DR Congo President Joseph Kabila, ending months of speculation, has chosen former interior minister Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary to be his successor in upcoming elections, the government said on Wednesday.
The announcement came just hours before the deadline for lodging applications for the December 23 election — a vote analysts say is crucial for the country's future.
Ramazani Shadary, a Kabila loyalist, is permanent secretary of the People's Party for Reconstruction and Democracy (PPRD).
He "will represent our political family in the presidential election," spokesman Lambert Mende told a press conference. "We will all rally behind him."
A country of some 80 million people, the Democratic Republic of Congo has never known a peaceful government transition since it gained independence from Belgium in 1960.
Kabila, 47, has been in power for 17 years, taking over from his father, Laurent-Desire Kabila, who was killed by a bodyguard.
He should have stepped down at the end of 2016 when he reached a two-term limit.
But, igniting angry demonstrations, he stayed on thanks to a constitutional clause enabling the president to remain in office until a successor is elected.
Speculation had mounted in recent months that he would stand again, possibly contending that he was entitled to do so because of a constitutional revision in 2006.
Opponents staged protests that were bloodily repressed, triggering angry condemnations from the United States and the European Union.
Late Tuesday, Kabila held talks with his political allies, who are joined in an electoral platform called the Common Front for Congo (FCC), on picking a candidate who would succeed him.
Their choice was "the conclusion of consultations that the president..., the moral authority of the the Common Front for Congo, undertook to find the rare bird," Mende told journalists.
Clamour for change
Kabila's tenure over the vast mineral-rich country has been marked by a reputation for corruption, inequality and unrest.
Several provinces are in the grip of armed conflict and according to the UN High commissioner for refugees, more than four million people have had to flee their homes, many to Uganda, Tanzania, Angola and Zambia.
"There's a heightened political awareness and an understanding that the ruling party and Kabila hasn't brought the kind of change that Congo needs and that Congolese want," said Stephanie Wolters, Johannesburg-based analyst at ISS Africa.
"It's essential to have some credible process or the Congo will keep spiralling and none of the important human security priority issues will be addressed."
The African Union this week reiterated calls for "all stakeholders to ensure peaceful, transparent and truly inclusive elections" in the DRC.
Sixteen candidates, including three major opposition figures, have already submitted their names to the electoral commission.
Among them are Felix Tshisekedi, 55, leader of Congo's oldest opposition party UDPS, and Jean-Pierre Bemba, 55, a former warlord recently acquitted by the International Criminal Court of war crimes and crimes against humanity.
The fate of opposition leader Moise Katumbi who was barred from entering the country last week to lodge his candidacy has been a key issue ahead of the deadline.
Katumbi, 53, a wealthy businessman and former governor of the province of Katanga, was unable to cross the border from Zambia where he and his team remains as of Wednesday.
The definitive list of candidates is set to be announced on September 19 after each name is validated by CENI.