He has spent the two years postponing elections in the Democratic Republic of Congo after being blocked from running for a third term, but now Joseph Kabila has decided to step down.

Kabila: standing down after 17 years at the top

Kabila has put forward loyalist Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary as ruling party candidate in the presidential election scheduled for December. His choice of a key political ally suggests that he will remain closely involved in national politics after bowing out.

He aims to retain his position as head of his People’s Party for Reconstruction and Democracy (PPRD) and has installed loyalists across the federal bureaucracy, including in the courts and in the military.

The announcement that he will not run again will ease fears in the region and beyond that a Kabila candidacy would drag the country back into civil war, which claimed the lives of more than five million people either as a direct result of fighting or because of disease and malnutrition, and led to the displacement of as many others.

But western nations who put pressure on Kabila to stand aside will have noted with alarm that Shadary is under European Union sanctions for alleged human rights abuses, including deadly crackdowns by security forces on protesters.

Former civil war fighters take part in a disarmament camp last year

If the election goes ahead, it will be DRC’s first democratic transition of power following decades marked by authoritarian rule, poverty and conflict. Fighting was fuelled by the country’s vast mineral wealth, with all sides taking advantage of the anarchy to plunder the riches. Some militia continue to fight in the east of the country, where a United Nations peace keeping force is based.

After suffering brutal colonial rule under the Belgians, DRC’s first independence leader, Patrice Lumumba, was assassinated to make way for the western-backed Mobutu dictatorship in 1965. He renamed the country Zaire. In 1997 Mobutu himself was ousted in a coup led by Laurent Kabila, prompting the six year civil war that drew in several neighbouring countries.

Kabila senior was shot dead by his body guard in 2001. His son Joseph immediately succeeded him and was formally elected president in 2006 in what was touted to be the country’s first free elections.