Kinshasa, Congo - Congo's leader says "there is no further reason" to prevent Sunday's presidential election after two years of delays, but he blames a deadly Ebola outbreak for the last-minute decision to keep an estimated 1 million voters from the polls.
In an interview with The Associated Press, President Joseph Kabila says it would be a "disaster" if people vote Sunday in two large communities in the Ebola outbreak zone, asserting that "a single person" could infect scores or hundreds of others.
His comments Thursday evening contradict those of his own health officials.
Kabila, however, claimed that people could be infected as they use Congo's 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 will disinfect their hands before and after using the machines. Ebola, a hemorrhagic fever, is spread via infected bodily fluids.
The voting is delayed in 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 voted for Kabila in past elections but sentiment has turned in recent years amid persistent insecurity.
The delay has angered 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.
Protesters pointed out that life has continued in the outbreak zone, with schools open, people going to church and candidates holding campaign rallies. Kabila responded by saying such activities don't involve voting machines.
Sunday's election will have no trouble, Kabila added: "Rest assured, there will be peace." Police will be prepared to secure the population, he said. He dismissed opposition allegations that their campaigns had faced restrictions in recent weeks.
In a separate AP interview on Thursday, opposition candidate Martin Fayulu alleged that up to 5 million of Congo's 40 million voters won't be able to cast ballots on Sunday, claiming that voting machines had yet to be delivered to some areas. One election official has said machines have to be carried on the heads of porters through almost impenetrable bush to some polling stations.
The opposition coalition called for a nationwide "ghost town" strike on Friday but urged supporters to remain calm.
In the AP interview, Congo's president also sounded defiant in the face of international pressure over the election, delayed since late 2016. Kabila's foreign minister on Thursday ordered the European Union ambassador to leave the country within 48 hours, citing EU sanctions on Kabila's
Shadary, a former interior minister, is under an EU asset freeze and travel ban for obstructing Congo's electoral process and for a crackdown against protesters angry over the long-delayed vote. The EU prolonged the sanctions this month after Congo's foreign minister pleaded with EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini to lift them, even for a "probationary period."
An EU spokesperson on Friday called Congo's order "completely unjustified" and counterproductive "on the eve of very challenging elections." The statement noted that Congo's neighbours in an urgent meeting this week had condemned violence and called for an orderly vote.
Kabila, when asked what advice he had for his successor, replied: "The biggest recommendation is that he listen to the voice of the Congolese and not follow that of the United States, Europe or elsewhere."
Congo has resisted what it considers international meddling in the election, vowing to fund the vote itself. Western observer groups are notably absent.
"I have already said that Congo is not a beggar country," Kabila said.