“What a Friend We Have in Jesus” is one of the more familiar missionary hymn tunes Congolese Christians now sing to a text of their own composing. Recent visitors have been known to return to the U.S.humming their own version of the old hymn. Inspired by the Congolese hospitality and their enthustiastic, warm welcome “What a Friend We Have in Congo” becomes another way to share the beauty of their Congo experience and is forever associated with the stay there.
But what kind of a friend have we American Christians been to the Congolese since the nation gained independence in 1960? Judged on the basis of official U.S. government policy and aid, our record as friends of Congo is abysmal.
While the U.S. in 1960 appeared to be the guys in the white hats compared to the Belgian colonizers, by 1980 Congo’s new best friend had proven to be less than helpful. We led in backing Mobutu Sese Seko as he presided over sham elections and eliminated overt and prospective opponents to his rule. By 1980, the Congolese knew they were paying a very high price for the “stability” given precedence by foreign investors and successive U.S. administrations. By 1980, Congolese hopes of benefiting from their birthright as citizens of a country rich in natural resources had all but evaporated.
Through much of Mobutu’s thirty two years of autocratic often brutal rule, the Congo continued to receive more U.S. government foreign aid than any other sub Saharan African nation. Neither Qaddafi nor Hussein could be said to have exceeded the repressive tactics of Mobutu in Congo. But almost to the dismal, humiliating end of the regime, Mobutu’s power derived in part from his support by official U.S. policy makers.
So have we as citizens of the U.S. improved with respect to helping our friends in Congo since Mobutu’s death? Not if we are judged by the record of the current regime likely to be reelected in late November. The youngest head of state in the world when he first came to power at age 29 Joseph Kabila is seen by many Congolese as a foreigner and by most Congolese as a poor defender of the people’s interests. While the UN peacekeeping forces may be able to prevent widespread violence during and after the elections, a free and fair election process expressing the true will of the people is not a realistic possibility.
But there is emerging some signs of hope in the Congolese political arena. First, politics is openly discussed in a way that was not possible during Mobutu’s rule. The Congolese know what irregularities can occur in an election with many disputing the legitimacy of Kabila’s declared victory in 2006 and ready to cry foul over the results this year. Second,
there is a new world wide movement working to increase awareness and support for political change in Congo. Led by young Congolese expatriates, in the U.S. the movement is represented by the aptly named Friends of the Congo.
Friends of the Congo Student Coordinator, the young Congolese Kambale Musavuli, reports that since the first Congo Week in mid October 2008 over 60 countries and 300 university campuses and community groups have “joined us in the global call for justice for the people of Congo”. Many Congo Week gatherings this year featured the showing of the fine, new film “Crisis in the Congo: Uncovering the Truth” which now has been seen by over 100,000 people.
Encouraged by the end of apartheid in South Africa, the fall of Portuguese colonialism across Africa in the 1970’s, and the organizing in support of the Darfur and South Sudan struggle for greater autonomy, the organizing by Friends of the Congo helps to undergird and protect those voices inside Congo calling for free elections and a truly independent Congo. In Musavuli’s words, “Your actions, no matter how small, are strengthening the resolve of the youth and others inside the Congo who are waging a courageous fight, day and night to bring about peace, stability and human dignity. Knowing that they have the support of people of goodwill throughout the globe makes a tremendous difference.”
Our support, your support for Friends of the Congo in the U.S. is our vote for change in Congo. It is a clear expression of solidarity with those persons standing up for democratic, free and fair elections in Congo. And it is finally an embrace, as a true friend, of those in Congo who dream of a nation whose resources benefit the whole population and not a small elite hoarding the spoils of exploitation by foreigners.
Learn more about Friends of the Congo organizing and how you can be involved at