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Congo's President Felix Tshisekedi is sworn into office following his disputed reelection

KINSHASA, Congo (AP) — Congolese President Felix Tshisekedi was sworn in Saturday following a disputed December election, promising to unite the Central African country during his second five-year term and to protect lives in the conflict-hit eastern region.

“I am taking back the baton of command that you entrusted to me. We want a more united, stronger and prosperous Congo,” Tshikedi, 60, said during the inauguration ceremony in Kinshasa attended by several heads of state. His first inauguration in 2019 marked Congo’s first democratic transfer of power since the country's independence from Belgium in 1960.

Tshisekedi won reelection with more than 70% of the vote, according to the election commission. However, opposition candidates and their supporters questioned the validity of the election, which was mired in logistical problems.

Many polling stations were late in opening or didn’t open at all while some lacked materials. Voter turnout was 40%, the election commission said.

Congo’s constitutional court earlier this month rejected a petition by an opposition candidate to annul the election. The court ruled that malpractice allegations were unfounded and that Tshisekedi secured “a majority of votes cast.”

Opposition candidates asked their supporters to protest the president’s inauguration, though there were no signs of protests in the capital on Saturday.

None of the opposition candidates attended the inauguration ceremony at the Stade des Martyrs stadium as Tshisekedi appealed to them to work with his government for a “more united, stronger and prosperous" Congo.

“I have a challenge to overcome: unemployment, job creation, empowerment of women in Congolese society and people living with disabilities.” the Congolese leader said.

Congo, a country of more than 100 million people, is blessed with sprawling mineral resources, but economic and security challenges have stifled its developments. One in four citizens faces crisis or emergency levels of food insecurity, according to U.N. statistics.

Eastern Congo continues to be ravaged by more than 120 armed groups seeking a share of resources such as gold and trying to protect their communities, some of them quietly backed by Congo’s neighbors. The violence, which has displaced nearly 7 million people, has included mass killings.

Analysts say peace and stability in eastern Congo is one of the country’s most pressing needs. The U.N. peacekeeping mission in the country is ending after more than two decades. Troops from an East African regional force are also departing.

“We expect from President Félix Tshisekedi, during his second term, many changes, particularly in the east, where thousands of citizens are still dying, to improve the situation of people and the functions of the state, and above all to improve the well-being and better being of Congolese,” Patrick Mbembe, 48, said in the capital.

Tshisekedi became president in 2019 after emerging from the shadow of his father, who was one of Congo's most population figures. The presidency eluded Etienne Tshisekedi, but his 2017 death helped catapult his son into the limelight.

Critics say he failed to deliver on earlier promises of improving security, access to education and infrastructure. Political analyst Francis Loko said that during the president's second term, Tshisekedi should prioritize economic and security reforms to improve the quality of life for Congo's citizens, many of whom have not benefited from the country's rich resources.

The president must "improve the living conditions of the Congolese in terms of creating jobs and peace in the east, and that Congo regains its place in the committee of nations,” Loko said.