Joseph Kabila, the outgoing president of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), has said long-delayed polls will happen on Sunday – even as uncertainty remains over how prepared the vast country is to hold the vote.
The presidential elections, which were first scheduled to take place in 2016, have been repeatedly postponed over the past two years, angering opposition supporters and, at times, sparking violent anti-government rallies during which security forces killed dozens of protesters.
Last week, the country’s electoral commission (CENI) pushed back the planned December 23 vote by a week following a fire at one of its main warehouses in the capital, Kinshasa, as well as the ongoing Ebola outbreak in eastern DRC.
“The date has now been fixed, the 30th of December,” Kabila told Al Jazeera on Thursday, in an interview at the presidential palace in Kinshasa. “I believe that elections will take place on that particular date.”
In August, the president’s ruling coalition named Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary, a die-hard Kabila loyalist and former interior minister currently under sanctions by the European Union, as its candidate in the upcoming presidential election.
Kabila, who has ruled the vast mineral-rich country for more than 17 years, denied claims by the opposition that polls have been delayed to extend his stay in office.
“The composition of the electoral commission does not give any advantages to any one component – meaning you have the majority [ruling party], you have the opposition which is represented in the commission, and of course the civil society,” he said.
“The issue (that) the electoral commission (had) been biased is nonsense,” added Kabila, 47.
Elections have previously been delayed because the registration of the more than 46 million voters took two years to complete, the president added.
His comments came a day after CENI said voting would not take place until March next year in at least three cities, citing the Ebola outbreak and ethnic violence.
In the eastern city of Beni, in North Kivu province, protesters angry with the latest postponement burned tyres, ransacked an Ebola centre and blocked the main road.
Voting has also been delayed in Butembo, in the same province, due to the ongoing Ebola outbreak, which is the second deadliest in the country’s history and has claimed the lives of more than 320 people.
Voting has also been delayed in the western city of Yumbi in Bandundu province due to ethnic violence that has left more than 100 dead in the last month.
Despite the violence, Kabila said campaigning has been largely peaceful.
“An electoral process is always a sensitive issue. During an electoral process you have tensions, the most important thing is to have the necessary police force that is well equipped in order to deal with that. At one given time we did not have that capacity but we have been building that capacity,” he said.
Kabila succeeded his father – a former rebel leader – who was assassinated in 2001 by one of his bodyguards.
As many as 21 candidates are competing for the country’s top job.
The electoral commission said official results of the presidential poll will be announced on January 15.
The DRC, a country of more than 80 million people, has not seen a peaceful transition of power since it gained independence from Belgium in 1960.
Meanwhile, on Thursday, the central African country said it would expel EU Ambassador Bart Ouvry after the bloc renewed sanctions against government officials.
Earlier this month, the EU renewed sanctions against 14 officials, including Shadary.
Sanctions were first placed two years ago after a violent crackdown on street protests and repeated delays to the elections.
Kinshasa has refused to accredit election observers from the European bloc.