YAOUNDÉ, Cameroon – Catholic bishops in the Democratic Republic of Congo “deplore” that the human rights situation in the country has worsened in recent months under President Felix Tsisekedi, especially since initial progress was made when the president came to power three years ago.

In a March 3 statement, the prelates said human rights activists were being oppressed and the justice system remains unevenly applied.

“We deplore the repression of human rights activists, attacks against civilians by armed groups or government forces, the obstruction of freedom of expression and demonstration,” the bishops wrote.

In January, the UN Joint Human Rights Office documented 539 cases of human rights violations in the DRC, a 6 percent drop from December 2020 total of 572, but still a concern to the bishops.

The UN rights body further stated that state agents were responsible for 49 percent of documented violations, including extrajudicial killings, while 51 percent were committed by nonstate armed combatants.

Violations included unlawful killings, disappearances, torture, rape, and arbitrary arrest and detention, and took place especially in the east of the country.

Reports indicate that over one hundred armed groups operate in eastern Congo, and the fighting has forced 800,000 people to flee the country as refugees and caused 4.5 million internally displaced persons.

The United Nations estimates at least 13 million people are in need of food, including more than 1.3 million children under 5 being affected by severe acute malnutrition.

The question of a post-Kabila government

Tsisekedi came to power in 2018 but went into a coalition government with former President Joseph Kabila’s party, after it won the majority of seats in parliament. It was an uneasy alliance, with many accusing Kabila of trying to rule from behind the scenes.

“You know how the bishops opposed that coalition,” said Father Donatien Nshole, the secretary general of the Congo bishops’ conference, in an interview on Okpaki Radio.

With Prime Minister Jean–Michel Sama Lukonde now carrying out consultations to form a new government unburdened by the Kabila connection, the bishops are insisting on suitable candidates for government positions.

“Only men and women who have demonstrated good ethics in their past and who have experience in the required field, concerned about the well-being of the population, deserve to be co-opted to manage the institutions of the State and public enterprises. The people will be frustrated to see those who participated in looting, insecurity and human rights violations return to power,” the bishops said in their statement.

In his interview, Nshole said the bishops welcomed the dissolution of the coalition.

“We are not waiting for angels, but there are basic criteria that have to be followed,” the priest said.

Catholics make up nearly half of Congo’s 80 million people, and the nation’s bishops are held in high esteem. It is the only truly nation-wide institution with the respect of the people and runs around half of the country’s schools and medical facilities.

Professor Jean-Claude Tshilumbayi, provincial deputy and top executive of the president’s UDPS party, said it was necessary to take the bishops’ advice seriously.

“It’s the role of the Church to voice it’s concerns once it’s values are attacked, it has to speak out – the values are ethics, human rights, freedom, democracy,” he said.

“The proposals of the bishops should not be swept under the carpet. These are highly intellectual people who understand that the formation of a government depends on duly constituted constitutional order. I think those to be selected should be vetted by parliament,” he added.

He added the bishops’ message “reflects the thinking of the people of the DRC. It’s true there has been progress in certain areas, but the critical questions that preoccupy the people have not changed: insecurity, the embezzlement of public funds, corruption and continued killings.”

The question of a free and fair election

The Bishops also underscored the need for the 2023 presidential election to avoid the largescale fraud of previous polls.

They called on the new government to “do everything possible to win the wager of organizing credible, transparent and peaceful elections in 2023 and not later,” in accordance with the Congolese constitution.

The bishops were drawing attention to the fact that the Congo’s electoral calendar is rarely respected.

This last point raised the ire of the administration. The communication department of the president’s office said in a Facebook post that the bishops had no reason to voice skepticism about the election, since a change of date “does not and has never crossed the mind of Félix Tshisekedi.”