Lengthy voting delays and four deaths were reported across Congo on Sunday, marring the presidential election the country hoped would be its first peaceful, democratic transfer of power since independence in 1960.
Election observers reported multiple problems around the vast Central African nation, which is choosing a successor to President Joseph Kabila after his 17 years in power. The election had been delayed since late 2016, prompting the opposition to charge that Mr Kabila was trying to stay on past his mandate.
Among some 21 candidates, top opposition leaders Martin Fayulu and Felix Tshisekedi are challenging Mr Kabila’s preferred successor, former interior minister Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary, who is under European Union sanctions for a crackdown on people protesting delays to the election.
Mr Tshisekedi’s campaign said that four people including a police officer and an electoral official had been killed in the eastern province of South-Kivu. The reports could not be independently confirmed.
Mr Tshisekedi, after casting his ballot, said some polling stations in Kinshasa, the capital, had not even opened six hours after voting began. He accused Congo’s government of deliberately creating election day chaos to spark a court challenge that could allow Mr Kabila to extend his time in power.
"I deplore all the disorder," Mr Tshisekedi said, saying Mr Kabila’s government was "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.
The Catholic church’s election observer mission 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, as well as 44 cases of vote-buying or corruption.
Nearly 50 polling stations in Kinshasa were idle for hours because lists of registered voters had not been delivered, electoral commission chief Corneille Nangaa said. The sprawling city is an opposition stronghold.
Another observer group, Symotel, reported a multitude of problems including the movement of polling stations to new locations at the last minute. Confused voters didn’t know where to go.
"We knew there would be issues, but this is way beyond what we expected," spokesman Luc Lutala said.
At stake is control of 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 1 million people from voting because of a deadly Ebola virus outbreak in the east.
The decision was widely criticised 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 sang in Swahili, "Voting is our right and nobody can stop us."