By announcing he is formally stepping aside after 17 years in power, President Joseph Kabila has eased tensions in DR Congo but the volatile country remains gripped by uncertainty ahead of elections due at the end of the year.
Domestic, regional and international pressures are likely to have played a role in the president’s eagerly-awaited decision to pick a successor instead of running again.
But suspicions will run deep that Kabila, by picking a loyalist to contest the December 23 ballot, wants to wield influence behind the throne, analysts say.
“Kabila evacuated the question about his intentions from the agenda by choosing a successor,” Hans Hoebeke, senior analyst for Congo at the International Crisis Group (ICG), told AFP.
“This should not reassure too much. There are no guarantees that the elections will effectively be held and, if they are, that they will respond to minimal criteria of credibility.”
Kabila has ruled the country since 2001 following the assassination of his father, Laurent-Desire.
His tenure has been stained by a reputation for corruption and conflict.
After his two-term limit expired at the end of 2016, Kabila stayed in power, invoking a caretaker clause in the constitution to remain in office.
In recent months, he has kept everyone guessing whether he would try to run again.
On Wednesday, just hours before the deadline for filing election bids was due to expire, his office made the big announcement.
Former interior minister Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary was designated as Kabila’s ruling coalition candidate.
By choosing a close ally who is under European sanctions for human rights violations, Kabila signalled that loyalty prevailed above all other criteria.
Shadary will run against a long list of other candidates from opposing parties, and does not have widespread recognition in the country.
“His political base is in Maniema, a small artisanal mining province in the east, which includes less than five percent of the DRC’s electorate,” said Indigo Ellis with risk analysis company Verisk Maplecroft.
If Shadary wins, Kabila will wield special clout in addition to his positions as senator and head of the People’s Party for Reconstruction and Democracy (PPRD), Ellis added.
Kabila would “almost certainly remain the string-puller behind the scenes, at least initially, with Shadary as a figurehead president”, he said.
For this reason, and on the assumption that the opposition is able to unite behind a single candidate, a Shadary election victory is “bound to attract accusations of foul play,” he said.
The fate of Moise Katumbi, 53, a prominent opposition figure leading recent opinion polls who was barred from entering the country last week to lodge his candidacy, remains a concerning issue for some analysts.
“We believe that the real goal, for the moment, must be an election in which the rights of all and of every individuals are respected, in peace and equality of opportunity,” a church-based group, CENCO, in a statement this week.
“That is the price for credibility of the polls.”
Other key questions include the government’s ability to organise the elections in time in a country the size of western Europe where infrastructure is notoriously poor.
The electoral commission said in November they expected elections to cost about $420 million (362 million euros).
The opposition, as well international players including the United States, have also expressed concerns with electronic voting machines that the electoral commission intends on using.
The machines, imported from South Korea, are difficult to use and liable to be hacked they claim.
The DRC was the theatre for two wars, from 1996-7 and 1998-2003, that sucked in states from around central and southern Africa.
Embers of that conflict glow on a smaller scale in the east of the vast country even today.
The international community is clearly relieved by the easing of tensions, while also mindful of the difficult road ahead.
“We salute the decision by President Joseph Kabila Kabange to uphold his commitment to respect the Congolese constitution,” the UN’s special representative and the representatives of the African Union, European Union, Canada, Switzerland and the United States said in statement.
The inflexion point for Kabila’s decision may have come from African countries, which are deeply concerned by the instability, said a diplomatic source in Kinshasa, singling out Angola — a traditional ally of Kabila — as well as South Africa and the AU.
“He can’t be completely immune to the reality that in many ways regional opinions have turned against him (from running),” said Stephanie Wolters, Johannesburg analyst at ISS Africa, adding that the threat of new US sanctions may also have weighed on Kabila’s decision.