On this day of February 16, in Congo, the “heart of Africa”, the largest demonstration was organized in opposition to the dictator Mobutu Sese Soko in 1992. It was the first time Congolese Protestants and Catholics had come together on such a grand scale for any cause and it is known still in the country as the “March of the Christians”. At least thirty persons, lay and clergypersons, were killed by troops and police during the non violent gatherings but it now marks the beginning of Mobutu’s decline and eventual flight from Congo in 1997.
As recently as December it was expected among Congolese leaders of the church and civil society that the Catholic Church would again take the lead in organizing another mass demonstration in the capital Kinshasa on this day. Instead people are being urged to stay home away from school and work and thereby shut down the city in a call to the current ruler Joseph Kabila to hold the presidential elections as required this year by the nation’s Constitution. It is being referred to as the “ville morte/dead city” protest and no one seems to know exactly why the Catholic Church continues its silence on this and any future mobilizations in support of the election.
Leading foreign political commentators on Congo agree that the Vatican has counseled Cardinal Laurent Monsengwo and other Church leaders to halt their former pointed and persistent calls for government action in organizing the elections. There may been have been a clue of a shift in Vatican oversight of Congolese Church leadership with two
developments toward the end of 2015.
The Church’s delegate to a Dakar Conference on elections in sub Saharan Africa in December left the meeting protesting the anti incumbent character of the proceedings and the need for the Church to maintain its position of “neutrality”. The second development took shape with Pope Francis’ visits in Africa late in the year and the relative lack of attention paid to Congo, the country with more Catholics than any other on the continent.
In contrast with the Pope’s prophetic critiques of economic and political elites while visiting Mexico this week, Pope Francis’s response to African authoritarian rule and genocide was to declare in a late November visit to Bangui, Central African Republic the year 2016 as the Holy Jubilee Year of Mercy. Cardinal Monsengwo followed suit just before Christmas recapitulating the Pope’s proclamation of Mercy at Kinsahsa’s Cathedral and calling for prayers for the success of the elections in the coming year.
Three weeks ago, the veteran Belgian journalist/political scientist specializing in Congo Colette Braeckman quoted the Congolese Minister of the Interior’s comment that “big marches were ruled out; Christians should limit themselves to praying.” In Braeckman’s view, there was no doubt of what was behind the Congolese Catholic Church’s shift in position: “while there were “marches of Christians” originally planned for February 26 (sic!), there were directives from Rome instructing the Congolese Conference of Catholic Bishops (CENCO) to stay out of politics”.
Meanwhile, there is little evidence of progress in the monumental task of organizing national elections in a vast country with impenetrable rain forests, abysmally poor roads and a history of chicanery and duplicity on the part of the regime in power. During a lull in the fighting in Eastern Congo, the Kabila administration has focused on arrest and silencing of the opposition to its rule rather than preparing for a transition in leadership. And at this time, the major powers historically involved in Congo, with the U.S. and the United Nations at the forefront, seem content to defer any pressure on behalf of the Congolese people’s aspirations for democracy and self rule in exchange for a period of relative calm.
In the view of the UN Secretary General’s Special Representative to the Congo, the risk of violence surrounding the elections especially in eastern Congo is simply too great. “In the absence of agreement on the electoral process, political polarization has heightened tensions and contributed to an atmosphere of increased harassment and human rights violations” Maman Sidikou reported to the UN Security Council last month.
The weakness, if not fallacy, of this view emerges when one first considers that the eastern Congo has been at war almost continually since Indepdendence of the Congo in 1960. Secondly, the violence associated with “increased harassment and human rights violations” takes place in Kinshasa on the other side of the country and has always been caused by brutal state-sponsored repression of non violent resistance and protest. To associate or imply association of violence in Eastern Congo as stemming from the call for democratic elections in the country is completely misleading. The people’s desire for a free and fair presidential election will be reflected in their peaceful participation in the “Dead City” general strike today in Kinshasa.
Whatever the outcome today, it is certain that it won’t be long before the Congolese people’s voice on behalf of their right to democratic self rule will be heard much louder and more clearly. It is also certain that their struggle for peace – with justice!- will be a non violent one following the example of the Lord of Mercy. The “March of the Christians” in the Democratic Republic of Congo continues.