Nearly 80 percent of the equipment for staging the December 23 election in DR Congo’s capital, Kinshasa, was destroyed when a fire ripped through a warehouse, as violence flared just 10 days before the vote.
The blaze, which officials blamed on arson, was the latest drama of an increasingly tense election campaign ahead of the December 23 election when the country will choose a successor to President Joseph Kabila.
Also Thursday, a teenager was shot dead in the central Kasai region as party faithful gathered ahead of a rally by Felix Tshisekedi of the UDPS, one of the leading opposition candidates.
At stake in the election is the political stewardship of a mineral-rich country that has never known a peaceful transition of power since independence from Belgium in 1960.
The shooting comes after a bloody week in which five other opposition supporters were shot dead as they gathered to welcome rival opposition candidate Martin Fayulu as he campaigned in the southeast.
“A young man of 17 who was singing with UDPS party activists was killed this morning by a policeman who fired at him,” Denis Kalombo, a senior official in Tshisekedi’s party, told AFP.
The incident occurred in the country’s third city Mbuji-Mayi in the violence-hit Kasai province — one of Tshisekedi’s main areas of support
On Wednesday, three people died in Kalemie, an eastern town on Lake Tanganyika, as Fayulu flew in to campaign, and a day earlier, another two of his supporters were killed and 43 hurt as he went for a rally in Lubumbashi, the country’s second city.
In Kinshasa, the blaze tore through a large warehouse, destroying most of the election materials stored inside, including a large number of controversial touch-screen voting terminals.
“The fire consumed materials destined for 19 of Kinshasa’s 24 districts,” said Corneille Nangaa, head of CENI, the Independent National Election Commission.
The city, which is also one of DR Congo’s 25 provinces, represents around 11 percent of the country’s 4.4 million registered voters.
Nangaa said “nearly 8,000 of the 10,368 voting terminals earmarked for Kinshasa” — around three-quarters of them had been destroyed.
But he insisted the vote would go ahead.
“Indications suggest the fire had a criminal origin,” Interior Minister Henri Mova told reporters, with a government spokesman saying the blaze had started “simultaneously in two places”.
By morning, a thick cloud of black smoke was still visible above the city, AFP correspondents said.
– Voting terminals damaged –
The voting terminals have been a source of huge contention over the past year, with many opposition figures denouncing them as “cheating machines” which could be manipulated to fix the vote.
But the authorities insist the terminals will cut costs, prevent fraud and provide a faster tally.
Fayulu has been one of the most outspoken critics of the South Korean-made machines, prompting one pro-Kabila coalition to accuse him of staging the fire at the CENI warehouse.
In a statement, the FCC coalition accused him of calling on “his activists and supporters to destroy election material” in order to obstruct the electoral process, with the document signed by the head of Kabila’s cabinet.
The warehouse lies close to the headquarters of the military and defence establishment, with Tshisekedi wondering how it could have been left unguarded.
“How can such a large warehouse with such important material in it be left alone, without any security and even be set alight?” he told AFP, blaming Kabila’s regime.
On December 23, just over 40 million voters will head to the polls to choose a successor to 47-year-old Kabila, who has ruled the country since 2001.
Twenty-one candidates are running to replace Kabila, whose hand-picked successor Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary, is one of the front-runners.
The other two main contenders are Fayulu, who is running as the joint candidate for several opposition parties, and Tshisekedi, who has taken over from his father as the veteran face of Congo’s mainstream opposition.