YAOUNDÈ, Cameroon – Bishops in the largest Catholic country in Africa are warning voters ahead of national elections next month to avoid the siren song of tribalism, nepotism, vote-buying and self-interest.

Voters in the Democratic Republic of Congo go to the polls December 20 to vote for a president. President Félix Tshisekedi, who was elected in 2018, is gunning for a second five-year mandate, but he is being challenged by a robust total of 22 other candidates.

Notable among Tsisekedi’s challengers are opposition heavyweight Martin Fayulu, who failed in his election bid in 2018, as well as affluent businessman and the former governor of Katangta Province, Moïse Katumbi, in addition to Dr. Denis Mukwege, who won the 2018 Noble Peace Prize for his action in favor of raped women.

As the campaign heats up, bishops are warning voters to beware. In a Nov. 22 release, the clerics urged voters to say “no to opportunists “who change camps for selfish interest, to those who take members of their families as running mates, as well as to those inclined to tribalism, nepotism and vote-buying.”

“You must follow the voice of conscience by voting for the candidates of your choice,” the bishops said.

They said the election offers a chance for the Congolese people to “renew confidence in the leaders of the Institutions which have served the country well, but also to sanction all those who have mismanaged by serving their own interests.”

“Faced with new candidates, let us favor objective criteria of competence and moral probity,” the bishops said in their Nov. 22 statement.

They said the electoral campaign is a time for the people to “call those who have led us to account in relation to the promises made and to properly judge the relevance and feasibility of the promises of the new candidates.”

They called for vigilance, insisting that people should vote and protect their votes.

“When election time comes, let’s be vigilant and awake to protect our vote. We encourage those of you who are committed to organizing an election watch to lend a helping hand to traditional observation missions. Let’s not leave the polling stations until we have posted the results,” they said.

The bishops also warned against the use of sacred places like churches for political campaigning.

“We must avoid renting or ceding church spaces for the electoral campaign of individuals or political groups,” they said.

“Our places of worship must under no circumstances be used for political propaganda,” they warned, and emphasized that it is “forbidden to give the floor to political actors during Eucharistic celebrations or any other ecclesial activity to campaign.”

It will require just a simple majority for any of the candidates to win the presidency. Voters will apart from electing a president, also vote members of parliament and councilors.

The elections will take place against the backdrop of conflict in the eastern part of Congo, a lurking social crisis and fading confidence in the electoral process as the opposition has been suspecting the government of working to orchestrate electoral fraud.

At the social level, the COVID-19 pandemic as well as the war in Ukraine have combined to drive prices up across Congo, triggering an inflationary spiral that makes it harder for citizens to afford basic needs. Official statistics indicate that the Congolese franc has depreciated by around 15 percent to 20 percent against the US dollar since the start of last year.

Theoretically, the Congo is rich in mineral resources estimated at $24 trillion. Last year, it accounted for 70 percent of global Cobalt production, a major ingredient used in the fabrication of smartphones.

In addition, the DRC’s vast forest cover constitutes a major carbon sink.  According to FAO, the DRC has about 152.6 million hectares of forested land which constitutes 67.3 percent of the total land area.

Despite that vast wealth, the people are still mired in poverty and conflict. Pope Francis during his visit to the country last January recognized this disconnect between burgeoning wealth and worsening poverty.

The pontiff complained that the country has been  “massively plundered, and has not benefited adequately from its immense resources.”

“It is a tragedy that these lands, and more generally the whole African continent, continue to endure various forms of exploitation,” he said. “The poison of greed has smeared its diamonds with blood,” Francis said.

“Hands off the Democratic Republic of the Congo! Hands off Africa! Stop choking Africa: it is not a mine to be stripped or a terrain to be plundered,” the pope said at the time.

Since independence, the DRC repeatedly has known conflict, and hostilities flared up anew in 2022 when a surge in violence in the eastern provinces of Ituri, North Kivu, and South Kivu caused extensive internal displacement and substantial loss of life.

According to the UN Refugee Agency, 5.5 million people have been displaced within the DRC due to conflict as of December 2022. Nearly 1.1 million have crossed borders seeking asylum, and 26 million people now need humanitarian assistance.

Resolving the conflict to the east, ensuring that the country’s wealth benefits all the people and improving the general living standards of the people are the promises from the candidates, but the bishops are cautiously optimistic politicians really mean what they say.

The bishops entrusted the entire electoral processes to the Virgin Mary, “Our Lady of Congo, for credible, transparent and peaceful elections.”