KINSHASA, CONGO - The crowd roared as the wife of Congo’s departing president pressed her palm to the forehead of the anointed successor and appeared to pray.
A benediction for the man whom President Joseph Kabila has positioned to take over is likely not needed. As this huge Central African nation swings toward a Dec. 30 election that could be its first peaceful, democratic transfer of power, a vocal opposition fears that the long-delayed vote will be rigged in favor of Kabila’s ruling party.
Kabila’s chosen candidate, Emanuel Ramazani Shadary, has not made waves in Congolese politics. That’s the point, critics say. They believe Shadary will just keep the presidential seat warm until 2023, when Kabila can return to office.
Kabila supported those suspicions this month when his camp summoned foreign correspondents to the capital, Kinshasa, for rare interviews in which he cheerfully hinted he would be back in five years’ time. The constitution merely blocks three consecutive mandates, he said. “You should never rule out anything.”
And with that, critics warn that Shadary will play Medvedev to Kabila’s Putin, president in name only while Kabila holds power behind the scenes in a country with mineral resources worth trillions of dollars and yet one of the least developed in the world. Russian President Vladimir Putin avoided term limits in 2008 by putting forward an ally, Dmitry Medvedev, as president until he could return four years later.
Kabila in his interview with The Associated Press only mentioned Shadary if asked about him.
When Kabila announced months ago that he would step aside and named his preferred candidate, Shadary offered thanks to “almighty God for the grace he has shown us.” When Kabila’s wife blessed him in front of a campaign crowd earlier this month, he replied, “Amen.”
The 58-year-old Shadary has been described as a loyalist, not only to Kabila but to his father, former President Laurent Kabila. Shadary on Twitter in recent months has posted as much about Joseph Kabila, “an exceptional man in Africa and around the world,” as about himself.
“More soldier than general,” is how the International Crisis Group has described Shadary, pointing out that he does not have an independent power base.
Months before he was announced in August as Kabila’s chosen successor, Shadary told Radio France International he was not a presidential candidate and in fact was going to run for re-election as a national deputy from Maniema province in the east.
Shadary, the father of eight children and a Catholic, is a native of Kabambare in Maniema. He studied political science and rose through the ranks of Kabila’s People’s Party for Reconstruction and Democracy.
He is a former interior minister, a role in which he directed the government’s response to months of deadly protests across the country over the delayed election, originally due in late 2016. In some of protesters’ most vivid confrontations with security forces, diplomats and others gathered at Kinshasa’s Catholic cathedral were tear-gassed, and altar boys were arrested. Pope Francis appealed for peace.
For his “success in the political crisis,” his ruling party bio says, Shadary was named party secretary-general by Kabila early this year. He also gained the nickname “the man of difficult situations.”
The European Union, however, sanctioned Shadary along with more than a dozen other Congolese officials, accusing him of obstructing Congo’s electoral process and directing the crackdown on protesters.
As the election approached, Congo’s foreign minister this month asked the EU’s foreign policy chief to lift the “illegal” sanctions or at least suspend them for a “probationary period” as a compromise.
But days later, the EU prolonged the sanctions on Shadary and others, saying travel bans and asset freezes would be renewed for a year. Annoyed, Kabila’s special adviser Kikaya Bin Karubi accused the EU of interfering in the election.
Shadary faces the Dec. 30 vote as candidate for the recently formed Common Front for Congo coalition. Kabila is considered its moral authority.
Shadary has two main challengers after opposition parties briefly managed to rally behind a single candidate and then broke apart. Martin Fayulu leads the remainder of that coalition. Felix Tshisekedi, head of Congo’s most prominent opposition party, joined forces with Vital Kamerhe, who finished third in the 2011 election and agreed to throw his party’s support behind him.
Two other opposition candidates with strong followings, Jean-Pierre Bemba and Moise Katumbi, were blocked by Congolese authorities from running.
Whoever receives the most votes wins, even without an absolute majority.
Shadary has vowed to be an effective leader who will act against corruption in a country notorious for it.
But his campaign is not convincing, said Al Kitenge, a Congolese economic analyst. “Shadary’s governance program ... is not very ambitious, nor geared toward addressing the challenges of our country.”