The loser in Congo’s landmark presidential elections rejected the results Thursday, saying he would use all legal means to challenge the outcome from the war-battered Central African nation’s first multiparty vote in decades.
Electoral officials announced Wednesday that President Joseph Kabila prevailed in a runoff against Jean-Pierre Bemba, a former rebel leader who became a vice president in the postwar, national-unity government that arranged the ballot meant to end decades of strife and corrupt rule.
Bemba, in his first comments since Kabila was announced the winner, said he wouldn’t accept the results. He earlier had alleged massive voting fraud and his supporters say he won.
Promises to challenge via legal avenues
“I regret to inform our people and the international community that I cannot accept these results, which are far from respecting the truth of the ballot boxes,” Bemba said.
Bemba, who led a rebel faction in years of back-to-back wars that ended in 2002, didn’t say he would take up arms again, saying he would pursue legal channels to challenge the results showing Kabila with 58 percent of the votes to Bemba’s 42 percent.
“I make the commitment to use all legal avenues to ensure the will of the people is respected,” he said. He didn’t elaborate. A legal challenge could be taken as high as the Supreme Court.
Amid fears of renewed gunbattles between supporters of the two candidates, U.N peacekeepers patrolled the streets of the Congolese capital and riot police arrested a handful of stone-throwing protesters Thursday.
Appeal for calm
Businessmen, fearing violence, kept their shops shuttered. Few vendors were on the streets, many workers stayed home, and most schools were closed until Monday. There were no traffic jams in the usually bustling capital.
In a televised address after being declared the winner, Kabila called for calm and said police and army troops were working to ensure security. Fighting between his troops and forces loyal to Bemba killed three civilians and a soldier Saturday.
“Peace must reign in every corner of the country. Long live democracy. Long live the new Democratic Republic of Congo,” said Kabila, 35, who had inherited power in 2001 when his rebel leader father, Laurent Kabila, was assassinated by a bodyguard. “I ask you tonight to remain united and to live in fraternity and tolerance.”
About a hundred U.N. troops in armored cars surrounded the residence of Bemba, who lives with hundreds of militiamen despite an agreement that all former rebels should be in barracks until they are integrated into the national army.
Bemba supporters protest
William Lacy Swing, the U.N. special representative in Congo, said he deployed the U.N. troops to protect Bemba. But their presence also proved a deterrent in what has been a hotspot.
Fighting erupted outside Bemba’s compound in August after he came in second in the first round. Fighters for the two men battled on the street of Kinshasa for three days before the U.N. managed to restore order.
Then, as now, Bemba’s supporters alleged cheating in the vote count.
On Thursday, dozens of protesters burned tires in front of Bemba’s house on the main June 30 Boulevard.
When they started stoning passing vehicles, police in riot gear ordered them to stop and most protesters dispersed. Police rounded up a few protesters.
Another group of about 20 pro-Bemba protesters gathered and burned a tire. Bemba’s fighters told them to protest somewhere else. Some lobbed stones, breaking the side window of a police van and smashing the windshields of two passing U.N. vehicles and a couple of private cars.
Each time police approached, the protesters ran away.
International observers deemed fair
Kabila won 58 percent of votes to Bemba’s 42 percent, the electoral commission chairman, Abbe Apollinaire Malu Malu, announced on television late Wednesday.
A coalition of about 50 parties supporting Bemba said their count gave Bemba 52 percent, which would make him the winner. It accused Malu Malu of fixing the figures, saying those counted at balloting stations did not conform with those published by the commission.
International observers monitoring the count said it was nearly impossible for the commission to change the vote count, and that candidates’ witnesses at voting stations were given copies of the ballots counted on the day of the runoff election, Oct. 29.
Kabila spent most of his youth in Tanzania, returning to fight in his father’s rebel army in 1997. The elder Kabila was propelled to power by the Rwandan-backed rebellion that ousted late dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, who had ruled for 32 years. Congo’s last multiparty election was held in 1961.
The country suffered through a second war from 1998 to 2002 that attracted the armies of a half-dozen African nations.
Several of the foreign armies, especially troops from Rwanda and Zimbabwe, exploited Congo’s rich mineral resources, shipping them out of the country by road and air. The country’s massive supplies of copper, cobalt, coltan, gold and diamonds have bred systemic corruption and looting.
A soldier by training, Congo’s leader now has the massive challenges of uniting a nation of 50 million people from 200 tribes that never has known democracy. Congo has known only brutal colonial rule under Belgium, decades of rapacious dictatorship and wars that killed up to 4 million people, mostly through strife-related hunger and disease, the highest toll since World War II.