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Boniface Mabanza {*} & Wolfgang Schonecke {*}

A Courageous Church

After the Rigged Presidential Elections in Congo


From: Herder Korrespondenz, 4/2012, P. 198-203
webmaster's own, not authorized translation


    While the in recent years considerably growing Pentecostal Churches pointedly behave non-politically, many Congolese consider the Catholic Church to be a force which stands for truth and justice. She showed this inter alia again by her sharp criticism of the electoral fraud by President Kabila. In this matter, the church leadership is not always in agreement.


Europeans often think and talk about Africa as if it was one country. They ignore the enormous geographical and historical, climatic and cultural diversity of this fascinating continent - the birthplace of humankind. What is more, every country, each region has its distinctive character. This also applies to the Congo with its 400 ethnic groups and languages, its world-renowned musical genius and its art of survival, well-known as "debrouillardise", its unique fauna and flora, and its incredible abundance of water, mineral and energy resources.


An Eventful History

The Church of the Congo, too, has a special place in the colorful picture of the Churches of Africa. She as the first founded a Catholic University, developed a Congolese rite, contributed considerably to the creation of an African theology, and is with 48 dioceses one of the most important local Churches of Africa. It is not surprising that the Church of the Congo was and is at the forefront in Africa's transformation process to more democracy and the rule of law.

This she proved once again with her response to the massive fraud of the elections on 28 November 2011, due to which the country's president, Joseph Kabila remained in power. While the international community simply proceeded as if nothing had happened, the bishops' conference called the credibility of the published results into question. The members of religious orders and lay organizations spoke out even more radically, and organized on 16 February this year a protest march, which was brutally crushed by police.



The high self-confidence and the special position of the Church of the Congo has its roots in a long history. After the churches in the Maghreb and in Ethiopia the Congolese church is the oldest in Africa. Already in the 15th century, in parts of the southern Congo and northern Angola a Christian kingdom emerged, when King Nzinga Nkuwu in baptism adopted the name of Alfonso I, and evangelized his people with great enthusiasm. The devastating missionary policy of the Portuguese, by which every baptised person became automatically a subject of the King of Portugal, the inability of the Pope to comply - against the will of the Portuguese - with King Alfonso's request for native bishops, the lack of missionaries, and the slave trade resulted in the gradual decline of this Christian kingdom - one of the great tragedies of church history.

The Church of the Congo emerged anew in the great missionary movement of the 19th century. Despite the atrocities of the Belgian King Leopold II, who in the Berlin Conference had appropriated the Congo as private property, and despite the problematic position of the Catholic missionaries during the colonial era, the Church developed into one of the most influential institutions in the country. That was certainly also due to the fact that the Belgian colonial administration put the school system and health service in the churches' hands. (see HK, December 2011, 638ff.).

Contrary to all the pessimistic expectations the end of colonialism brought a new heyday and a rapid Africanization of the church's leadership, structures, and liturgy. A man of great merit is here the first Congolese Cardinal Joseph-Albert Malula: by his outstanding personality and foresight he opposed already the dictatorial President Mobutu. By his bold criticism of the regime of Kabila, the current Archbishop of Kinshasa, Cardinal Laurent Monsengwo follows in his footsteps. While the in recent years fast-growing Pentecostal Churches behave non-politically, many Congolese see the Catholic Church as a voice that stand up for truth and justice.

The multi-party democracy in Africa is still young, and election processes are rarely completely transparent. But the audacity with which the Kabila regime has rigged the election results of 28 November last year in its favor is unequaled. Eleven candidates stood officially opposed to each other in the election campaign for the presidency. But only two of them had real chances: Incumbent Kabila and the leader of the main opposition party, Etienne Tshisekedi. After his doctorate at the Jesuit University Lovanium in Kinshasa, the now 79-year-old Tshisekedi began his political career in the sixties as a confidant of President Mobutu, and held different ministerial posts. In 1982 he fell out with the increasingly autocratically ruling Mobutu and founded the opposition party UDPS. His perseverance in spite of imprisonment, torture and exile has inspired in many young people courage for a political commitment.


Ballot Rigging Tantamount to a Coup

About Kabila, who is only half as old as Tshisekedi, is little known. His place of birth, his school education in Tanzania and his beginnings as a soldier in the Rwandan Patriotic Army is discussed just as controversially as the question of whether Laurent Desiré Kabila is his biological father. The circumstances surrounding the assassination of Kabila Senior and the take-over of power by Kabila Junior in 2001 are unknown up to the present day. Already the results of the elections in 2006, by which he became president, were questionable, whereas the electoral fraud of 2011 was so obvious that it amounts to a coup.

If a government wants to win elections at any cost, many options are at its disposal. In the case of elections in the Congo, the first step was a constitutional amendment. The required run-off election between the two most successful candidates was abolished by Parliament, and replaced by a simple majority in the first round. Kabila was thus able to improve his prospects. Then he filled with loyal followers the National Electoral Commission and the Constitutional Court, which ultimately decide on the election results. What followed was the massive counterfeiting of electoral lists with names of people who were not entitled to vote: soldiers, policemen and children, even long deceased.



Especially in rural areas, military and police were engaged in impeding voters, in filling ballot boxes with premarked ballots, and in keeping the representatives of opposition parties and election observers away from vote-tallying. The extent of manipulation can be gauged by the fact that one day after the end of the elections a plane started from South Africa, with five million ballot papers which were then used to supply fictitious votes.


The Fight for Strategic Resources

Although the Central Election Commission tried in vain to prevent the publication of election results on the spot, the trends via "SMS" became known still on the election day across the country. The contradictions between the locally published and the official counterfeit electoral protocols forced the Election Commission repeatedly to postpone the announcement of the election results.

The first free elections after the Mobutu regime and two wars in the summer of 2006 aroused great international interest, so that even the German government, which is little interested in Africa, ordered an army unit as safety factor to go to Kinshasa, whereas the international attention to the elections of 2011 was rather limited. There was hardly any reaction when Kabila enforced the amendment of the constitution.

The EU sent only a small number of election observers. They found admittedly massive irregularities, and contested the credibility of the presidential election but drew no consequences from it. At the swearing-in of the President on 20 December, all EU ambassadors made dutifully an appearance, after Kabila had threatened to declare absent people to be personae non gratae. No country wanted to run the risk of losing its share of the resource wealth of the Congo.

Conflicting voices about the election can be heard from Africa. The official observers from the African Union assessed the elections with words like "in accordance with the regulations", whereas the civil society election observers called for the annulment of the results and new elections.



At the beginning, the United States were very critical of the electoral commission, but they very soon recognized Kabila's regime. Geopolitical and economic interests are obviously more important than the democratization and stabilization of the Congo. Nothing illustrates the international linkages in the Congo as clear as the crash of a government aircraft in February 2012, where Kabila's closest advisers and two Americans were killed. They were on the return flight from the island of Ijwi in Lake Kivu at the border with Rwanda.


A Vibrant Civil Society

The Congolese have always suspected that Kabila and Rwandan President Paul Kagame were in cahoots with each other, and that America uses in the region for its own geopolitical interests the politically wily and power-experienced Tutsi elites, which in Uganda, Rwanda and the Congo came to power by force of arms. America's policy in Central Africa reflects the potentially dangerous international competition for Africa's energy and mineral resources between the industrialized nations of the West and the emerging economies of China, India and Brazil.

The planned relocation of the United States Africa Command (Africom) in Stuttgart to Africa shows the intention to leave Africa not without a fight to the Chinese, who are meanwhile omnipresent on the continent. The Congo is in this case an important battleground in the increasingly violent struggle for strategic resources, and the local authorities cleverly maneuver between the various stakeholders.

The behavior of the U.S. and the EU towards the regime in Kinshasa demonstrates the cynical attitude of the West: One demands the rule of law, good governance and democratic behavior from African governments, but at the same time one makes a deal even with the worst dictators. In the eyes of many Africans, the West is thus forfeiting the last vestiges of credibility. It appears as if the West has little learned from the fate of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and Muammar al-Gaddafi in Libya.

In contrast to the West's and also China's policy, which is dominated by economic interests, there is in the region a vibrant civil society. It has with admirable courage documented and publicly condemned the endless human rights violations of all warring parties during the two Congo wars and in the subsequent rebellions. Particular attention is given to the rape of women - a systematically used strategy in order to demoralize the enemy.

Many human rights groups emerged in an ecclesiastical context but became later independent. In the Congo it is life-threatening to be a human rights activist. Dissidents and journalists are time and again persecuted and often killed. One of the most prominent victims was the human rights defender Floribert Chebeya. He has not survived a summons by the police chief in Kinshasa, and became the symbolic figure for the resistance against the tyranny and violence of the regime.

Due to her nationwide networks, also the church has played an important role in protecting endangered people and documenting human rights abuses, especially in remote rural areas. She has paid a high price for it. Laymen and laywomen, priests and even bishops were murdered, tortured or expelled. The outstanding figure of Archbishop Christophe Munzihirwa remains unforgotten in the Congo. During the occupation of the town of Bukavu on 29 October 1996 he was murdered by the Rwandan Patriotic Army. "For us Christians, he is always alive and his testimony gives light and inspires us. His message to us reads: Respect for life, respect for every human being, and defending the rights of the weak and the voiceless," writes a blogger.

Not only bishops, also the coordinators of the Congo Council of Catholic Apostolate of the Laity (CALCC) showed great courage when they 20 years ago in Kinshasa organized a peace march, in order to protest against Mobutu's closure of the "National Conference"; its task was to prepare the democratization of the Congo. Many participants in this march were shot down by the soldiers of Mobutu.

At the anniversary of this peace march on 16 February 2012, the Christians of the Archdiocese of Kinshasa wanted to commemorate the 69 victims of the massacre - again with a peaceful memorial march. At the same time they wanted to express their protest against electoral fraud by the government of Kabila. For one month, the parishes of the capital had taken part in spiritual exercises, and had trained nonviolent resistance. Again security forces nipped the march in the bud by batons and tear gas. While foreign media took little notice of it, this was for all Congolese a further proof that the power of the Kabila regime lacks all democratic legitimacy; it can only be maintained by violence.


An ambivalent Bishops' Conference

During the two Congo wars and the various ethnic and political conflicts, many dioceses and their Justice and Peace Commissions were engaged in intensive peace and human rights work. But there were also bishops, whose relations with the warring factions may be described at least as questionable.



The different positions of the bishops are also reflected in the Congolese bishops' conference: It is admittedly in agreement in condemning violence and human rights violations in general, but hardly able to reach consensus when it is about practical and action-oriented decisions. Already in the election year of 2006, rifts became apparent within the Bishops' Conference. Some of its members wanted for very good reasons to call for an election boycott; others resisted, and secretly campaigned for the ruling party.

This disunity within the church leadership was also noticeable after the rigged elections in November 2011. Given the precarious situation, Cardinal Monsengwo very courageously took up a position on the electoral fraud. He condemned it in plain words, and called upon Christians and "people of good will" to work for the triumph of "truth and justice." Other members of the Episcopal Conference turned out to be indifferent or took up ambivalent positions. These can easily taken up by the ruling party, in order to isolate Cardinal Monsengwo.

The declaration of the Bishops' Conference of 11 January reflects the different tendencies. On the one hand, the ballot rigging is clearly condemned, "In view of all this, we assess the electoral process as tainted with serious irregularities, which call the credibility of the published results into question. We call upon the organizers to show courage and honesty, and to draw the necessary consequences from it." On the other hand, the bishops recommend the government, whose election they had just criticized, a better preparation of the next election - as 'lesson from the election debacle'. In a Congolese context, this means the recognition of a government which is the result of the rigged elections. The ambivalence of the declaration of the bishops did certainly also affect the assessment of the elections by the so-called international community. Since the Church's assessment has a particular weight, because with her 30.000 election monitors she was more present in the electoral process than all the other election observer missions.


Radical Church Goers Demand the Annulment of Elections

The declaration of the church leadership is also contradictory to the reaction among the churchgoers. Already in early January, "the people of God in Kinshasa, priests, members of religious orders, laity, men and women of good will" had made a statement that is unique in its radicalism and clarity. The signatories notice that "the election was marked by massive fraud and serious irregularities, that the results announced by the Electoral Commission (CENI) and confirmed by the Supreme Court do not display the truth of the ballot boxes," and "that we are confronted with a state power, which is neither legitimate nor legal." They demand "the complete annulment of the elections, the resignation of the office of the National Electoral Commission (CENI) and call upon the entire population of the Congo," to organize nonviolent actions of civil disobedience, in order to restore the legitimacy and legality of state authority in the Congo". The international community is urgently asked "to deny the illegitimate and illegal regime in the Congo the recognition." Contrary to the Bishops' document, the laity do not request any concessions from the regime, but call on the oppressed to build up their energy, in order to free themselves.

The Church's history in the crises of the Congo is a mixture of light and shadow. The spectrum reaches from collaboration with unjust power over helplessness up to prophetic action. Due to her societal significance, the Church had and has the opportunity to play a crucial role. But she often lagged behind and is still lagging behind her potential. Not only the internal tensions among the bishops, which reflect the disunity of the Congolese society, is to blame for it. Another reason why the Church does not fully realize her possibilities for societal change is the Roman centralism. It has particularly an effect on the appointment of Bishops: These often appear to be more determined by ecclesio-political interests than by the desire of peoples for liberation from oppressive structures. Despite the limitations, the dynamic forces in the Congolese church have initiated many encouraging initiatives.


Not only in the Congo the Churches raise their Voice

Also in other African countries, the churches raise their voice against corruption, abuse of power and exploitation. With his characteristic directness, the former Anglican archbishop of Cape Town Desmond Tutu condemned the discrimination against homosexuals in Africa. The 80-year-old Cameroonian Cardinal Christian Tumi speaks openly of the corruption and the fraudulent electoral practices in his country. In Uganda, Catholic and Anglican bishops condemn human rights violations, poor governance, and the immorality of the elites. In Burkina Faso, after 25 years of autocratic rule by Blaise Campaore, the bishops speak out against a new term of office. The Sudanese churches played an important role in the struggle for independence of the South. They publicly condemned the military aggression of the North and the tribal conflicts in the South.



Many bishops' conferences give clear criteria for elections, and are committed to the training of independent election observers. The Second African Synod has certainly contributed to many African bishops' more courageous committment to societal transformation processes and a culture of democracy (see HK, February 2012, 86 ff.). If the church would more radically implement the principles proclaimed by her, her message would be all the more effective.


    {*} Boniface Mabanza (born in 1974 in the Democratic Republic of Congo) studied philosophy, literature and theology in Kinshasa and gained a doctorate at the University of Munster on "Training in Conflict Management" at the Academy for Conflict Transformation in Bonn. He is coordinator of the Kirchlichen Arbeitsstelle Südliches Afrika in der Werkstatt Ökonomie/Heidelberg (KASA), was a visiting professor in intercultural theology at the University of Frankfurt in the winter semester 2011/2012, and is a lecturer in development policy at the German Academy for International Cooperation (GIZ).
    {*} Wolfgang Schonecke (born 1938) was until 2007 head of the Network Africa Germany based in Bonn and Berlin (, since 2008 he leads the Berlin office. From 1965 to 1982 he worked in pastoral care in Uganda. From 1982-1992 Schonecke took over tasks of leadership for his Order of the Africa Missionaries - White Fathers; from 1994-2001 he led the Pastoral Department of the Association of Member Episcopal Conferences in Eastern Africa (AMECEA).


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