One of the world’s powder-keg countries faces a crunch test on Sunday when Democratic Republic of Congo heads into elections marred by delays, clashes and fears of polling-day chaos.
The vote crowns two years of turmoil, sharpening worries that the fragilegiant of central Africa may once more spiral into violence.
Twenty-one candidates are vying to succeed Joseph Kabila, who aged just 47has been at the helm for nearly 18 years.
If all goes well, one will be sworn in on January 18 — the very first timethat the DRC will have achieved a peaceful transition of power since gainingindependence in 1960.
But the prospects of achieving this have dimmed as concern over the poll’scredibility has risen, along with a diplomatic storm with Europe.
Sunday’s election will be the DRC’s first presidential ballot in sevenyears.
It should have been held in 2016 when Joseph Kabila, in power since 2001,reached a two-term limit.
But he remained in office, invoking a caretaker clause under theconstitution.
It came at the cost of protests that were bloodily crushed, leaving scoresof dead.
Then came a string of three election postponements — followed on Wednesday by a fourth delay in two regions hit by violence — and a storm over the introduction of electronic voting machines.
The turbulence has revived traumatic memories of the DRC’s bloodied past.
On Wednesday, the presidents of Angola, Botswana, Namibia, Zambia and the neighbouring Republic of Congo called for “peaceful, free, democratic and transparent” elections and expressed deep concern at the violence.
In 1996-1997 and 1998-2003, the DRC was the theatre of two terribleconflicts — the second of which was called “the Great War of Africa” for themillions of dead and homeless that it left.
The conflict drew in countries from around central and southern Africa andits legacy lies heavily today on the east of the country, where militiasfight over resources.