Protesters stormed an Ebola triage center in the volatile eastern region of Congo on Thursday and set fire to parts of it in a new wave of violent political unrest, aggravated by delays in a long-anticipated election.
The violence erupted a day after the electoral commission excluded Beni and another eastern city, Butembo, from the elections set for this Sunday. Both cities are hot spots in the region’s Ebola crisis and the commission blamed the outbreak in announcing the exclusion. The town of Yumbi was also excluded, but ostensibly because of violence, not Ebola.
All three areas are opposition strongholds, raising questions about whether the exclusions are politically motivated.
Twenty one people were missing from the transit center in the city of Beni after the attack, a Ministry of Health spokesman said. The center houses patients whose Ebola cases are not yet confirmed before they are sent to a different location to be treated. Four of the missing were still awaiting test results, while the other 17 had tested negative.
The election delays have only added to the turmoil in a region already suffering from an Ebola outbreak and chronic insecurity involving no fewer than a hundred armed groups. The landmark vote has already been delayed by two years and was supposed to have been held last Sunday. But it was pushed back again by one week.
The election would, at least on paper, see the end of President Joseph Kabila’s 17-year rule. Earlier this month, Mr. Kabila left open the possibility of returning to the presidency down the road.
Most Congolese are impatient for a change in leadership. Mr. Kabila had a promising start after succeeding his father, who was assassinated in 2001, inviting foreign companies to invest in minerals like copper and cobalt and helping the economy grow during his tenure. Still, for a country with a wealth of natural resources, little of the profits filtered down to ordinary people.
The election delays have triggered violent protests over the past week and security forces have responded by firing tear gas and live ammunition into crowds. Protesters burned parts of the Ebola triage center in Beni and looted it, walking off with chairs and tables, according to the Ministry of Health.
Photos taken by Sami Kavota, a candidate in local elections, showed tarpaulin burned and ripped off metal structures at the center. Plastic gloves were scattered on the ground.
Aruna Abedi, the deputy director of the government’s Ebola response, said that protesters had also attacked its offices in Beni before United Nations peacekeepers pushed them back. Demonstrators were “chanting songs hostile to the government and demanding elections,” she told Reuters. “They threw projectiles.”
Local politicians have denounced the election delays as an attempt to disenfranchise a swath of a population that would back the regime’s two main opponents, Felix Tshisekedi, the son of a charismatic opposition leader, and Martin Fayulu, a former Exxon manager.
President Kabila earlier this year surprised many by announcing as his successor a former interior minister, Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary. His name is not widely known across the country, which is two-thirds the size of western Europe.
Mr. Shadary is on a list of those sanctioned by the European Union over the brutal crackdown on anti-government protesters last year.
On Thursday, the government said it was ousting the European Union’s envoy to the country in retaliation for the sanctions.
Just a few weeks ago, the president of the electoral commission, Corneille Nangaa, promised that the elections would go ahead despite the Ebola outbreak. Then, a mysterious arson at an election center in Kinshasa, the capital, burned some 8,000 of the 10,000 voting machines.
Mr. Nangaa said the election could not be held on time because the commission needed to replace the machines.
Then the election commission said that Beni, Butembo and Yumbi wouldn’t be allowed to participate in the elections for president, parliament and provincial governors.
“We’re seeing the consequences of these people who make decisions without basis,” said Mr. Kavota, a candidate in the provincial elections. “Even the Ministry of Health confirmed today that the delay was unnecessary because all precautionary measures have been taken.”
Since Ebola broke out in eastern Congo in August, authorities have recorded 583 confirmed or probable cases, 354 of them fatal so far.
Lamuka, the main opposition coalition, called for a nationwide strike on Friday to protest the exclusion of Beni, Butembo and Yumbi, which account for about 1.2 million of the 40 million voters across Congo.
About a hundred members of LUCHA, a prominent youth organization, demonstrated peacefully in Beni on Thursday and showed photos of barricades being set up around the city, where local civilians are often attacked with no apparent reason by a notoriously violent rebel group operating on the city’s outskirts.
The Union for Democracy and Social Progress, an opposition party, called for peaceful protests if elections don’t take place this Sunday and urged ongoing action “until the departure of Mr. Kabila and his system.”
Alain Daniel Shekomba, a presidential candidate, accused the electoral commission of running a “suicide operation to blow up Congo” and announced his intention to withdraw his candidacy out of frustration.
“The dangerous experimentations and the sleights of hand” conducted by the electoral commission, as well as the “military maneuvers ordered by the government have put in place a parody of a plebiscite that I cannot support as a candidate, voter, and citizen of Congo,” Mr. Shekomba said.