KINSHASA (Reuters) - Africa’s top diplomat, on a visit to Congo, urged presidential candidates to abide by the outcome of an election this month, after one of the leading challengers to President Joseph Kabila declared himself already head of state.
The presence of Jean Ping, chairman of the African Union’s Commission, underscores fears over Congo’s second post-war election, which some say will have to be delayed due to logistical problems.
“There will necessarily be only one winner (of the presidential elections)... The rules of the game must apply. Whoever can’t become president this time must accept the results,” Ping said after his arrival, according to the U.N. backed radio station, Radio Okapi.
Ping is due to meet Kabila, who polls show is headed for likely re-election, as well as veteran opposition leader Etienne Tshisekedi, who is in South Africa but scheduled to return to the country soon.
In an interview late on Sunday, Tshisekedi said Kabila had lost his legitimacy, and called on his supporters to attack prisons where UDPS supporters are being held if the authorities do not release them.
“Kabila is supported by no one but his own family. The people have put their faith in me, henceforth I am the head of state,” he told Congo’s RLTV station, from South Africa, where a spokesman said he is drumming up support.
“I am launching a 48 hour ultimatum to release all our political prisoners,” he added.
Congo’s information minister accused Tshisekedi of “treason” and said the comments were threatening the polls. The TV station was shut down by the authorities shortly after.
The November 28 poll is largely being organised by Congolese authorities after an internationally-run vote in 2006. A trouble-free process will boost confidence in the minerals-rich nation but many fear a botched election could spark violence.
Ping’s arrival coincided with a weekend of trouble between government and opposition supporters in the political heartlands of both Kabila and Tshisekedi.
In Lubumbashi, Congo’s copper mining capital, members of Tshisekedi’s UDPS party clashed on Saturday with those of the pro-Kabila UNAFEC party. Both sides said the other was responsible and there were further clashes on Monday.
Local authorities in the opposition stronghold of Mbuji-Mayi said a supporter of the ruling PPRD party was beaten up by Tshisekedi supporters on Friday. A week earlier, a girl was shot dead as police broke up an opposition march.
Congo’s last poll in 2006 capped a difficult peace process after two wars. While large-scale fighting has mostly ended, there are pockets of clashes across much of the east while frustrations at the lack of development are universal.
Tshisekedi boycotted the last polls and has spent several years abroad since then, but analysts say he still has the ability to draw large crowds onto the streets.
In a conference call with journalists late last week, Congolese rights groups described increased violence and intimidation, especially by pro-Kabila security forces.
“The most worrying thing about this is that it is happening in the current climate and it could get worse,” Jean Keba, of the African Association for Human Rights, ASADHO.
In 2006 donors and the U.N. peacekeeping mission played a central role in the election process, but this time around most of the financing is Congolese and the United Nations is mostly helping with logistics and not oversight.
But there are mounting calls for outsiders to play a greater role in easing tensions.
“There is every day an increasing risk that the elections will be challenged. The management of the election by the election commission has been amateur,” said Pascal Kambale, head of the Open Society Initiative for South Africa’s Congo office.
“It is time for (the U.N.) and the international community to put real pressure (on the authorities),” he added.