Repeatedly delayed elections in the Democratic Republic of the Congo face another obstacle after the budget minister said he doubted whether the country could find the funds to hold a poll this year.
Speaking in Kinshasa, Pierre Kangudia said government coffers were empty, and that “it would be difficult to gather” the necessary $1.8bn (£1.5bn).
His claim has further dimmed hopes that a fragile political deal would avert serious civil conflict in the vast central African country.
It comes 12 days after the death of Étienne Tshisekedi, the veteran politician whom analysts say was the only figure capable of unifying the DRC’s fragmented opposition to the continued rule of President Joseph Kabila.
Tshisekedi was set to lead a transitional council, part of an agreement put together in December intended to pave the way for Kabila to leave power in 2017 and refrain from running for a third term as president.
The end of Kabila’s presidential mandate in December prompted protests in cities across the DRC. More than 40 people are thought to have died and hundreds were arrested during two days of violence.
The deal, concluded under the auspices of Congo’s influential Catholic church, is heavily dependent on a government promise to hold polls this year.
The US, UK and European nations welcomed the agreement, and are pushing for an early election, which they are likely to partially fund.
Close aides of Kabila, who has been in power since 2001, claim logistical difficulties mean it would be impractical to hold any polls before 2018.
The president has been accused of trying to cling to power by postponing elections indefinitely – a charge denied by spokesmen and supporters.
Despite vast mineral and other resources, the DRC is one of the world’s poorest states. Kangudia likened the nation’s treasury to an “empty saucepan with holes in it”.
“We have to fill the holes before we can even put anything in it,” the minister said.
In January, Lambert Mende, the information minister, also expressed doubt about the possibility of a 2017 poll.
After Tshisekedi’s death, analysts predicted the government would seek to weaken the opposition
Tshisekedi’s son, Felix, may now be named prime minister in a forthcoming power-sharing government, if the agreement holds.
Western and African powers fear further political instability in the DRC could lead to a repeat of the conflicts seen between 1996 and 2003 in which as many as 5 million people may have died, mostly from starvation and disease.
The conflict was the deadliest in modern African history, involving two rounds of fighting in the late 1990s and early 2000s which dragged in the armies of at least six countries.
Analysts suggest two possibilities if opposition factions and the government cannot agree on a process with a minimum of legitimacy: a bloody, popular, urban uprising could oust the president, or the slow collapse of the government as economic weakness, meddling by regional powers and international isolation undermine its authority.