Congolese opposition candidate Guy-Brice Parfait Kolelas died of COVID-19 on Sunday as the Republic of Congo voted in presidential elections.
"He died in the medical aircraft which came to get him from Brazzaville on Sunday afternoon," said his campaign manager. Kolelas was being transferred to France for treatment.
He was the main rival of long-standing President Denis Sassou N'Guesso, who was seeking a new five-year term in Sunday's vote.
"We will continue to count the ballots. He was ahead in a number of places," Kolelas' campaign manager said.
Sunday's vote was cast into doubt when it was revealed that the leading opposition candidate was in hospital after being diagnosed with COVID-19. The central African country's constitution stipulates that an election can be delayed if a candidate dies or is unable to participate in the vote.
After casting his ballot, Sassou N'Guesso said the government was aware of Guy Brice Parfait Kolelas’ illness and had taken the steps necessary for him to be transferred to France for further treatment.
Aides confirmed the medical evacuation flight bringing Kolelas to a French hospital took off from Brazzaville on Sunday afternoon.
A video circulating on social media dated Friday showed Kolelas -- one of six rivals to Sassou N'Guesso -- wearing an oxygen mask and with a blood pressure cuff on his arm as he lay in a hospital bed.
“My dear compatriots, I am in trouble. I am fighting death,” the candidate says in a weak-sounding voice after removing his oxygen mask. “However, I ask you to stand up and vote for change. I would not have fought for nothing.”
A campaign spokesman confirmed the video as authentic. Two people at the hospital who had seen Kolelas' test results confirmed to the AP late Saturday that he had tested positive for the coronavirus.
The 61-year-old was diabetic and at higher risk of complications from COVID-19.
Voting continued on presidential election day on Sunday after access to the internet and social networks were cut in the Republic of Congo, where long-standing President Denis Sassou N'Guesso is seeking a new five-year term.
"Network data show a near-total collapse of national connectivity from midnight local time. The incident is ongoing as polls are due to open," the London-based tracking service Netblocks reported.
AFP journalists also noted that the internet access stopped shortly after midnight on Saturday and was still down as polling stations opened on Sunday.
The Congo Republic's 2016 presidential election, which Sassou N'Guesso won with 60% of the vote, was also marked by a communications shutdown.
The 77-year-old is the third-longest serving president in Africa, having ruled for a total of 36 years over two terms in this nation often overshadowed by its vast neighbour, the Democratic Republic of Congo.
On March 16, some 50 organisations, including Internet Without Borders, invited President Sassou N'Guesso in an open letter to "keep the Internet open, accessible and secure throughout the period of the 2021 presidential election."
The internet and social networks "provide a space for communication, public debate, research of information on electoral processes and candidates, to report and document events and results," they insisted. "Cuts to the internet attacks human rights, disrupt emergency services and cripple economies."
Concern over early vote transparency
Kolelas came second to Sassou N’Guesso in the 2016 election with about 15% of the vote. The opposition figure has been particularly critical of the incumbent leader in recent days, declaring that Republic of Congo had become “a police state.”
On Wednesday, between 55,000 and 60,000 members of the security forces voted in advance. This early vote is seen as a potential source of fraud by opponents of the incumbent president.
The Catholic Church's episcopal conference, which expressed serious reservations about the transparency and credibility of this presidential election, was refused accreditation allowing it to send election observers to polling stations.
Republic of Congo has had fewer than 10,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 since the pandemic began, with 134 confirmed deaths.