Congo’s leader is blaming a deadly Ebola virus outbreak for the last-minute decision to keep an estimated 1 million voters from the polls in Sunday’s long-delayed presidential election, claiming it would be a “disaster” if someone infects scores or hundreds of others. Protests exploded for a second day on Friday in response as health workers suspended efforts and warned that new cases could rise.
In an interview with The Associated Press, President Joseph Kabila contradicted his own health officials and experts with the World Health Organization, who have said precautions were taken in collaboration with electoral authorities so people could vote. Those include tons of hand sanitizer — Ebola is spread via infected bodily fluids — and the screening of all voters entering polling stations.
Kabila in his comments Thursday evening claimed that Ebola could spread as people use voting machines, which require tapping on a touchscreen to select candidates. A polling station could have 500 to 600 voters and “this assumes that a lot of people will be contaminated,” he said. Health officials have said voters would sanitize their hands before and after voting.
Until this week, the Ebola outbreak declared on Aug. 1 had been a challenge but not a barrier to the election. Voting is now delayed in the cities of Beni and Butembo — but not in other communities with confirmed Ebola cases — until March, long after the inauguration of Kabila’s successor in January. Residents had largely supported Kabila in past elections but sentiment has turned in recent years amid persistent insecurity.
This latest delay in an election meant to occur in late 2016 has angered both residents and the opposition, which accuses the government of trying to ensure that Kabila’s preferred successor is elected. Many Congolese believe Kabila will continue to wield power behind the scenes and protect his assets in a country with vast mineral wealth.
Protests broke out in Beni again on Friday, with hundreds of people demanding the right to vote on Sunday with the rest of the country. Police and the army used live ammunition and tear gas to disperse the marchers who barricaded streets.
Some protesters carried crosses displaying “RIP Kabila” and saying his preferred successor, Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary, “will never be our president.” Beni’s civil society urged residents to turn out en masse on Sunday.
On Thursday, some protesters attacked an Ebola response centre and sent 21 patients fleeing. While the health ministry said most had tested negative for the virus and 11 people had already returned, the vandalism was the latest setback in efforts to contain the second deadliest Ebola outbreak in history. Nearly 600 cases have been reported, with more than 350 confirmed deaths.