Anxiety has gripped the region as the Democratic Republic of Congo goes to elections in which voters in three regions that have been wracked by violence and Ebola will not vote till later in the New Year.
The elections agency announced midweek that the elections in Beni and Butembo in North Kivu Province and Yumbi in the southwest in Mai-Ndombe Province, where ethnic violence last week claimed more than 100 lives, will be held in March 2019.
Those areas are strongholds of opposition to outgoing President Joseph Kabila, and local politicians have denounced the move as an effort to swing the vote in favour of his preferred candidate, Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary.
Leaders from the International Conference of the Great Lakes Region (ICGLR) and the Southern African Development Community (SADC) met in Brazzaville in the Congo Republic on December 26 and expressed concerns about the credibility of the DRC elections, citing violence.
There are fears of a post-election crisis resulting in displacement of people and a possible cross-border spread of Ebola. Already, neighbouring Uganda, Rwanda and South Sudan are on high alert to prevent the spread of the haemorrhagic disease, with heightened surveillance and screening.
Uganda’s Health Minister Dr Ruth Aceng said that the government has invested in 24 screening points, including one at Entebbe International Airport.
The other 23 are in five districts located in the southwestern regions. She said that the polls in the DRC increase the likelihood of people moving in groups, which in turn raises the probability of spreading the deadly fever.
Post-election violence would increase the number of people seeking refuge in neighbouring countries, she said, adding that Uganda is investing in more thermometers to screen migrants, and walk-though screens to make screening quicker.
In Uganda, the number of checkpoints has been increased to include non-designated ones.
There are 1,247,600 registered voters in the three regions that will not vote, and analysts have raised issues of the legality of the outcome of the presidential election.
If the polls go on as planned, the Independent Electoral Commission (CENI) is expected to announce the results on January 15 and a new president is to be sworn in on January 18. This means the voters in those areas will not participate in this election.
There are chances that some candidates will challenge the results in court.
The opposition coalition led by Martin Fayulu have protested the CENI decision, calling it “discriminatory.” They said it was unfair to postpone elections under the pretext of health concerns whereas campaigns have been taking place in the areas without such concerns being raised.
The church has also protested the decision, with the spokesperson of the National Episcopal Conference, Fr Donantien N’shole saying there were sinister motives because the government did not ban campaigning in these regions. He said neither security nor health reasons justify the postponement.
Health authorities said that they would not prevent the vote from going ahead, and locals say the outbreak is being used as a pretext to disenfranchise them.
On Thursday, protests broke out in east of the country and security forces fired live bullets and teargas to disperse demonstrators who burnt tyres and attacked Ebola centres.
Protesters ransacked an Ebola isolation centre in Beni and also attacked the office of the government agency co-ordinating the response in Beni before UN peacekeepers pushed them back, he said.
Col Safari Kazingufu, the police commander in Beni, said his forces had deployed across the city to restore order, including around Ebola treatment centres.
Beni, Butembo and the rural areas around them have been dealing with an Ebola outbreak — now the second-deadliest in history — since August. It is believed to have killed more than 350 people so far.
The election to replace President Kabila, was meant to take place in 2016, but has been repeatedly delayed.
President Kabila in an interview with the BBC said that CENI acted legally when it postponed the elections in the three regions, because the law takes into account such problems. But members of the civil society say that the postponement will deprive parliament of 12 MPs and the presidency of a legitimacy of about three per cent of the voters.
The postponement has also stoked militia violence in the eastern borders with Rwanda and Uganda, as armed groups moved to exploit a perceived power vacuum.
Mr Shadary is facing two main challengers in a field of 21 candidates: Felix Tshisekedi, the president of Congo’s largest opposition party, and Martin Fayulu, a former Exxon Mobil manager and national lawmaker.
A poll released on Friday put Mr Fayulu as a clear favourite to win.
The poll by a New York University-affiliated research group showed Mr Fayulu leapfrog from third place in October to the top spot with 44 percent support, ahead of Tshisekedi at 23 percent, and Shadary at 18 percent.
The ICGLR and SADC have sent a delegation to meet President Kabila ahead of the election. The delegation comprises Foreign ministers from Congo Republic, representing ICGLR, and a counterpart from Zambia representing SADC.
The regional leaders have appealed to Kinshasa to safeguard the security of the election contenders and called for just, free, democratic and transparent polling.
Meanwhile, the government ordered the head of EU diplomatic mission, Barthe Ouvry, to leave the country on Friday. Leonard She Okitundu, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs, made the announcement on December 27.
Earlier, government spokesperson and minister for information, Lambert Mende, had made it clear to the EU that the government has resources to make those hostile to the government pay dearly.