
Health teams could barely deploy on Thursday and no Ebola vaccinations could be carried out, it said.
Aid organisation Oxfam said it was forced to suspend its Ebola response work.
Acting country director Raphael Mbuyi called the situation “extremely worrying” because previous suspensions have led to a spike in new cases.
Mr Mbuyi added: “it’s not surprising that people who have had their votes taken away at the last minute are frustrated and going to the streets. These people deserve to have their say as well.”
Protesters said life had continued in the outbreak zone, with schools open, people going to church and candidates holding campaign rallies.
Mr Kabila said responded by saying such activities don’t involve voting machines.
There is “no further reason” to prevent Sunday’s election, he said.
“Rest assured, there will be peace,” he said, adding that police would be on hand.
He dismissed opposition allegations that campaigns had faced restrictions, including blocked flights and assaults on supporters, in recent weeks.
Opposition candidate Martin Fayulu said that up to 5 million of Congo’s 40 million voters might not be able to cast ballots on Sunday, claiming that voting machines had yet to be delivered to some areas.
His opposition coalition called for a nationwide “ghost town” strike on Friday but urged people to remain calm.