Thumbs Up to Congo; Thumbs Down to Venezuela

The Congo’s Election Commission (CENI) declared Felix Tshisekedi President despite leaked vote tallies showing opponent Martin Fayulu the landslide winner. Tshisekedi and Vital Kamerhe pulled out of November agreement tapping Fayulu as the opposition coalition candidate.

In a brief two paragraph press release on Jan. 23 the U.S. State Department endorsed the results of the Congolese elections of December 30, 2018. Without any reference to the conviction of the Catholic Church’s 40,000 observers that opposition candidate Martin Fayulu had decisively won the Presidential vote, the U.S. now officially recognizes Felix Tshisekedi as the nation’s elected leader. The statement for the press concluded with, “We also recognize outgoing President Joseph Kabila’s commitment to becoming the first President in DRC history to cede power peacefully through an electoral process.”

The endorsement of the announced results surprised many Washington policymakers including some who were involved in writing the original draft. A February 1 article in the journal Foreign Policy reports on speaking with “nearly a dozen current and former U.S. officials and experts briefed on the internal deliberations” behind the statement. The original statement, according to the informants, referred to the elections as “deeply flawed and troubling”. One policy maker in a former U.S. administration stated he had learned from current officials that “Everyone knew the elections were crap, but … they thought they had to accept [Tshisekedi], [that] they had no other recourse here”.

Eight days before the U.S. took sides in the controversy, the UN Security Council congratulated Congolese officials and the public for the peaceful electoral process. Despite hearing the report of the Catholic Church’s observer corps, the Security Council urged “concerned parties” to “respect the results of the vote, defend democratic rule and preserve peace in the country”.

At present, the principal foreign policy objective of the Tshisekedi administration seems to focus on relations with the European Union. In a meeting last week with European diplomats, the new Congo President expressed the desire to “reenergize” the relationship with the EU which maintains sanctions against leading members of the previous, Kabila, administration. Paving the way for the EU dropping of the sanctions and the new Congolese administration improving relations with the EU, a leading Belgian commentator on Congo politics, Colette Braeckman, recently dismissed Martin Fayulu’s challenge of the announced election results. Following the Congo’s Constitutional Court’s approval of the results, and describing a lack of public demonstration of support for Fayulu, Braeckman denounced Fayulu as supported by “foreign sponsors”.

An impartial observer has to wonder if Braeckman considers those who have leaked the actual election results among the “foreign sponsors” of the Fayulu candidacy for President. Reporting the leaks in an article titled “Who Really Won the Congolese Elections” the U.S. based Congo Research Group provide evidence that Fayulu won the Presidency by a wide margin . Contradicting the results announced publicly, the leak from the official Congolese election agency, the CENI, “puts his share of the vote at 59,42%, followed by Felix Tshisekedi with 18,97% and Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary with 18,54%.” Results reported by the Catholic Church’s team of observers totaled for the three leading candidates, “62,80% (Fayulu), 15,00% (Tshisekedi), and 17,99% (Shadary). For the complete article on the leaks of the vote totals, go to http://congoresearchgroup.org/congolese-election-leaks/ .

U.S. official response to Congo’s election contrasts starkly with the clamor to unseat President Maduro in Venezuela. It appears official judgment of a regime’s “legitimacy” has little to do with actual election results and professed support for democracy and national soverignty. The U.S. approval of the Tshisekedi-Kamerhe rule also leads us to question which of the Congo candidates for President continues to enjoy the backing of “foreign sponsors”.

Congo Votes for Change

December 30 polling place in Mbandaka III church school grounds. Mbandaka remained peaceful throughout election day.

The fact there has been an election at all is a victory for and of the people of Congo. They demonstrated. They marched. They were arrested, beaten, shot. Some died and some are still in prison. As a result, the President of the country was forced to stop his efforts to change the constitution and campaign for another term. Then, when he maneuvered to delay them, the marches and the protests continued and he was forced to schedule the elections that just took place.

So regardless of the outcome, that there was an election, not just for President but for provincial and legislative offices as well, is a victory of and for the Congolese people. The December 30, 2018 election is yet another step in the long march of the Congolese toward self rule that began with the 1950’s struggle for independence from Belgium. It continued during thirty plus years of self dealing dictatorship followed by twenty years of plunder of the country’s vast strategic minerals resources by neighboring African countries and their foreign allies who have controlled Congo’s economy since independence. The faith, hope and courage demonstrated by the people over the sixty year long march toward self rule is represented for me by a small, heavily wrinkled woman I met in Congo in 2010.

She had walked over one thousand miles from her homeland in Bunia, Eastern Congo to Mbandaka, Equateur Province, where I met her. She had changed her name to Marie Sauve Vie or Mary “who saves life”. In an attack on her village, she was the only member of her family who survived. In Mbandaka she met the female Disciples of Christ pastor who had organized aid and a support group for women displaced from the East. When a Red Cross boat offered her and the others a return to their homeland she elected not to accept. There was nothing and no one there she wanted to return to. She had been able to survive in Mbandaka through sales of the mats she wove by hand. They are just the right size for doing yoga and remind me of Marie every time I use mine.

Marie Sauve Vie holds grass mats she has made with support of Revde. Madeline Bomboko next to her

The people of Congo will continue their march. They have not reached their destination. There remain many obstacles on the way to achieving a stable, effective government that serves the people. There remain formidable structures of power barring the way to the country’s control of its many, so much sought after resources. But the hope, the strength and the resolute will to live in safety and dignity that carried Marie from Bunia to Mbandaka has already brought change to all of Congo and the people’s long march will continue and bring about more and greater change some day.

The election was not the only victory for the Congolese people in 2018. There was the truth telling sermon of the Protestant pastor before the presidential family and entourage at the beginning of the year. In the packed national Protestant Cathedral, Pastor Francois David Ekofo stepped from his place on the long march to declare it was time for governmental rule that promised true progress and would make the people proud. In October, a Congolese Doctor was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his dedication to healing women horribly violated by the chaos in Eastern Congo. Before the elections, the unified Protestant Church of Christ of Congo leadership joined the Catholic Council of bishops in calling for a fair, transpararent voting process. Forty thousand “observers” were deployed by the Catholic Church to polling places throughout the country. It was the only nationwide oversight, domestic or international, of the electoral process. That it took place without widespread government interference or opposition can also be considered a victory.

There are signs that international pressures on the current administration are also having an effect. The government expelled the Ambassador of the European Union two weeks before the national voting. This move was undoubtedly intended to avoid greater foreign condemnation should the President’s choice of a successor win the election. His chosen, Emmnganuel Ramazani Shadary, former Minister of the Interior, is now on a list of aides who are banned entry to the EU for violating the human rights of their fellow Congolese.

Pre-election polling and initial reports from the polls have former Exxon Mobil executive Martin Fayulu, of the Lamuka Coalition, holding a sizable lead in the Presidential race. M. Fayulu posted to Twitter shortly after the polls closed, “After the three soundings yesterday, I would like to heartily congratulate all my countryfolk for their clear desire for change. We are going to begin a new era, one which will enable our country to regain its dignity and experience prosperity. Let us meditate on Ph 2:13.” The verse cited from Paul’s letter to the Philippians reads, “for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure”. M. Fayulu might have also cited the verse from the Book of Revelation often quoted in the first years of Congolese independence, “Behold, I am making all things new” (Rv 21:5).

Congolese Threatened Most by “Country’s Own Security Forces”

Soldiers fire tear gas on protestors following worship in Kinsahsa January 21, 2018. REUTERS/Kenny Katombe

“It is sadly apparent that the gravest threat to Congolese civilians comes from the country’s own security forces” declared the Central Committee of the World Council of Churches meeting on the occasion of the ecumenical movement’s 70th Anniversary. Along with welcoming the first visit of Pope Francis to its Geneva headquarters, the World Council singled out for concern and action the DRC as the nation with more displaced persons than any other in Africa due to the “deepening political, human rights and humanitarian crisis and escalating conflict”. In warning against further postponement of the presidential election now scheduled for December, the statement calls “upon the Government of the DRC to stop the killing due to political intolerance” and “to respect fundamental human rights to assembly and to freedom of opinion and expression”.

With over 90 % of the population now professing some form of Christianity, the Congo has the eighth largest number of Christians among the world’s nations. It has more Roman Catholic adherents than any other country in Africa and the Archbishop of Kinshasa, Cardinal Monsengwo, was considered to be a top drawer candidate in the last papal election. The World Council’s June 20 statement notes the significant role of the Catholic Church leadership in designing a process for peaceful, democratic political change while also deploring the firing by Congo security forces “into Catholic church grounds to disrupt peaceful services and processions following Sunday mass”.
The statement provides a comprehensive summary of the worsening crisis in Congo and closes with some calls for action. It is reprinted below in its entirety:

“Solidarity with the People and Churches of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (revised)

1. The people of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) have already suffered so much for so long at the hands of so many self-interested actors from within and from outside the country. A deepening political, human rights and humanitarian crisis and escalating conflict are again afflicting the country and its people.

2. Some 4.5 million people – more than in any other country in Africa – have been displaced from their homes, and tens of thousands of refugees are again fleeing to neighbouring countries. DRC’s neighbours are already hosting approximately 600,000 people who have fled conflicts in the centre and east of the country.

3. More than 13 million Congolese affected by recent violence are in need of emergency assistance, including food, sanitation, shelter, and education – the same level of need as in Syria. The conflict and instability have been accompanied by exceptionally high levels of sexual and gender-based violence, and have entailed particular suffering for people living with disabilities. Well over half of the number of crisisaffected people are children. An estimated 2 million children are at imminent risk of starvation.

4. Despite its great wealth of natural resources, the DRC remains one of the world’s poorest countries due to endemic instability, conflict, corruption, poor governance and unregulated exploitation of its resources. Ten out of 100 children in the DRC die before they reach the age of 5, and more than 40% have stunted growth due to malnutrition

Detail of ironwood sculpture depicting women at the foot of the cross presented by Congo churches to the WCC

5. President Joseph Kabila has stayed in power beyond his constitutionally mandated two-term limit, and elections have been twice postponed on questionable grounds. In the context of this constitutional crisis, dissent and opposition is being brutally repressed, and violence is being fomented in different parts of the country for political ends, particularly in the Djugu territory of Ituri province, the Kasai region, North and South Kivu, and Tanganyika provinces.

6. It is sadly apparent that the gravest threat to Congolese civilians comes from the country’s own security forces. According to the UN human rights office in the DRC, some 1,180 people were extra judicially executed by Congolese “state agents” in 2017, far more than those killed by any of the armed groups, and a threefold increase over two years.

7. Government security forces have even fired into Catholic church grounds to disrupt peaceful services and processions following Sunday mass, killing at least 18 people and wounding and arresting scores of others. Hundreds of opposition leaders, supporters and pro-democracy and human rights activists have been imprisoned, often without charge or access to family members or lawyers, and meetings and demonstrations banned.

8. The Saint Sylvestre Accord, a power-sharing agreement signed on New Year’s Eve 2016 following mediation by the Roman Catholic Church, allowed for President Kabila to remain in power another year beyond the end of his constitutional two-term limit on 19 December 2016, but included a commitment to organize elections by the end of 2017. However, in November 2017 the Electoral Commission (CENI) set 23 December 2018 as the new date for elections, but suggested that numerous “constraints” could result in further postponement.

9. This long-running political crisis is deepening the misery of the people of the DRC, and raising the spectre of increased regional instability with very serious effects for the whole Great Lakes region and beyond.

10. The DRC has been identified as one of the ‘stations’ – or focuses – for the ecumenical movement’s Pilgrimage of Justice and Peace. The WCC central committee, meeting in Geneva on 15-21 June 2018, reflecting on the mid-point of the Pilgrimage of Justice and Peace between the WCC’s 10th and 11th Assemblies, and with deepening alarm and concern for the deteriorating situation in the Democratic Republic of the Congo:

-Calls upon the Government of the DRC to stop the killing due to political intolerance, to protect its citizens from violent attack and harassment by state or non-state actors, and to respect fundamental human rights to assembly and to freedom of opinion and expression;

-Further calls on the Government of the DRC to uphold the constitution and refrain from worsening the crisis and provoking more widespread conflict and violence by further postponement of the elections;

-Appeals to all members of the international community, and particularly the Southern African Development Community, to strengthen their engagement for durable peace, stability, justice, development, and human rights in the DRC;

-Implores that countries and companies engaged in exploiting the natural resources of the DRC respect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the country and the human rights of its people;

-Urges all churches and faith communities of the DRC to work together against politically-motivated violence and incitement to atrocity crimes, for a peaceful and fair election process, and for social and economic justice that provides a foundation for sustainable peace;

-Requests strengthened international ecumenical solidarity with the churches and people of the DRC in the midst of the current severe crisis, and support for their struggle for peace, for justice and for dignity.”

Kabila Regime Confronts the Power of the People and the Church

Priest and protestors January 21 in front of Congo Parliament Building Kinshasa

Pope Francis has called on the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics to pray and fast for an end to the growing political instability and decades of conflict in Congo and the South Sudan. In his February 4 prayers on St. Peter’s Square the Pope declared,”I invite all the faithful to a special day of prayer and fasting for peace on February 23, the Friday of the first week of Lent. We will offer it especially for the populations of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and of South Sudan.”

The date selected by the Pope precedes the third nationwide demonstration organized by Congo’s Catholic Lay Committee to end the “dictatorship” of President Kabila. Anticipating a large turn out among Congo’s 40 million Catholics for protests following worship on Sunday February 25, the Pope proclaimed, “Our heavenly Father always listens to his children who cry to him in sorrow and anguish, who ‘heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds.’ (Psalm 147:3) I make a heartfelt appeal so that we also listen to this cry and, each one of us in his/her own conscience before God, ask ourselves, ‘What can I do for peace?’

With the potential for violent repression by the Kabila regime of the demonstrators, the Pope also urged non-Catholics to join in prayers on Friday, the 23rd. “I also invite non-Catholic and non-Christian brothers and sisters to join us in this initiative in whatever ways they deem most appropriate”.

Without pledging to join in the prayer vigil and fasting or the nationwide demonstrations, the leading voice of Congo’s 26 million Protestants did respond to the Catholic-organized initiatives. The President of the Church of Christ of Congo (elected last August) Rev. André Bokondua Bo-Likabe addressed the nation’s growing political conflict in opening the meeting of the unified Protestant Church’s Executive Committee. “We are called Protestants because we always protest against what is unjust”, averred the President, who appears to be taking his Church in a new direction in opposing the regime in power. Quoting from Proverbs 29 :2 Rev. Bokondua added, ‘When those committed to justice are in the majority, the people rejoice ; when those who are evil dominate, the people groan.” Reflecting on recent events in Congo, he summarized, “the situation of the Congolese people today is a collective groaning”.

President Rev. André Bokundoa of the Church of Christ of Congo Ph. John Bompengo of Radio Okapi

The Kabila administration now faces the most serious threat to its seventeen year rule. Recognizing that his hold on power is weakening, President Kabila recently held his first ever extensive press conference, made a rambling two and a half hour defense of his rule, and named a new Minister of the Interior to take office five days before the demonstration on February 25. In another move to avoid the example of Mugabe in Zimbabwe and Zuma in South Africa in resigning, the President and administration officials have pledged that the election to replace Kabila will take place in December this year. But the regime’s violation of the December 2016 Saint-Sylvestre agreement terms for organizing elections and the brutal treatment of protestors by security forces loyal to the regime has increased anger and opposition to the government.

Summarizing the administration’s response to the two prior nationwide protests, the Catholic Lay Coordinating Committee has noted “the persistence of its arrogance, of its scorn and uncaring attitude. In brief”, the Committee went on, “its categorical refusal to take into serious consideration the protests of an entire nation”. The Committee speaks for the vast majority of Congolese in stating that the people desire “free, democratic elections organized in a transparent and inclusive manner but not fixed and rigged elections which will not bring peace either before or after the elections are held”.

In what can be seen as an additional move by the Pope this month to strengthen the position of the Catholic Church in Congo, an assistant and successor to the Archbishop of Kinshasa Cardinal Monsengwo has been appointed by the Vatican. Twenty years younger than the current Archbishop, an outspoken, severe critic of the regime, the Archbishop of Mbandaka-Bikoro in Equator Province Fridolin Ambongo helped negotiate the Saint Sylvestre agreement with the administration. Archbishop Ambongo still serves as Vice President of Congo’s Conference of Bishops which issued a statement last week defending the rights of peaceful protestors. The Bishops endorsed the struggle for “a lawful State in the Congo” and encouraged the population to “remain steadfast and vigilant in taking its destiny in its hands with prayer and initiatives to block peacefully all attempts to seize power by non democratic and unconstitutional means.”

Congo Protestant Pastor Speaks Truth to Power

Protestant Centennial Cathedral filled with the power elite to commemorate assassination of President Kabila’s father 16 years ago. John Bompengo

On January 16, the highest officials of the government and members of President Kabila’s family heard the pastor of the Protestant national cathedral in Kinshasa call for dramatic change in rule of the country . In a stunning reversal of the Church of Christ of Congo’s (ECC’s) prior support of the regime in power, Pastor Francois David Ekofo lamented the deplorable conditions and poverty in a nation so rich in natural resources. “I have the impression that the State does not really exist” Pastor Ekofo declared.

“What kind of country are we going to pass on to our children and our grand children?” the preacher asked those gathered to honor the memory of Laurent Désiré Kabila, the current President’s father. “We must bequeath to our children a country in which the State is a reality, a State that is trustworthy, where everyone is equal under the law” the Protestant Bishop proclaimed. “We must bequeath to our children a rich country, a country producing enough food to feed its people. I recognize that there is need to import technology” he continued. “But to spend the limited foreign exchange we have to import what we must have to feed ourselves, that is unacceptable for the Congo.”

The public criticism of the Kabila regime by a leader of the ECC’s sixty plus Protestant denominations signals a stronger Protestant movement under new leadership. Pastor André Bokundoa of the Baptist churches was elected last August as President of the ECC following Rev. Pierre Marini Bodho who had held the post for twenty years. Marini followed the example of the Disciple Pastor Jean Bokeleale who as leader of the Protestant denominations founded during the early days of the colonial era benefited from his unwavering support of the Mobutu dictatorship. Both the Protestant Centennial Cathedral and the Protestant University of Congo were granted land in the capital’s center by Mobutu. Like Bokeleale, Mobutu was a child of the Equator Province and saw the Protestant Christian minority as a force to counter the majority Catholic Church which emerged as the primary opposition to the dictator’s rule.

The Sunday after Pastor Ekofo’s sermon, Catholic priests in Kinshasa and in several provincial capitals led their parishoners and others into the streets to protest the extended delay in national elections. Since Kabila’s five year term ended in December 2016, the administration has pursued a strategy described by critics as “glissage” or “slipsliding” to prolong administration control of the vast wealth flowing from foreign exploitation of the nation’s resources. The UN reported at least five deaths at the hands of the regime’s security forces in response to the January 21 demonstrations in Kinshasa. Among the over 200 arrests were a dozen priests according to one report.

Peaceful protestors, here in front of a UN peacekeepers’ compound, were met by heavily armed regime security forces for the second time in less than a month

The Catholic Lay Coordinating Committee, headed by three notable Kinshasa based academics, noted that the number of parishes and members participating was larger than the December 31 demonstrations which also were met with bullets. The regime’s response to the growing protest movement has been met by increasingly fiery condemnation by the Archbishop of Kinshasa, Cardinal Monsengwo. “How can someone kill men, women and children, young and old while they are singing hymns, carrying Bibles, rosaries and crucifix?” the leading voice of the opposition asked.

In a country where education, health and community development services are largely organized and carried out by Catholic and Protestant churches, and where the civil society institutions are relatively weak, it is not surprising that church leaders have assumed the role of spokespersons for the masses of people. That a high profile Protestant pastor in Kinshasa has joined in calling for regime change is another sign that the Kabila administration’s hold on power is weakening. Impatience with the regime and its severe repression of dissent have resulted in more calls for immediate departure of the President and an interim government to take over and oversee preparations for the Presidential election.

Why Congo Matters

A man digs for cobalt in the Shaba Province of Congo May, 2015.  Photo by Federico Scoppa AFP/Getty Images
A man digs for cobalt in the Shaba Province of Congo May, 2015. Photo by Federico Scoppa AFP/Getty Images

The Democratic Republic of the Congo is the largest French speaking country among the nations of the world.

In terms of area, the DRC is the largest country in sub-Saharan Africa and the second largest on the continent after Algeria.

The Democratic Republic of Congo is widely considered to be one of the world’s richest countries in natural resources; its untapped deposits of raw minerals are estimated to be worth in excess of US$24 trillion. The Congo has 70% of the world’s coltan, a third of its cobalt, more than 30% of its diamond reserves, and a tenth of its copper.

Since its independence from Belgium in 1960, the Congo has received more U.S. foreign aid than any other nation in Sub Saharan Africa

The richest uranium is found in Congo and 65 % pure uranium (contrasted with 1 % pure uranium deposits in Canada and the U.S.) from Shinkolobwe mine in Shaba Province was the crucial ingredient in the U.S. atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

“The most important deposit of uranium yet discovered in the world,” stated a top secret American intelligence report in November 1943, “is in the Shinkolobwe Mine in the Belgian Congo.” The Congo’s “known resources of uranium, which are the world’s largest,” added the report, “are vital to the welfare of the United States…Definite steps should be taken to insure access to the resources for the United States.”

Congo (Kinshasa) has the largest population of Roman Catholics on the African continent. The Church remained the most consistent and severe institutional critic of Mobutu’s 32 year dictatorial rule.

The Congo was the focus of the first international human rights campaign. The Congo Reform Association’s “red rubber campaign” brought an end to King Leopold of Belgium’s horrific exploitation of Congolese labor in the harvesting of their land’s rubber vines. It also resulted in the transfer of rule over Congo from the King himself to Belgian State colonial rule.

At the turn of the 20th Century, King Leopold’s Congo Free State along with the Amazon rainforest supplied the bulk of the world’s

Salonga National Park is one of five World Heritage Sites located in Congo.  All five are classified by UNESCO as World Heritage in Danger.
Salonga National Park is one of five World Heritage Sites located in Congo. All five are classified by UNESCO as World Heritage in Danger.
supply of rubber. With its love for bicycling, the U.S. consumed half of the rubber produced from 1875 to 1900.

The Congo River has the second largest water flow and the second largest watershed among the rivers of the world (the Amazon is the largest). Its Inga Dam was designed with the intention of supplying hydroelectric power to all of Central Africa. The dam has never achieved close to full operating capacity.

The Congo rainforest is the second largest in the world after the Amazon’s. The two vast expanses of forest have been described by environmentalists as “the lungs of the world”. In recent years, Congo’s rainforest has seen stepped up logging and cutting of the trees for large scale agricultural projects.

Despite the country’s wealth in natural resources, the DRC consistently ranks near the bottom in the UN Human Development Index. In 2011 it was ranked the lowest among the 187 nations evaluated

The former Belgian Congo called on the United Nations in 1960 for support in defending its political independence in the face of attempts by Belgian settlers and mining companies to maintain control of the nation’s mines.

Since 1999 the United Nations has carried out the largest and the longest serving peacemaking mission in its history in the RDC. The chief of the UN Mission, formerly MONUC and now known as MONUSCO, in a report to the Security Council this month declared, “The Democratic Republic of Congo has entered a period of extreme risk to its stability. The electoral crisis has become a constitutional crisis, with deepening political polarization and no immediate resolution in sight.”

UN official reports of the effects of armed conflicts in eastern Congo have led to the area’s description as the most dangerous place to be a woman on the planet. One UN investigator called the area the “rape capital of the world” and the prevalence of sexual violence there described as the worst in the world.

It is estimated that about 4.7 million children aged 5–14 work in Congo. In addition to copper mines, children with their families participate in artisanal mining of the land’s precious minerals. These children use hammers to break free the ore, pour harsh chemicals with no protective equipment, and manually transport rocks from deep pit or open pit mines.

The Atlantic slave trade between Africa and the Americas began with the Portuguese shipment in 1526 of slaves purchased from the Kingdom of Kongo. For three hundred years, Portuguese traders controlled the purchase of human beings at the Congo River’s mouth which remained the leading source of slaves for the European colonies in the West.

Photo from the era of colonial rule in Asia.  Martin Luther King once declared: "Racism is no mere American phenomenon. Its vicious grasp knows no geographical boundaries. In fact, racism and its perennial ally - economic exploitation- provide the key to understanding most of the international complications of this generation."
Photo from the era of colonial rule in Asia. Martin Luther King once declared: “Racism is no mere American phenomenon. Its vicious grasp knows no geographical boundaries. In fact, racism and its perennial ally – economic exploitation- provide the key to understanding most of the international complications of this generation.”

At the ceremony declaring the new nation’s independence on June 30, 1960, the newly elected Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba foresaw that “The independence of the Congo represents a decisive step toward the liberation of the entire African continent”. Thirty four years after Lumumba spoke, the former Portuguese colonies and South Africa had freed themselves from white rule. Lumumba also prophesied in the same speech, “we are going to make the Congo the focal point for the development of all of Africa”. The potential of Congo remains huge, but Lumumba’s prophecy regarding the nation’s economic and social development has yet to be realized. Both Lumumba and the UN Secretary General Dag Hammarskjold, also a fierce defender of Congo independence, were martyred in 1961.

This posting is inspired by all those who expressed solidarity with the people of the Democratic Republic of Congo by participating in consciousness-raising activities of Congo Week last week. To follow political movements in support of free and fair elections in the DRC go to http://www.friendsofthecongo.org and/or the site of the Africa Faith and Justice Network http://www.afjn.org. The latter site has just published their Congolese staff member’s commentary on political developments in the country, including the September 19-20 demonstration in Kinshasa which resulted in multiple deaths at the hands of the Kabila regime’s security forces.

The March of the Christians in Congo

The U.S. Jewish World Watch is calling for "targeted sanctions" on the leaders of the Kabila regime to apply pressure for a presidential election  this year
The U.S. Jewish World Watch is calling for “targeted sanctions” on the leaders of the Kabila regime to apply pressure for a presidential election this year

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

Pope Francis opens the Holy Door prior to declaring the Holy Jubilee Year of Mercy  at the cathedral in Bangui, Central African Republic, Nov. 29. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)
Pope Francis opens the Holy Door prior to declaring the Holy Jubilee Year of Mercy at the cathedral in Bangui, Central African Republic, Nov. 29. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

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.

Cardinal Laurent Monsengwo has powerfully advocated for peaceful leadership change in Congo in the past.  The US National Catholic Reporter touted him as a leading candidate to succeed Pope Benedict.
Cardinal Laurent Monsengwo has powerfully advocated for peaceful leadership change in Congo in the past. The US National Catholic Reporter touted him as a leading candidate to succeed Pope Benedict.

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.