Can the Catholic Church save democracy in Congo?

The Catholic Church might have just delivered a divine glimmer of hope for Congo’s democracy. Last month, Congolese bishops helped forge a deal between members of President Joseph Kabila’s ruling party and members of the opposition that would see Congo hold elections by the end of 2017. Crucially, the pact states that the embattled Kabila will step down after elections. If the accord is implemented, it would ensure that Congo would see its first democratic transition of power since its independence in 1960.

There’s one hitch: While rights groups and governments across the world have praised the formulation of the deal, Kabila himself has neither signed the agreement nor made any public statements indicating whether he will abide by the pact and step down.

But fragile as it is at this juncture, the agreement is still a godsend. While a good portion of Western commentary has made only passing reference to the mediating role of the Catholic bishops, their role has been crucial — and it underlines the importance of Christian institutions in Congo’s post-independence politics. In fact, history shows that Congo’s Catholic clergy very well might be the force to prevent Africa’s second-largest nation — and the surrounding Great Lakes region — from falling into the abyss.

For decades, the Catholic Church has been a force for democracy and grass-roots civic action in what is now formally known as the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), formerly Zaire. The rabidly corrupt and kleptocratic regime of Mobutu Sese Seko, which dominated the country from 1965 to 1997, had to contend with outspoken priests who challenged his autocratic ways throughout his rule. In a 1996 NPR interview, Daniel Simpson, then-U.S ambassador to Zaire, observed, “Mobutu and his party state succeeded in destroying virtually every institution in this country, running from the trade unions to the political parties, to the authority of the traditional chiefs. But he never got the Catholic Church.”

Archbishop Marcel Utembi, second from left, and other bishops arrive for the signing of an accord in Kinshasa, Congo, on Jan. 1 after talks launched by the Roman Catholic Church between the government and the opposition. (Junior D. Kannah/Agence France-Presse via Getty Images)
Archbishop Marcel Utembi, second from left, and other bishops arrive for the signing of an accord in Kinshasa, Congo, on Jan. 1 after talks launched by the Roman Catholic Church between the government and the opposition. (Junior D. Kannah/Agence France-Presse via Getty Images)

Indeed, in many ways the church posed more of a threat to Mobutu’s regime than the army in the 1980s, according to Congolese scholar Phillipe B. Kabongo-Mbaya. Mobutu, who himself professed to be a “believing Catholic,” understood this and cracked down on outspoken clergy when he could. One such example was Cardinal Joseph Malula, a former archbishop of Kinshasa, who in the late 1960s was a key figure in the resistance to Mobutu’s “authenticity” campaign, especially the banning of the use of Catholic names. Malula was also a critic of the regime’s attempts to place youth wing operatives in all religious institutions in the country. As a result, Malula faced death threats from the regime and was forced into exile to Rome for five months in 1972, returning after he basically gave in to most of the government’s demands on policy.

In 1992, Washington understood the importance of Congolese clergy in promoting representative democracy. The Bush administration rolled out the red carpet for Archbishop Laurent Monsengwo Pasinya of Kisangani, who was president of the national council of bishops at the time. The cleric was granted meetings with high-level officials, which included Secretary of State James Baker III, national security adviser Brent Scowcroft and former defense secretary Robert S. McNamara. The council, under Monsengwo’s leadership, was at the forefront of the negotiations to draft a new constitution for Zaire and to form a transitional democratic government in the hopes of installing multi-party elections in the country. Earlier that year, Mobutu’s security cracked down brutally on pro-democracy protests organized by Congolese clergy, killing some 32 people and wounding dozens of others, including clergy members. In June 1992, the bishops issued a declaration denouncing “injustice, egoism, and untruth,” criticizing “nepotism and clientage” of the Mobutu regime. Still, Washington at the time was wary of formerly breaking ties with Mobutu because of his alliance with the West during the Cold War.

History seems to be repeating itself. Last February, it was the Catholic Church that helped call for marches in the streets to protest Kabila’s attempts to change the constitution. The date, Feb.16, was the same day in 1992 that the church organized mass protests to pressure Mobutu. However, unlike Mobutu, Kabila does not enjoy that same cushion of support from Washington. The Obama administration has already leveled sanctions against key members of Congo’s ruling apparatus to pressure Kabila to step down.

Kabila, a deeply unpopular president who came to power after his father’s assassination in 2001, has largely failed to improve the economic well-being of his people while also personally profiting from Congo’s vast reserves of mineral wealth. He cracked down on those protesting his attempt to stay past his term limit, which was December 2016; Congolese security forces killed at least 40 people during protests last month. But the church has more political legitimacy than Kabila, because its institutions help to provide health and educational support to communities that the state does not reach.

In Washington, there have been desperate pleas for the Obama administration to do something to “save” Congo before it leaves office. In a piece titled “Obama’s last chance to make up for his failure in Africa,” activist Vava Tampa writes that in order to save Congo, it is up to Washington to impose “life-changing sanctions on the things and people Kabila values most: his family, their fortune, and their ability to move freely in Africa and across the globe.” Others, like J. Peter Pham of the Atlantic Council, have called for the United States to go a step further and “derecognize Joseph Kabila as head of state of the country, since by his own constitution he is no longer president.”

In fact, U.S. sanctions already may have helped bring members of Kabila’s party to the table — but they won’t be the decisive factor in getting Kabila to respect the will of the people. If the United States wants to help ensure that Kabila respects the new accord, it should take a page from its 1992 playbook and increase its engagement with Catholic clergy in the coming months. As U.S. special envoy to the Great Lakes, Tom Perriello met with Vatican officials in Rome about the situation in Congo in October. In an interview with Vatican Radio, he said, “Unlike some of the political actors, who the Congolese people fear are more looking out for themselves than necessarily the country as a whole, there was a sense that the bishops were a voice for the national interest.” Christian communities around the world should also rally behind the Congolese’s church’s efforts. Congo has the largest Catholic population in Africa, with around 40 percent of its 67 million people identifying as adherents. A rallying of public support for the accord by the church may be the best way of pressuring Kabila to organize elections and step down without bloodshed.

Karen Attiah is The Washington Post’s Global Opinions Editor.

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