YAOUNDÉ, Cameroon – While most oil-exporting countries in Africa have blamed falling oil prices to explain their worsening economic situation, the bishops of the Republic of Congo have called such arguments “simplistic.”

At the end of the May 8-9 ordinary session of the Congo Episcopal Conference, the bishops said a constitutional change in 2015, civil strife, a rising debt burden, and corruption are the cause of the country’s economic woes.

The former French colony – population 5 million – has a debt burden higher than its GDP, well above the regional suggestion that countries not borrow more than 70 percent of GDP.

According to the International Monetary Fund, Congo’s public or publicly guaranteed debt totaled $9.14 billion or about 110 percent of its GDP.

(The Republic of Congo – with the capital Brazzaville – is distinct from the much larger Democratic Republic of the Congo – capital Kinshasa – although the two countries share a long border.)

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The bishops said falling oil prices have certainly been a factor in the country’s declining economic fortunes, but such a crushing debt burden, coupled with large-scale corruption and a change of the constitution in 2015 to allow President Denis Sassou Nguesso to seek re-election in 2016, have made matters worse.

“How else can you explain the fact that after several years of a boom in fuel prices, the Congo should be in economic recession? Is this situation not too easily attributed to a fall in oil prices on the international market?” the bishops asked.

They said they couldn’t understand how the Congo could have gone so far into debt after a decade in which enough wealth was amassed that “a fund for future generations was created.”

“How else does one explain for example the fact that at a time the government said it had an account at the Exim Bank of China to finance our infrastructure, that the country’s debt to China should be so colossal: 40 percent of the total amount of debt?”

The country’s hierarchy also took issue with how the country was negotiating financing deals in the oil industry, which the bishops said was worsening the debt burden, which was compounded by the opacity of the oil and mineral exploitation taking place in the Republic of Congo.

Corruption makes the problems in the Congo worse

The bishops said these issues have been worsened by corruption and lack of transparency in the management of natural resources, and asked “when ethics shall be introduced into trade in our raw materials, financial arrangements as well as debts contracted in the name of our country?”

The bishops also called on transparency from the countries doing business with the Republic of Congo, calling on them to police the companies involved in mineral extraction in the country and to hold them to the highest standards of accountability – noting that officials of those companies are involved in corrupt practices “that ruin our country.”

They said corruption, extortion and theft had made it impossible for the Congo to “pay workers’ salaries, pensions of retired people, and scholarships to students now abandoned to their fate in foreign countries.”

“Our hospitals are dilapidated, others have simply closed down. The sick are turned back from hospital and the death rate has continued to rise. Even the square meal a day that had become the rule in families is now a luxury, because the prices of foodstuff have continued to rise, except for beer whose price has continued to fall. Added to youth unemployment that was already endemic are those who are losing their jobs because of recession,” the statement said.

And even as the majority of the Congolese people live in misery, the bishops say there are those who swim in “miraculously acquired wealth,” and yet the numerous reports of corruption and extortion are hardly dealt with by the justice department.

The bishops have welcomed calls from some in the government to repatriate the country’s stolen wealth, noting that “those who took money that belongs to the Congo must return it to the people, because they are the rightful owners.”

They said they would stand by Sassou Nguesso if the president shows the courage to follow through on these demands.

Civil strife continues in the country

But the bishops said Congo will begin to regain stability only if the conflict in the country’s Pool region, located in the south, comes to an end.

The low-level conflict has its roots in civil war fought by a militant group known as The Ninjas against the Sassou Nguesso in the 1990s and 2000s – but was mostly ended by a 2007 peace deal.

However, it flared up again when Sassou Nguesso – who has ruled the country for all but five years since 1979 – won re-election in a disputed 2016 poll.

The election was marred by allegations of fraud, and violence erupted in the capital, Brazzaville, and other areas.

The government blamed the Ninjas – who denied responsibility – and began operations against the remnants of the group. Since then, the violence has displaced over 80,000 people, left over 135,000 in need of humanitarian assistance.

The bishops have called for an all-inclusive dialogue “to discuss the political and institutional model that we need for our country,” and the liberation of all political prisoners – an obvious reference to the leaders of the Ninjas who are still held in jail.

They said it was necessary for the government to work with the civil society to elaborate a new electoral system ahead of future elections and create an independent institution to fight against corruption.

The Republic of Congo is a former French colony, and about 33 percent of the country is Catholic, while the vast majority of the rest belong to different Protestant denominations.