Tensions rise as arsonists burn 7,000 voting machines ahead of DRC election

Opposition supporters accuse Kabila regime of trying to postpone historic vote

A man rides his bike as smoke rises from a fire at the independent national electoral commission’s (CENI) warehouse in Kinshasa.
 Smoke billows from the warehouse used by the electoral commission in the Gombe neighbourhood of the capital, Kinshasa. Photograph: John Wessels/AFP/Getty Images

A fire has destroyed much of an election commission warehouse in Kinshasa as tensions rise in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) with just 10 days to go before historic presidential elections which could see the country’s first-ever democratic transition of power or bring further instability and violence.

The fire damaged thousands of controversial new voting machines and has stoked fears the poll will be undermined by logistic challenges and fraud.

Barnabé Kikaya bin Karubi, a presidential adviser, blamed unidentified “criminals“ for the blaze, which destroyed about 7,000 of the 10,000 voting machines due to be used in the capital, Kinshasa, but said preparations for the 23 December election were continuing.

Kikaya said police guarding the warehouse – located in the upscale and usually secure Gombe riverside area of Kinshasa – had been arrested but made no further comment on what or who might have caused the blaze.

Opposition supporters claimed the fire was the result of arson and accused Joseph Kabila, in power since 2001, of seeking an excuse to postpone the poll.

“We are dealing with a criminal regime. This is not a fire that is accidental. The prime suspect must be the regime itself,” said Valentin Mubake, a former secretary general of the Union for Democracy and Social Progress (UPDS), the principal opposition party.

One man was shot dead and another injured in clashes between UPDS supporters and local security forces in the southern town of Mbuji Mayi on Thursday.

The violence came hours before Felix Tshisekedi, leader of the UPDS and one of the two leading opposition candidates, was due to fly in to the city for a campaign rally.

Democratic Republic of Congo opposition candidate, Felix Tshisekedi.
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 Democratic Republic of Congo’s UPDS leader, Felix Tshisekedi took over from his father, Etienne Tshisekedi, when he died in February 2017. Photograph: Dai Kurokawa/EPA

On Wednesday, two followers of Martin Fayulu, the other main opposition candidate, died and more than 40 were injured when police opened fire in the city of Lubumbashi, according to local NGOs and media reports.

The election is a high-risk gamble for all candidates, parties and the country.

Kabila, 47, refused to leave office at the end of his second mandate in 2016 and only reluctantly agreed not to stand in the forthcoming polls. The constitution of the DRC limits presidents to two consecutive terms.

Instead Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary, a former minister of the interior and Kabila loyalist, will stand as a representative of the ruling coalition.

A spokesperson rejected the charge that Shadary had been picked by Kabila to “keep his seat warm”, as opposition figures allege.

“Mr Shadary is an entirely different person, with a very different personality. He has his own rich experience of government, and has been chosen as a candidate through broad democratic consultation,” said Aimé Kilolo-Musamba.

Shadary is under EU sanctions imposed for his role in a bloody crackdown on opposition activists last year.

Musamba said the charges were unfounded and constituted interference in the election.

In recent polls Shadary has fared badly but the opposition has been severely weakened by a decision by the election commission to bar two political heavyweights: Jean-Pierre Bemba, a former warlord, and Moïse Katumbi, a tycoon who has a large following in the south.

The opposition fears the new voting machines are impractical in a huge country with limited transport infrastructure and electricity, and could open the way to widespread fraud. Roughly 100,000 machines will be distributed across the country, which is the size of western Europe.

Corneille Nangaa, the head of the election commission, has said the machines would cut costs and speed up the vote counting.

Four years ago Namibia became the first African country to use electronic voting in a national election, but it has only 1.2 million registered voters compared to Congo’s 46 million. The official rollout also followed extensive testing in by-elections.

Demonstrations of the new machines to parliamentarians and representatives of the influential Catholic church did not go well, with several breaking down.

There are also concerns about the lack of observers.

Analysts and activists have warned that if polls are seen as fraudulent the country could face years of protests.

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