Kinshasa, Dec 29 (AP/UNB) — Congo's leader is blaming a deadly Ebola virus outbreak for the last-minute decision to bar an estimated 1 million voters from Sunday's long-delayed presidential election, claiming it would be a "disaster" if someone infects hundreds of people. Protests exploded again on Friday in response as health workers suspended efforts and warned that new cases could sharply rise.
In an interview with The Associated Press, President Joseph Kabila contradicted his own health officials and experts with the World Health Organization who have said precautions were taken in collaboration with electoral authorities so people could vote. Those include tons of hand sanitizer — Ebola is spread via infected bodily fluids — and the screening of all voters entering polling stations.
Without mentioning the election, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus warned late Friday that "prolonged insecurity" in Congo could erase recent gains made in containing the second-deadliest Ebola outbreak in history. Work has reached a "critical point," he said.
Kabila on Thursday evening claimed that the hemorrhagic fever could spread as people use voting machines, tapping on a touchscreen to select candidates. A polling station could have 500 to 600 voters and "this assumes that a lot of people will be contaminated," he said. Health officials have said people would sanitize their hands before and after voting.
Until this week, the Ebola outbreak declared on Aug. 1 had been a challenge but not a barrier to the election. Voting is now delayed in the cities of Beni and Butembo — but not in other communities with Ebola cases — until March, long after the inauguration of Kabila's successor in January. Residents had largely supported Kabila in past elections but sentiment has turned in recent years amid persistent insecurity.
This latest delay in an election meant to occur in late 2016 has angered both residents and the opposition, which accuses the government of trying to ensure that Kabila's preferred successor wins. Many Congolese believe Kabila will wield power behind the scenes and protect his assets in a country with vast mineral wealth.
Protests broke out in Beni again on Friday, with hundreds of people demanding to vote on Sunday with the rest of the country. Police used live ammunition and tear gas to disperse the marchers who barricaded streets.
Some protesters carried crosses displaying "RIP Kabila" and saying his preferred successor, Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary, "will never be our president." Beni's civil society urged residents to turn out en masse on Sunday. Others protested in Butembo and Goma city.
"We don't fear Ebola," one marcher, Claude Vianney, told the AP. "I know that if you wash your hands, the Ebola virus will be killed." He added: "We are furious, as you can see. Why does Kabila keep mocking us?"
On Thursday, some protesters attacked an Ebola response center and sent 21 patients fleeing. Many later returned, but the vandalism was the latest setback in efforts to contain the outbreak. Nearly 600 cases have been reported, with more than 350 confirmed deaths.
The uproar over the voting delay has "badly disturbed" Ebola response work in Beni and Butembo, Congo's health ministry said. Health teams barely deployed on Thursday and no Ebola vaccinations could be carried out.
The Oxfam aid group said it was forced to suspend Ebola response work. Acting country director Raphael Mbuyi called it "extremely worrying" because previous suspensions have led to a spike in new cases.
"It's not surprising that people who have had their votes taken away at the last minute are frustrated and going to the streets," Mbuyi added. "These people deserve to have their say as well."
Congo's national organization of Episcopal churches called the decision to bar voters "unjust" and urged the election commission to reconsider.
Protesters said life has continued in the outbreak zone, with schools open, people going to church and candidates holding campaign rallies. Congo's president said such activities don't involve voting machines.
There is "no further reason" to prevent Sunday's election for the rest of the country, Kabila told the AP, adding: "Rest assured, there will be peace." Police can secure the population, he said.
He dismissed opposition allegations that campaigns had faced restrictions, including blocked flights and supporters assaulted.
Opposition candidate Martin Fayulu told the AP that up to 5 million of Congo's 40 million voters might not be able to cast ballots on Sunday, claiming that voting machines had yet to be delivered to some areas.
Congo's president also sounded defiant in the face of international pressure. His foreign minister on Thursday ordered the European Union ambassador to leave the country within 48 hours, citing EU sanctions on Kabila's preferred successor , Shadary.
The former interior minister is under an EU asset freeze and travel ban for obstructing Congo's electoral process and for a crackdown against protesters angry over the delayed vote. The EU prolonged the sanctions this month.
An EU spokesperson called Congo's order "completely unjustified" and counterproductive ahead of "very challenging elections."
Kabila, when asked what advice he had for his successor, replied: "The biggest recommendation is that he listen to the voice of the Congolese and not follow that of the United States, Europe or elsewhere."
Congo resists what it considers international meddling, funding this election itself. Western observer groups are notably absent.
"I have already said that Congo is not a beggar country," Kabila said.
Cairo, Dec 29 (AP/UNB) — Thousands demonstrated Friday in nearly two dozen neighborhoods of the Sudanese capital of Khartoum, calling for President Omar Bashir to step down, according to activists, keeping up the pressure on the autocratic general-turned-president who has been in power for nearly 30 years.
The activists said hundreds also took to the streets Friday in the railway city of Atbara north of Khartoum, Obeid in the western North Kordofan province, and Senar and Wad Madani south of the capital. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they feared reprisals.
They said police used tear gas to disperse protesters in the Khartoum suburb of Omdurman, a traditional hotbed of dissent. There were no reports of casualties.
Friday's protests were the latest in a wave of demonstrations that began across much of Sudan on Dec. 19, first against price rises and shortages but which later turned against Bashir, in power since a 1989 military coup he led. They coincide with worsening economic woes that saw a currency devaluation spiking prices, fuel shortages and a steep rise in the price of bread, a main fare for most Sudanese.
The government says elections are the only legitimate means for "regime change" and insists that "subversive elements" have infiltrated the ranks of peaceful protesters. Lawmakers loyal to Bashir are rallying support in the legislature for constitutional amendments to allow Bashir, who is in his mid-70s, to run for election in 2020.
London-based rights group Amnesty International says it has "reliable reports" to show that 37 people were killed in the first five days of unrest. The United States, Britain, Canada and Norway have expressed concern about the use of lethal force by security forces against protesters and are demanding an investigation.
On Thursday, the government gave its first casualty figures from the unrest. It said 19 people were killed in the protests and more than 200 protesters were wounded. Nearly 190 members of the security forces were wounded, it added.
As in previous protests, participants numbered in the hundreds or very low thousands, but the continuing defiance of the government in the face of security forces accused of using lethal force indicate a high level of popular discontent.
But it's too soon to speculate on whether these relatively modest numbers could force Bashir to step down. They may embolden top army commanders to counsel the president to quit in the nation's interest, although another general at the helm is unlikely to placate the Sudanese. A protracted uprising would likely paralyze the country and turn into the kind of chaos seen in Libya, whose 2011 revolt turned into a civil war that has left the country divided to this day.
Sudan's military has dominated the country since independence in 1956 and the ongoing protests bear some resemblance to popular revolts in 1964 and 1985 that toppled military regimes and ushered in democratically elected governments, later overthrown by military coups in 1969 and 1989 respectively.
The protesters in Atbara chanted "the people want to bring down the regime," the main slogan of the Arab Spring revolts of 2010 and 2011. In Omdurman, they chanted "freedom, peace and justice."
A video clip provided to The Associated Press by the activists and posted online purported to show the scene at a Khartoum mosque where Bashir, an Islamist, performed his Friday prayers. A lone male voice could be heard shouting "Bashir, leave!" The authenticity of the video could not be independently verified.
Friday's protests also coincided with an indefinite strike by doctors and a three-day strike by journalists that began on Thursday.
Also Friday, the activists reported another wave of arrests of opposition leaders, including some of the organizers of an attempted march on Bashir's presidential palace on Tuesday. The call for the march attracted thousands of participants who clashed with police who used tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse them. Scores were wounded, some seriously.
Among those arrested is the chairman of the liberal Sudan Conference Party and a senior leader of the Communist Party, the latter a key player in past popular uprisings.
Cairo, Dec 29 (AP/UNB) — A roadside bomb hit a tourist bus on Friday near the Giza Pyramids, killing three Vietnamese and their Egyptian guide, officials said.
The bus was traveling in the Marioutiyah area near the pyramids when the crude roadside bomb, concealed by a wall, went off, Egypt's chief prosecutor Nabil Sadeq said in a statement. The blast wounded 11 other Vietnamese tourists as well as the Egyptian driver.
The bus was carrying a total of 15 Vietnamese tourists, according to Vietnam's Ministry of Foreign Affairs. It said that 10 were seriously injured.
Vietnamese Ambassador to Egypt Tran Thanh Cong visited the scene of the attack and Al Haram Hospital, where the victims were being treated, the ministry said.
Egypt has battled Islamic militants for years in the Sinai Peninsula in an insurgency that has occasionally spilled over to the mainland, hitting minority Christians or tourists. However, this is the first attack to target foreign tourists in almost two years.
The attack takes place as Egypt's vital tourism industry is showing signs of recovery after years in the doldrums because of the political turmoil and violence that followed a 2011 uprising that toppled former leader Hosni Mubarak.
It will likely prompt authorities to further tighten security around churches and associated facilities ahead of the New year's Eve celebrations and next month's Christmas celebrations of the Coptic Orthodox Church, the dominant denomination among Egypt's estimated 10 million Christians.
Over the past two years, militant attacks against Christians in Egypt — usually targeting churches or buses carrying pilgrims to remote desert monasteries — have killed over a hundred people.
Kinshasa, Dec 27 (AP/UNB) — He wants to run Africa's second-largest country, one of vast mineral wealth, sprawling poverty and vicious fighting that has cost millions of lives. Noel Tshiani Muadiamvita's chances are slim to none but he's convinced he's perfect for the job.
Among 21 candidates vying to succeed President Joseph Kabila in Sunday's election, Tshiani promotes himself as someone Congo has never had: a truly qualified head of state. Former colonizer Belgium departed without training Congolese to rule. Mobutu Sese Seko, who led for more than three decades, had been an army sergeant major. Laurent Kabila was plucked from exile to unseat him. Joseph Kabila, after his father was assassinated, took power at age 29.
Tshiani, wielding a resume featuring Harvard and the World Bank, speaks in terms of glory.
"Muadiamvita means 'invincible warrior,' which means that when you go into a presidential election, my competition is well advised to stay aside," he said. "At the end of the day, no matter what they do, I will win."
The odds say otherwise, but big talk is a staple of Congo's boisterous run-up to the vote.
Kabila is stepping aside after ruling since 2001, and the election has been delayed since late 2016. Now tensions are rising again. The electoral commission on Wednesday delayed the vote in two key areas until months after the new president is inaugurated, meaning more than 1 million votes effectively don't count.
Amid the noise, the 61-year-old Tshiani remains an unknown for many.
"I know his name, because he wants to become president. But I don't know him," said Olivier Bonte as he waited in Kinshasa to catch a bus. Others didn't even recognize the name.
Tshiani describes himself as a technocrat, and pointedly not a politician. After completing his doctorate in economics in Paris, he went to Harvard for a postdoctoral degree in leadership and management. He worked for a number of commercial banks in New York and spent 28 years at the World Bank.
Now he wants to bring that experience home, and has published a book outlining his economic vision for Congo, "The Force of Change."
"We must be ashamed of ourselves, and the politicians should be ashamed of themselves, because this is the result of the management style of the country," Tshiani said, pointing to Congo's widespread lack of basic services and infrastructure despite staggering mineral wealth. "I believe there is a case to be made for somebody who is not a politician, who is not part of the problem ... for somebody like me to become president of Congo."
He said he is financing his campaign with his savings. Leading up to the election, he travelled around Kinshasa accompanied by dark-suited bodyguards and an armed police escort, looking the part of a big-time candidate.
But observers said they doubt his chances in a country where connections are everything.
"I know professor Noel Tshiani," said A.L. Kitenge Lubanda, a political and economic analyst. "He is a brilliant person but he has no (political) machine. His political party is very weak and I don't think he has any chance to win."
Rarely smiling in public, Tshiani often seems taken aback by Congo's vibrant political scene. He addresses a crowd like a professor intent on schooling the people on economic reforms.
He worked a crowd of about 300 people earlier this month, shaking hands as they danced and cheered him on: "Viva Tshiani, Viva!"
After they settled, Tshiani held up his book and explained his vision.
Congo has never had a peaceful, democratic transfer of power since independence from Belgium in 1960. This election could be the first.
The opposition fears that the vote will be rigged in favor of the ruling party, and that Kabila's preferred successor, Emanuel Ramazani Shadary, has the state machinery behind him. Kabila, meanwhile, has hinted he might run again in five years' time.
Tshiani said no, it is time for a change.
"He has spent 17 years in power. He has amassed a lot of wealth. I think it is time for him to just retire and leave Congo in the hands of another leadership, so that we can use the natural resources — not to enrich ourselves, but to develop the country and create good conditions for the people of Congo."
Maiduguri, Dec 26 (AP/UNB) — Nigeria's military says 14 military and police personnel have been killed in an ambush by Boko Haram extremists.
An army statement says the security forces were on escort duty when they were attacked on Monday just outside Damaturu town in Yobe state in the north of the country.
The statement signed by army spokesman Col. Onyema Nwachukwu says efforts to pursue and "eliminate" the Boko Haram extremists are ongoing.
Nigeria's military has been fighting Boko Haram's Islamic insurgency for nearly a decade. The continued threat is a major issue for President Muhammadu Buhari as he seeks a second term in February's election.
After a recent series of deadly attacks on Nigeria's military, Buhari and others have warned that the extremists have begun using drones to as part of a resurgence.