Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) President Joseph Kabila will not stand for re-election in December, a government spokesman has announced.
Kabila’s ruling coalition nominated former interior minister Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary as its presidential candidate, Lambert Mende, the government spokesman, said on Wednesday.
The move put an end to years of speculation on whether Kabila would defy terms limits.
Al Jazeera’s Catherine Soi, reporting from the capital Kinshasa, said Ramazani’s nomination came as a surprise.
“Over the days, several names [of Kabila’s replacements] have been floating around, but his name never really featured,” she said.
“The nomination came after a long consultation between the president and his coalition.”
The uncertainty about Kabila’s intentions raised concern over the past few days, she said.
“But now that has been cleared and analysts are telling us that these tensions that have been in the country could de-escalate,” she said.
The Catholic Church immediately called the decision by Kabila “a big step,” while the US ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, welcomed the news but said Congo’s electoral commission must “take all steps necessary” to guarantee a free and fair vote.
“Congo’s regional and international partners must continue to exert strong pressure for the country to have a truly democratic transition and to prevent further repression,” said Ida Sawyer, deputy Africa director at Human Rights Watch.
“We are still very far from a credible electoral process, and many things can happen by December, including additional delays.”
Kabila, whose second term officially ended in 2016, is constitutionally ineligible to run in December’s poll, although his rivals accused him of wanting to stay in power.
Shadary, a close ally of Kabila, used to serve as deputy prime minister. He was sanctioned by the European Union for alleged human rights violations in 2017.
Shadary counts as one of Kabila’s most loyal followers but, as a politician, is not very popular among DR Congo’s roughly 80 million people.
“It’s a rare bird,” said Mende after the announcement, refusing to answer journalists’ questions about the candidacy.
Several opposition candidates have registered for the poll, including former Vice President Jean-Pierre Bemba, who had convictions for war crimes and crimes against humanity overturned in June.
Another candidate is Vital Kamerhe, leader of opposition party Union for the Congolese Nation and former national assembly president, who came third in the 2011 election.
Felix Tshisekedi, leader of the largest opposition party Union for Democracy and Social Progress, who is the son of late opposition activist Etienne Tshisekedi, also filed his candidacy.
Opposition candidate Moise Katumbi was, however, refused entry to the country last week, after spending two years in exile in Belgium.
The former governor of the wealthy Katanga province and former Kabila ally was convicted in absentia for real-estate fraud in 2016. He has denied the charges, saying they were used to obstruct his political career.
A surprise for many Congolese was the decision by Tryphon Kin-Kiey Mulumba, who had supported the idea of a third term for Kabila, to submit his candidacy.
DR Congo’s constitutional court still has to rule on potential candidates’ eligibility.
Whoever wins the December 23 vote takes over a vast country with trillions of dollars’ worth of mineral wealth, but with dozens of armed groups battling for a part of it. Millions of Congolese have been displaced by various internal conflicts.
The country has seen violence and widespread anger over what some see as Kabila’s refusal to relinquish power after the end of his second full term in December 2016.
Kabila came to power in 2001 after the assassination of his father, Laurent-Desire Kabila, the country’s third president.
He was elected in 2006 in the DRC’s first democratic election since it gained independence from Belgium in 1960.
Kabila secured a second term in 2011, though that election was plagued by allegations of widespread voter fraud.