YAOUNDÉ, Cameroon – Congo’s bishops have taken their grievances against the government of President Joseph Kabila to the United Nations, pleading the case for the president to keep his end of a bargain the bishops helped to negotiate in 2016 to end a political crisis in the central African nation.
Kabila has been in office for over 15 years, taking over from his father, Laurent-Desire Kabila, who was assassinated in 2001. In 2006, an election confirmed him in his post. He was re-elected for a second mandate in 2011.
After Kabila’s failure to step down after the end of his second term in December 2016, as mandated by the constitution, protests left dozens of people dead.
A Dec. 26, 2016, deal overseen by the Catholic hierarchy – called the St. Sylvester agreement – called for power sharing between Kabila’s party and opposition parties in the buildup to a presidential election at the end of December 2017, in which Kabila would not be a candidate.
The elections never took place, and Kabila continues in office.
On Dec. 31, 2017, 8 people were killed, and 120 others arrested in lay Catholic-organized protests calling on the president to step down. Several more were killed during protests on Jan 21 and Feb. 25.
Now the bishops are seeking international help.
The Secretary General of the Congo Bishops’ Conference, Father Donatien Nsholo, on March 19 told the United Nations Security Council the St. Sylvester agreement was still “a key factor in the organization of a smooth transition” from Kabila’s regime.
“To stem the worsening humanitarian situation, the United Nations needs to get more involved, and help in the organization of credible elections. The Congo bishops are convinced that only credible, transparent and peaceful elections can give the Congolese people a legitimate government that is capable of standing up to the multi-faceted crises rocking the country,” the priest said.
“The humanitarian and security situation is marked by chaos and by a generalized violence [across the country] due to the presence of different armed groups, inter-ethnic conflicts but also and above all the absence of the State,” he said.
Nsholo said complacency or failing to act would mean the Congo would remain a “time bomb.”
In the absence of any credible opposition and a free press, the Catholic Church is emerging as the only credible voice that can speak up for the people of the Congo in the face of Kabila’s regime.
Catholics make up nearly half of Congo’s 80 million people, and the nation’s bishops are held in high respect by most of the population. In the absence of a free press and organized political opposition, the Church is considered by many to be the country’s only independent voice.
“In concrete terms, we require of the international community to be more involved in terms of helping out with financial, logistical as well as humanitarian support and expertise so that the conditions for credible elections are established,” Nsholo said.
The priest said the public demonstrations led by Catholic lay groups were to be suspended and expressed the hope that various election stakeholders would take the advantage and “give the people of the Congo the right conditions for the organization of acceptable elections. We want these elections to put an end to the crisis.”
Nsholo also spoke of the need to strengthen the mandate of the UN Mission in the Congo – called MONUSCO – saying that it must be “equipped with the legal and material means necessary for the protection of civilians, vulnerable persons and their property in areas where recurrent attacks and violence occur.”
He called for urgent humanitarian aid to be deployed for the victims of insecurity and for those forced to leave their lands and insisted that an economic plan for the country be implemented after the scheduled Dec. 2018 elections.
Nsholo also said the bishops want the UN to guarantee Kabila won’t be a candidate in the election, and that a free and fair poll be conducted.
He added the bishops found it “reassuring” the opposition had begun to organize itself.
The priest told the Security Council the international community needs to help fund the Independent Electoral Commission and provide expertise in the use of the country’s new voting machines, saying that “without confidence in the machines, there is a risk the results will be contested.”
The stakes for the Congo are high.
According to the UN Under-Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, Mark Lowcock, at least 4.5 million people have been forced from their homes, around 30 million people need humanitarian assistance, and more than 4.6 million children face acute malnutrition.
“We are seeing mushrooming epidemics, including the worst cholera outbreak in 15 years, and also an epidemic of sexual violence, most of it unreported and unaddressed, much of it against children,” he told the Security Council.
Inflation and a budget deficit has made things difficult for people across the country, and the uncertainties of a political transition have led to spiraling violence.
Even if the bishops’ plan for a political transition succeeds, the next government has much work to do.