Violence escalates in Congo after bishops' peace deal collapses

Violence escalates in Congo after bishops’ peace deal collapses

Violence escalates in Congo after bishops’ peace deal collapses

A former site for internally displaced persons (IDPs) near Kalemie, Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) was burned down when it was attacked by a militia group in early July. (Credit: Ivo Brandau/OCHA.)

Efforts by the Catholic Church – the most respected institution in the Democratic Republic of the Congo – to broker a peace deal have floundered on the altar of mistrust and suspicion. With a proposed agreement disintegrating, the bishops are concerned that the DRC could descend into an all-out war.

YAOUNDE, Cameroon – Opposition leaders in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) called a sporadically observed two-day strike for Tuesday and Wednesday, a day after a dozen people were killed in anti-government violence in the capital, Kinshasa.

Meanwhile, a UN report released Friday has said at least 250 people were killed in ethnic violence in the DRC’s Kasai region over the last three months, reversing attempts at peace, and leading to fears of a nation-wide escalation of conflict.

International investigators have blamed government forces and militias for abetting the Kasai violence.

Scott Campbell, a senior UN Human Rights official, said the spiraling violence could be used by the government to postpone elections, “which could make other types of violence and human rights violations (more likely).”

President Joseph Kabila has served in office for nearly 17 years, taking over for his father, Laurent-Désiré Kabila, after he was assassinated on January 16, 2001.

The violence in Kasai is part of a larger conflict in the Congo, that has killed over six million people during the past two decades. A series of revolts and rebellions – often with foreign backing – have affected different parts of the country. The lack of a stable central government has meant that armed groups have exploited the situation to plunder the country’s rich mineral resources.

Efforts by the Catholic Church – the most respected institution in the country – to broker a peace deal have floundered on the altar of mistrust and suspicion.

RELATED: Bishop in violence-torn Congo appeals to youth: ‘Keep your priests alive’

The Catholic bishops, according to Msgr. Leonard Santedi Kinkupu, secretary-general of the Congo’s bishops’ conference, presented a peace initiative that was “welcomed by all sides” who seemed “absolutely ready to hear the Church’s voice.”

The initiative, brokered on December 31, 2016, required the government of Joseph Kabila to agree to a number of opposition demands, including: Freeing all political prisoners; returning seized media operations; and ending the harassment of opposition politicians.

The deal required that Kabila step down by December 19, 2017. Elections would be held in December 2017, with Kabila not being eligible to seek a third term. There would be no referendum to effect changes to the constitution (wanted by Kabila so he could seek re-election). It also required legislative and provincial elections this year, with a transitional prime minister to be appointed by the opposition.

“Both sides appear to be listening — and the ruling majority does seem to be taking these preconditions seriously,” Santedi Kinkupu told the National Catholic Reporter when the deal was reached.

“For their part, the bishops are doing everything to save the country, at a time when the lack of any consensus risks igniting violent confrontations. We’re encouraged by the confidence shown in us by the main political actors, and their readiness to cooperate.”

But those positive signs would soon fade. Both sides failed to agree on a person to run the transition government. Consequently, the bishops announced their withdrawal from the peace deal on March 28, 2017.

“The lack of sincere political will and the inability of political and social actors to find a compromise have prevented an agreement from being reached,” said Archbishop Marcel Utembi Tapa of Kisangani, the President of the Congo bishops’ conference, on announcing the withdrawal of their mediation.

He said the peace accord was “in a state of failure” and indicated that “the bishops cannot mediate endlessly,” calling on Kabila to quickly implement the terms of the deal.

But the bishops’ withdrawal was followed by a series of violent acts across the country, much of which is affecting the Church.

Across the country, Catholic churches, schools, priests, and nuns have become targets for attacks.

Armed men stormed a parish in the village of Paida in North Kivu where they tortured three priests, and stole money, computers, and other goods before looting a nearby Catholic school. On March 31, attackers set the bishop’s house in Luebo – in the Kasai region – ablaze, along with a convent and a library.

RELATED: Two priests kidnapped in Congo’s troubled North Kivu province

Cardinal Laurent Monsengwo Pasinya – the Archbishop of Kinshasa and a member of Pope Francis’s C-9 advisory panel – has condemned the violence, suggesting that the attacks were meant to undermine the work of the church to bring lasting peace to the DRC.

“We call on all of us to show wisdom, restraint and democratic spirit,” Monsengwo told Catholic World Report.

“Poverty is only increasing and we must guarantee fundamental freedoms and human dignity,” the cardinal said.

Kabila has said the withdrawal of the bishops should not mean the death of the mediation effort, promising to meet all parties. But the main opposition coalition says they don’t trust the president.

The situation was further deteriorated by the death of opposition leader Etienne Tshisekedi in February (the opposition had designated him as the transitional prime minister); which suspiciously coincided with the appointment by Kabila of a former leading opposition figure, Bruno Tshibala, to the prime minister position. This fueled further recriminations.

With the peace deal disintegrating, the bishops are concerned that the DRC could descend into an all-out war. They have said the only way to avoid such a scenario is to organize free and fair elections.

But this all depends on whether Kabila is ready to step down. With the electoral commission already complaining that it hasn’t got the required resources to organize elections, the possibility of Kabila continuing in office seems likely.

Additionally, the upsurge of violence in the Kasai has deep implications for the country’s peace process as a whole. The region is an opposition stronghold, and was the home of Tshisekedi.

The opposition has accused the government of inflaming the situation in Kasai as a ploy to delay the election and keep Kabila in office past December, and perhaps organize a referendum to change the constitution that would allow him to seek a third term.

Opposition figures have said in such a scenario, they will be left with no other choice than to “chase the dictator away.”

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