Congo-Brazzaville: Guy-Brice Parfait Kolélas dies from Covid on poll day

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Guy Brice Parfait Kolelas (archive shot from 2016 election campaign)Image source, Getty Images
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Guy Brice Parfait Kolélas was one of six opposition candidates

The leading opposition presidential candidate in Congo-Brazzaville, who was seriously ill with Covid-19, has died hours after polls closed.

Guy-Brice Parfait Kolélas died on a plane taking him to France for treatment, his campaign director said.

Hours earlier the 61-year-old had appeared in a video shared on social media, where he removed his oxygen mask and told his supporters that he was "fighting death".

He urged them to vote in Sunday's poll.

The electoral law doesn't annul the election if one of the candidates dies.

French prosecutors announced a criminal investigation into the cause of Mr Kolélas's death. His body has not yet been repatriated.

Mr Kolélas, who was diabetic, was one of six candidates running against President Denis Sassou Nguesso, 77, who has been in power since 1979, except for a five-year period after losing elections in 1992.

Congo-Brazzavile has officially recorded more than 9,000 cases of Covid-19 and 130 deaths.

The country has imposed a night-time curfew in the two main cities of Brazzaville and Pointe-Noire and closed its borders due to the pandemic.

However, campaign rallies were allowed, with not much sign of people respecting social distancing or wearing masks.

Mr Kolélas had missed his final campaign event on Friday after saying a day earlier that he feared he had malaria, the Associated Press news agency reports.

He was admitted to a private hospital in the capital, Brazzaville, and it was later confirmed that he had Covid-19.

Speaking in French from his hospital bed, Mr Kolélas said: "My dear compatriots, I am in trouble. I am fighting death. However, I ask you to stand up and vote for change. I would not have fought for nothing."

"Rise up as one person... I'm fighting on my deathbed, you too fight for your change," he urged his supporters, saying the election was "about the future of your children."

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The head of the government's Covid-19 response team, Elira Dokekias, said that Mr Kolélas' condition had been serious on Saturday, the Associated Press reports.

After casting his ballot in the capital, Mr Sassou Nguesso had wished the former fisheries minister and son of former Prime Minister Benard Kolélas, a swift recovery.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
The president's supporters were out on the streets as he cast his ballot

A large crowd gathered on Sunday to catch a glimpse of the president, with many people not wearing masks and failing to adhere to social distancing rules.

Mr Sasou Nguessou beat Mr Kolélas in the last election in 2016, obtaining 60% of the vote compared with his rival's 15%.

The watchdog group NetBlocks reported that the internet had been shut down ahead of Sunday's voting.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
President Sassou Nguesso wore a mask when he went to vote

The largest opposition party, the Pan-African Union for Social Democracy (UPADS), is boycotting the election, saying it fears the poll could divide the nation.

Congo-Brazzaville's Catholic Church episcopal conference has said it has "serious reservations" about the election's transparency.

Congo robbed of a tireless campaigner

Analysis by Emery Makumeno, BBC News

Mr Kolélas could have had an easy life, he was a government minister enjoying the perks that comes with being a top official but he gave all that up to challenge President Sassou Nguesso.

His death has robbed Congo's opposition of a tireless campaigner for democracy and has blighted the opposition's chances of a serious challenge for the presidency.

What is certain is that there will not be any speculation about what Mr Kolélas thought about the state of the country in his last moments - he chose to record a personal message to Congolese urging them to continue fighting for democracy.

He came second in the 2016 presidential election, but even in a poll which many see as a foregone conclusion, how Mr Kolélas performs, even in death, will still be closely watched.