Congo Court Poised to Rule on Presidential Vote Challenge

By SALEH MWANAMILONGO and CARLEY PETESCH, Associated Press

Congo opposition candidate Martin Fayulu, center, leaves the Philadelphie Missionary Center after attending Sunday Mass in Kinshasa, Congo, on Jan. 13, 2019. President elect Felix Tshisekedi was also scheduled to attend the service, but canceled. (AP Photo/Jerome Delay)

KINSHASA, Congo (AP) — Congo’s constitutional court is poised to rule as early as Friday on a challenge to the presidential election results. But the African Union continental body has issued a surprise last-minute request for Congo’s government to delay releasing final results, citing “serious doubts” about the vote.

Declared runner-up Martin Fayulu has requested a recount, alleging fraud.

Upholding the official election results could spark new violence in a country hoping for its first peaceful, democratic transfer of power since independence in 1960. At least 34 people have been killed since provisional results were released on Jan. 10, the United Nations said.

The AU statement late Thursday said heads of state and government agreed to “urgently dispatch” a high-level delegation to Congo for “a way out of the post-electoral crisis” in the vast Central African nation rich in the minerals key to smartphones and electric cars around the world.

Congo’s many neighbors are concerned that unrest could spill across borders. The delegation will leave for Congo on Monday, an AU spokeswoman said. Congo’s inauguration is set for Tuesday.

Congo’s government dismissed the AU request, with spokesman Lambert Mende calling it a matter for judicial bodies, and “the independence of our judiciary is no problem.” He added: “We will not refuse contacts with other members of the African Union.”

Fayulu has asked the court for a recount of the Dec. 30 election, asserting that Congo’s electoral commission published provisional results wildly different from those obtained at polling stations.

Congo faces the extraordinary accusation of an election allegedly rigged in favor of the opposition. Outside court, Fayulu has asserted that outgoing President Joseph Kabila made a backroom deal with the declared winner, Felix Tshisekedi, when the ruling party’s candidate did poorly.

The electoral commission has said Tshisekedi won 38 percent of the vote and Fayulu 34 percent. However, results compiled by the influential Catholic Church’s 40,000 election observers show Fayulu won 61 percent.

In leaked data published this week by some media outlets, attributed to the electoral commission and representing 86 percent of the votes, Fayulu won 59.4 percent while Tshisekedi received 19 percent.

The uncertainty has led to some protests. The U.N. rights office in Congo has documented 59 people wounded since provisional results were announced on Jan. 10, along with 241 “arbitrary arrests.” Spokeswoman Ravina Shamdasani told reporters in Geneva: “We are very concerned about this.”

The court could uphold the election results, order a recount or order a new election.

It is likely that the court, full of Kabila appointees, will confirm Tshisekedi’s victory, said Adeline Van Houtte, an analyst at the Economist Intelligence Unit.

“It will come with the risk of increased instability, which could put a halt on the electoral transition,” Van Houtte said in a statement. “However, it would also mean that Kabila will have avoided the worst-case scenario for him,” a Fayulu presidency.

Fayulu, a lawmaker and businessman who is outspoken about cleaning up Congo’s sprawling corruption, is seen as more of a threat to Kabila, his allies and their vast wealth. Tshisekedi, the son of charismatic opposition leader Etienne who died in 2017, is relatively untested and has said little since the election.

The election came after more than two turbulent years of delays as many Congolese worried that Kabila, in power since 2001, was seeking a way to stay in office. Barred from serving three consecutive terms, Kabila already has hinted he might run again in 2023.

All of the election results, not just in the presidential race, have been questioned after Kabila’s ruling coalition won a majority in legislative and provincial votes while its presidential candidate finished a distant third.

Internet service, cut off in Congo the day after the vote to dampen speculation on the results, still has not returned.

Election observers reported multiple problems, including the last-minute barring of some 1 million voters in the east, with the electoral commission blaming a deadly Ebola outbreak. Fayulu asked the court to declare that the commission violated the constitution by not organizing elections in certain constituencies.

But for some Congolese who campaigned hard for Kabila to step aside, having an opposition figure take power is enough, despite questions about the vote.

Reflecting the yearning for stability, 33 Congolese non-governmental groups and civil society movements on Thursday called on people to comply with whatever the court rules to “preserve the peace” in the interest of “national unity.”

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Petesch reported from Dakar, Senegal. Associated Press writers Elias Meseret in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia and Jamey Keaten in Geneva contributed.

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