As polls were slated to officially close in Congo's election Sunday, lengthy voting delays were reported across the country, along with at least two deaths, marring a presidential vote the country hoped would be its first peaceful, democratic transfer of power since 1960.
Observers reported multiple issues with the election, which will decide the successor to President Joseph Kabila, who has led the Central African country for the last 17 years. The election had been delayed since late 2016, prompting the opposition to accuse Kabila of trying to stay on past his mandate.
A police officer and civilian were killed in eastern Congo on Sunday in a dispute over alleged voting fraud, police said.
Vital Kamerhe, a politician from South Kivu province, and a witness, who wished to remain anonymous, said an altercation broke out at a polling place in the town of Walungu. A police officer shot and killed a young man involved in the melee and the crowd then beat the officer to death, they said.
Many polls closed in the evening, but others stayed open to allow those waiting in line to cast their ballots, and at least one polling station was just preparing to open due to issues related to electronic voting machines. Other polling stations had closed and ballot counting had begun.
Among some 21 candidates, top opposition leaders Martin Fayulu and Felix Tshisekedi are challenging Kabila's preferred successor, former interior minister Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary, who is under European Union sanctions for overseeing a crackdown on people protesting delays to the election.
After casting his ballot, Tshisekedi said some polling stations in the capital, Kinshasa, had not even opened six hours after voting began. He accused Congo's government of deliberately creating an election day mess to spark a court challenge that could allow Kabila to extend his time in power.
Voters look for their names outside a polling station in Kinshasa. (Olivia Acland/Reuters)
"I deplore all the disorder that we hear about," said Tshisikedi, who said Kabila's government is "responsible for this mess."
The voting machines that Congo was using for the first time posed a special problem. The opposition has warned that the machines could be used to manipulate the vote. Many of the country's 40 million voters have never used a computer, and electricity is limited.
Earlier this month, thousands of the machines were also torched in a warehouse fire in Kinshasa, with both the ruling coalition and opposition candidates trading blame in the destruction's immediate aftermath.
The Catholic Church's election observer mission in Congo said it had received 544 reports of malfunctioning voting machines. It also reported 115 cases of election observers being kicked out of polling centres or not being allowed access, and 44 cases of vote-buying or corruption.
'We wanted to vote!'
Nearly 50 polling stations in the capital of Kinshasa were idle for hours because lists of registered voters had not been delivered, said electoral commission chief Corneille Nangaa. The sprawling city is an opposition stronghold.
Nangaa brought some of the lists to polling stations himself, amid angry shouts of "We wanted to vote!" from people waiting in long lines.
Voters waiting for hours outside the St. Raphael school in the Limete district of Kinshasa finally stormed the polling station inside. (Jerome Delay/Associated Press)
Another observer group reported a multitude of problems, including the movement of polling stations to new locations at the last minute, said Luc Lutala, a spokesperson for the Symotel civic group, which deployed 19,000 observers.
"We knew there would be issues, but this is way beyond what we expected," Lutala said.
At stake is a country rich in minerals, including those crucial to the world's smartphones and electric cars, and yet Congo remains desperately underdeveloped with widespread corruption and insecurity.
Election unrest had been feared after a last-minute decision to bar an estimated one million people from voting because of a deadly Ebola virus outbreak in the country's east. The decision has been widely criticized as threatening the credibility of the election and putting health workers in danger as people protest.
Voting in the Ebola-affected cities of Beni and Butembo was delayed until March, long after Congo's new leader will be inaugurated in January.
On Sunday, well over 10,000 people lined up in Beni to stage their own election, vowing to deliver the results to the electoral commission. People cast paper ballots and many sang in Swahili: "Voting is our right and nobody can stop us."
They washed their hands before voting as a protection against Ebola, which is spread via infected bodily fluids. "We do not have Ebola. Kabila is worse than Ebola," said Jacob Salamu, 24, who said he was voting for the first time.
Election day in the capital began with a heavy rainstorm that flooded some streets. Kabila and Shadary voted together.
Protesters waiting to cast their ballot demonstrate outside a polling station in Kinshasa, Congo on Sunday. (Luis Tato/AFP/Getty Images)
"My message today to my compatriots is to come and vote for their candidates and brave the rain," Kabila said. Shadary called for "peace and calm," adding that "I am very confident in victory."
Fayulu, considered the leading candidate, later voted at the same polling station.
"Today we are writing the end of Kabila, the end of misery for Congolese people," he said. "Congo will stop being the laughing stock of the world."
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