The Democratic Republic of Congo is set to see its first handover of power in 18 years after opposition candidate Felix Tshisekedi was Thursday named by election officials as the provisional winner of an historic presidential poll.
The election's supervisors had faced mounting pressure at home and abroad to publish the results after repeated delays stoked fears for the giant country's stability.
"Having gained... 38.57 percent of the vote, Felix Tshisekedi is provisionally declared the elected president of the Democratic Republic of Congo," said Corneille Nangaa, the head of the Independent National Election Commission (CENI).
Shouts of joy erupted at the commission's offices as the results were announced early Thursday morning, AFP journalists reported.
The DRC — a vast and poor country burdened by a history of bloodshed — has been in the grip of a two-year crisis over the succession of President Joseph Kabila, who said last year he would finally step down after nearly two decades as leader.
The mineral-rich country has never had a peaceful transition of power since it gained independence from Belgium in 1960.
The candidate Kabila hand-picked to succeed him, loyalist former interior minister Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary, came third in the poll.
The other main opposition candidate, former oil executive Martin Fayulu came second, official results showed.
The son of major Congolese political figure Etienne Tshisekedi, the 55-year-old president-elect is the head of country's long-time main opposition party UDPS.
According to the initial timetable set out by the CENI, the definitive results are due on January 15 with the swearing-in of the new president three days later.
As the lengthy results were read out on nationwide TV, police were deployed at strategic spots in the capital Kinshasa where, for the second evening running, many residents went home and locked their doors early.
Kabila, 47, was due to step down two years ago but clung to office, sparking widespread protests that were repressed at the cost of scores of lives.
The elections were held on December 30, but CENI last weekend said provisional results, expected on Sunday, would be held up because of logistical problems.
The long delay sparked blunt warnings from inside and outside the DRC, but also coincided with an apparent overture to Kabila from opposition leaders.
After deploying tens of thousands of its own election observers, the powerful Catholic Church last week said it knew the outcome of the ballot and called on the authorities to reveal the result "in keeping with truth and justice".
Campaign groups on Wednesday had called for the immediate release of the results and told people "to be prepared to go out onto the streets in massive numbers" if the outcome failed to accurately reflect the vote.
South Africa and Zambia, DRC's neighbour to the south, joined the clamour to publish the results.
"The delay in releasing the results of the elections can lead to suspicions and compromise peace and stability of the country," South African President Cyril Ramaphosa and Zambian counterpart Edgar Lungu said in a joint statement.
The turmoil surrounding the election revived traumatic memories of the DRC's brutal past.
Bloody clashes marred elections in 2006 and 2011, and two wars between 1996 and 2003, drawing in armies from around the region, claimed millions of lives.
Kabila's choice of successor fuelled accusations that the long-time leader -- concerned about possible retribution -- would use Shadary to protect his interests after the vote.
But on Tuesday, the opposition hinted at a rapprochement.
"There's no spirit of revenge," said Tshisekedi.
He also told the Belgian newspaper Le Soir that Kabila could be honoured for ushering in a peaceful transition.
Kabila and Tshisekedi "have an interest in meeting to prepare a peaceful and civilised transfer of power", said UDPS Secretary General Jean-Marc Kabund.
Fellow opposition candidate Fayulu who was backed by former Katanga governor Moise Katumbi -- considered a traitor by Kabila -- and ex-warlord and former vice president Jean-Pierre Bemba, has also sounded a conciliatory tone.
"Mr. Kabila is a Congolese citizen. He has a place here in Congo. He will do what he wants. The constitution is clear -- he (as former president) will be a senator for life. The keyword for us is: There's no revenge."
WHO IS TSHISEKEDI?
Tshisekedi, 55, hopes the elections will hand him the presidential prize that eluded his late father Etienne, who founded the DRC's mainstream opposition party, the Union for Democracy and Social Progress (UDPS), in 1982.
Tshisekedi junior took the helm of the party after his father died in February 2017.
Known to his friends as "Fatshi," he gained a Belgian diploma in marketing and communication and rose doggedly through the party ranks.
But he has never held high office or had management experience and is hobbled by the lack of his father's charisma.
"Etienne was stubborn and proud," says one observer of the country's opposition.
"(But) Felix is more diplomatic, more conciliatory, more ready to listen to others."
On November 11, Tshisekedi joined six other opposition leaders to rally behind a single unity candidate, Martin Fayulu, to take on Shadary.
But the deal was rejected by the party's rank and file.
Tshisekedi and fellow opposition leader Vital Kamerhe swiftly abandoned the deal and ran on a joint ticket, effectively weakening and splitting the opposition.
A father of five, he attends the same Pentecostal church in Kinshasa as Fayulu.