YAOUNDÉ, Cameroon – A proposed trip by Pope Francis to the Democratic Republic of the Congo will not happen until after a long-promised presidential election takes place.
Under a peace deal organized with the help of the nation’s bishops, President Joseph Kabila was supposed to leave office on December 19, but so far, there is no evidence he plans to do so. A date for elections still has not been set.
“The pope wanted to come. The Holy See has made clear to the Congolese authorities that his visit is conditioned on the organization of the elections which are established by its constitution,” Argentinian Archbishop Luis Mariano Montemayor – the Vatican ambassador to the DRC – told UN Radio.
He said there was a danger that if the pope visits the DRC before elections are organized, politicians could use the visit to score political points.
“When there is an election, we will be sure that there will be conditions for a pacification of the country. Before that, there is a danger of manipulation and exploitation of the Holy Father’s visit, either to support the continuation of an illegitimate government or for those who hope to expel the regime according to the popular movements,” Mariano Montemayor said.
The pope cancelled a planned visit in March over concerns of political instability. Africa’s largest country has 40 million Catholics – about half of the population – and the Church is the most respected institution in the country.
In December 2016, the Catholic bishops brokered a peace deal between Kabila’s regime and the opposition. The initiative 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.
The bishops said at the time that the accord mirrored a “consensual and inclusive political compromise that sets out a realistic route.”
But that optimism soon faded, as negotiations to implement the accord ran into trouble. Government negotiators and the opposition couldn’t agree on a timetable for elections – a situation compounded by the sudden death of the intended transitional prime minister, Étienne Tshisekedi, in Paris on February 1.
Ever since, Kabila has remained silent over the issue of holding an election.
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. His father had overthrown longtime dictator Mobutu Sese Seko in 1997, after the First Congo War.
Shortly thereafter, the Second Congo War began, which caused the deaths of millions in nearly five years of fighting.
Since the war ended, various militia groups have continued to function in the east and south of the country.
The violence in these areas – where there is strong opposition to the Kabila government – has risen since the agreement brokered by the bishops collapsed.
Several massacres have been reported, and both government troops and militia forces have been accused of human rights abuses.
“The massacres in the Kasaï, Béni, or Tanganyika all are linked to failed electoral processes,” Mariano Montemayor said, before calling the DRC a “predatory state” where politicians are more concerned about amassing wealth than taking care of the needs of the people.
More than a thousand civilians were killed in Béni last year, and over 250 were murdered in Kasaï between March and June this year. Dozens of people were killed in ethnic clashes in Tanganyika in December and January.
Whenever violence spikes in Congo, so too do attacks on Christian targets, generally because Christian churches and their personnel are often the lone social institution that doesn’t pull out of the affected areas.
In February, Mariano Montemayor joined with the country’s bishops and the United Nations peacekeeping force to call for an end to the “deplorable” attacks on Church facilities in the country.
They said “places of worship belong to all, and as such, are supposed to be apolitical; Churches are also places of contemplation for the people and must be respected and protected. By attacking them, their perpetrators and/or sponsors are harming a common good of all Congolese.”
Catholic Church leaders and other civil society members met in Paris last month to discuss a “return of constitutional order” in the DRC, and a “Manifesto of the Congolese Citizen.”
The document accused Kabila of using “force and financial corruption” to stay in power and “entrench his regime of depredation, pauperization, and the pillaging of the country’s resources for the benefit of himself, his family, his sycophants, and his foreign allies in Africa and beyond.”
It said Kabila’s refusal to call an election has sparked pockets of violence across the country as part of a strategy to declare a state of emergency.
“Terror has once again become the preferred method of government, making it impossible for the Congolese people to claim their rights,” the statement reads.
The manifesto called on the Congolese people to foil Kabila’s attempts to stay in power after December 31, 2017. It also called for the resignation of Kabila and the organization of free, fair, and credible elections.
The signatories called on the citizenry to adhere to the manifesto and to “participate actively in the campaign of peaceful and non-violent actions to bring about a return to constitutional, democratic order.”
The document also called for a “new system of governance … built on an independent judiciary, security services who are there to protect our citizens, free expression of our constitutional freedoms, transparent and fair management of all national resources, and strong and democratic institutions that put the interests of the Congolese citizen at the heart of every political initiative.”