Opinions Fri, 11 Jan 2019

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The church and politics - The case of Dr Congo

A land boasting rich mineral resources and lying at the heart of Africa, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DR Congo, DRC or Congo-Kinshasa, and formerly Zaire) is the 2nd largest country on the continent after Algeria.

It is bordered to the North by the Central African Republic (CAR) and South Sudan. At its eastern border lie Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi and Lake Tanganyika separates it from Tanzania, with Zambia and Angola at the south of the country.

Republic of the Congo (Congo-Brazzaville) borders its west with the Angolan exclave province of Cabinda, and despite being at the heart of the continent, it is not completely landlocked as the Atlantic Ocean lies on the west of its south-western border, covering a few nautical miles.

On December 30, 2018, the people of DR Congo went to the polls to elect a new leader to succeed Joseph Kabila (who has been in power for 18 years). This election comes off after a series of delays and protests since November 2016 when Kabila’s tenure was due to expire.

The tensions in the country led the country’s Catholic Church to broker a peace deal between President Kabila’s People’s Party for Reconstruction and Democracy and opposition parties, in December 2016, which provisionally kept the President in power pending elections the following year.

The December 2017 deadline elapsed, leading to another series of protests (this time around led by the former peace broker, Catholic Church) which brought about the elections finally being held on December 30, 2018.

The announcement by the Catholic Church on Thusrday, Janaury 3, 2019, that it knows the winner of the elections, days ahead of the official declaration by the country’s electoral commission, has been described as “preparing the population for insurrection”.

With such a bold move by a staid institution like the Catholic Church, this would come as a surprise in many countries, but not in the DRC, as the influence of the church often supercedes all other institutions including political parties and government agencies.

According to the CIA’s The World Factbook, out of DRC’s over 85 million people (July 2018 est.), 50% are Roman Catholics, with Protestants being 20%, Kimbanguist 10%, Muslim 10% and other religious groups also being 10%.

Also, 60% and 40% of the country’s basic and secondary schools, respectively, were established and currently managed by the Catholic Church. In addition to the schools, the Church owns and runs an extensive network of health facilities across the county, as well as many economic ventures which include farms, ranches, stores and artisanal shops.

According to an expert in Congolose politics and Director of Southern Africa Resource Watch, Claude Kabemba, “the state has collapsed. It can’t provide services. For many people, the Church is far more present in their lives than the government has been”.

The Catholic Church’s influence in DR Congo can be traced back to the colonial period (early 20th to the mid-20th century) when the Belgian colonial government was managing the affairs of the country. During that period, the government authorized the Belgian Roman Catholic Missions to establish schools and hospitals throughout the colony as part of its “civilizing mission”.

The partnership between the government and the church hit a low when DR Congo became independent in 1960. For the locals, there was little or no difference between the white men in suits who occupied government buildings in the capital, Leopoldville (modern day Kinshasa) and the white men in cassocks who run their churches, as it was perceived they both shared the same agenda.

This view was re-echoed by Cardinal Joseph Malula (Archbishop of Kinshasa and de-facto head of the Catholic Church in DR Congo, for many years after independence), when he once remarked that, “for our people, the Church was the State, and the State was the Church”.

The Catholic Church suffered several attacks from the local people, with other Christian groups like the Protestants and Kimbanguists, spared.

A decade after independence, there was no effort at normalizing the relations between the state and the Catholic Church, as it deteriorated further. President Mobutu Sese Seko’s policy of Authenticité (campaign of pro-Africa cultural awareness), where the country, cities and people’s names were changed from European ones to African ones and western attires also banned, were largely opposed by the Catholic Church (especially with the law imposing a 5-year sentence for priests caught baptizing a Congolese child with an European name).

In the 1970s, the Mobutu regime took control of the Church’s schools and also nationalized the only Catholic university (Lovanium University, near Kinshasa, and antecedent of University of Kinshasa) in the country together with two other universities, and consolidated them into the federated National University of Zaire.

To make things worse, the government banned Christmas as a holiday, whiles religious teachings were also banned from schools, together with ordering crucifixes and pictures of the pope to be removed from schools, hospitals and public buildings, which were replaced with portraits of President Mobutu.

In less than a decade, the resource-rich nation began to experience economic upheavals, including a fall in copper prices and low standards of living. With the state’s inability to manage the country’s resources and institutions, religious bodies were tasked to resume control of their schools, with religious teachings reintroduced into the educational curriculum.

The 1980s were no different as there was still antagonism between the two entities. For example, the June 1981 Bishop’s Episcopal letter, which chided the government for many crimes including corruption, mismanagement and lack of respect for human rights, provoked the President to warn the church hierarchy to stay out of politics, thereby leading him to station the ruling party’s youth militia in all places of worship to observe their homilies.

In the past two decades since the end of the Mobutu regime in 1997, the tensions had subsided, with the Church collaborating more with the government until December 2017 when they organized a series of anti-government protests.

Prior to the December 2017 protest march, the Church had in December 2016, brokered a peace deal (known as the St. Sylvester Agreement) between the ruling party (led by longtime leader, Joseph Kabila) and opposition parties, in relation to holding a presidential election.

The deal provided that, a general election was to be held in December 2017, and the ruling party’s failure to abide by its terms, provoked the Catholic Church (former peace brokers) to launch a series of anti-government protests from December 31, 2017 through to early 2018.

Aside the anti-government protests organized by the Catholic Church to demand an election, they also carved out a diplomatic role for itself by lobbying the UN and other international organizations to weigh in against President Kabila, to demand elections in the country. For example, in March 2018, Father Donatien Nsholo (Secretary-General of the Congo’s Bishops’ Conference) addressed the UN Security Council, seeking their intervention to ensure that the country holds a “credible, transparent and peaceful election” soon.

Moreover, the Church made its presence felt in the December 30, 2018 election. On the day of election, they had about 40,000 observers scattered across every constituency in the country.

This comes as no surprise when they were able to announce days earlier before the official announcement by the electoral commission that, they knew the clear winner.

It must be noted that this was not the first time the Catholic Church had sent observers to monitor national elections. In the 2011 presidential elections, they had 30,000 observers and they were the only institution with observers in every constituency. President Kabila seems to be the one most annoyed by the Church’s influence in the country’s electoral process.

In January 2018, he held a rare press conference where he quipped, “I don’t have my Bible right here with me … but nowhere in the Bible did Jesus Christ oversee an electoral commission”. He continued that, “render unto God what is due to God and to Caesar what is due to Caesar.”

Surprisingly, not everyone in the government is against the Catholic Church. Emmanuel Shadary (President Kabila’s chosen successor), presidential candidate of the ruling party in the December 30 polls, attempted to use his membership in the Catholic Church to garner more votes prior to the election.

One of Shadary’s posters which were trending on social media months prior to the election had the Pope in the background, with the caption, “Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary, a practicing Catholic.” This led the church to issue a statement denouncing the act.

In a statement posted on the Catholic Church’s twitter account, it read, “The Catholic Church is requesting politicians not to use the image of the Pope for their positioning”.

In the early hours of Thursday, January 10, 2019, the country’s electoral commission declared leader of the main opposition party, Felix Tshisekedi, as a surprise winner of the December 2018 polls.

The Catholic Church rejects this result though, as they claim it does not tally with what their observers gathered. However, should Mr. Tshisekedi’s inauguration as president in the coming days goes as planned, it would signify the first peaceful transfer of power in the country since independence, and observers would be keen to see the how the church relates with the new government.


It was in Mobutu’s regime (1965-1997) that the country’s name was changed from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DR Congo or the Congo) to Zaire, and cities like Léopoldville, Stanleyville and Elizabethville, were also renamed Kinshasa, Kisangani and Lubumbashi, respectively.

These changes were the result of the policy of authenticité. It must, however, be noted that, the country was renamed to the DR Congo or the Congo, when Mobutu was booted out of office in 1997.

Columnist: Cornelius Mensah-Onumah

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