Guy-Brice Parfait Kolelas, the leading opposition presidential candidate in Republic of Congo's election, died on Sunday, the day after his country went to the polls. He was being transferred to France for medical treatment for Covid-19.
Kolelas was hospitalised on Saturday and "died in the medical aircraft which came to get him from Brazzaville on Sunday afternoon", said his campaign director Christian Cyr Rodrigue Mayanda.
Kolelas was being evacuated to France for treatment when he died. He first tested positive for Covid-19 on Friday and fell seriously ill. He spent polling day in hospital.
A video published on social media showed 61-year-old Kolelas, who was diabetic, appearing very weak. He removed his oxygen mask to tell his supporters: "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." The election, he said, was "about the future of your children".
Kolelas was one of six candidates running against incumbent Denis Sassou-Nguesso who has led the country since 1979.
He was runner-up to Nguesso in the 2016 presidential election, gaining around 15 percent of the vote, and was widely seen as Nguesso's main political rival.
"We'll continue to count the ballots. He was ahead in a number of areas," Mayanda said.
Provisional election results are not expected for some days, but Sassou Nguesso is widely tipped to win re-election.
The presidential election has come in for criticism, with the Congo's influential Catholic Church expressing "serious reservations" about transparency amid an internet shutdown on election day.
Last week some 50 organisations, including Internet Without Borders, appealed to the president to "keep the internet open, accessible and safe during the whole of the 2021 presidential election period".
⚠️ Confirmed: Internet has been shut down in the Republic of the #Congo on the day of presidential elections.
Network data show a near-total collapse of national connectivity from midnight local time. The incident is ongoing as polls are due to open 📉
- NetBlocks (@netblocks) March 21, 2021
The largest opposition group, the Pan-African Union for Social Democracy or UPADS, boycotted the poll in which some 2.5 million people were eligible to vote.
Congo-Brazzaville, a former French colony, has abundant oil reserves and most of its budget comes from oil revenue. But its economy has been badly hit by a collapse in world crude prices, debt and the Covid-19 pandemic, as well as its reputation for corruption.
Sassou-Nguesso campaigned on agricultural development and portrayed himself as a defender of Congo's youth; the average age of its 5 million-strong population is just 19, according to UN figures.
Before becoming one of Nguesso's main opponents, Kolelas worked as an academic. He graduated from Mulhouse university in the east of France and taught economics in French universities.
Back in Congo, he worked at the ministry of territorial administration before following his father, Bernard Kolelas, into politics.
At a recent rally Guy-Brice Parfait Kolelas told supporters: "My father asked me to keep up his political fight. I was the only one he told, even though we were 12 brothers and sisters."