Books on Congo

Named one of the 100 best books on Africa, Life and a Half was Sony Labou Tansi’s response to the death of close friends during a bloody military and political crackdown in Congo. The novel takes place in an imaginary African country run by the latest in a series of cannibalistic dictators who has captured Martial, the leader of the opposition, and his family.

For those of us who already have much of everything else, there’s at least one good book every year testifying to the nobility, strength and “joie de vivre” of the Congolese people in their struggle. Books published by journalists and writers traveling up the Congo River have become a mini-genre in recent years. So Lokole ya Congo here publishes a wish list of recommended books for all Congophiles who have everything they need and don’t need already.

The journalist Tim Butcher published a list of his ten Congo favorites in The Guardian (U.K.) in 2008. He began his list not surprisingly with Henry Morton Stanley’s book that inspired Butcher’s own highly praised Blood River: The Terrifying Journey Through the World’s Most Dangerous Country. Butcher’s list is weak on the decolonization and post independence periods of Congo so I’ve added a few of my recommendations.

“1. Through The Dark Continent, Henry Morton Stanley (1878)
Stanley’s charting of the Congo was the high-water mark of 19th century African exploration. It took three years and cost the lives of hundreds of tribesmen slaughtered by Stanley’s heavily-armed bearers. All his white companions died. But it fired the starting gun for the Scramble for Africa, luring the European powers to claim the continent’s interior after centuries of nibbling round its edges. Like its author, this book, written in two volumes as a package with newspaper sponsors, is not trammelled by modesty.

2. Five Years With The Congo Cannibals, Herbert Ward (1890)
A more convincing account of the turbulent start to Congo colonialism. Ward was one of the foot soldiers hired by Stanley when he returned to claim the vast river basin, employed by the Belgian king, Leopold II. Ward learnt river languages to fluency, survived paddling thousands of miles up and down disease-ridden reaches and managed to retain some sense of humility throughout. (MY NOTE: WARD WAS A PRESBYTERIAN MISSIONARY AND CLOSE FRIEND OF THE BRITISH CONSUL IN CONGO ROGER CASEMENT WHOSE REPORT TO THE BRITISH PARLIAMENT ON KING LEOPOLD’S CONGO FREE STATE’S RUBBER COLLECTION METHODS HELPED BRING AN END TO HIS PERSONAL RULE OF THE VAST TERRITORY.)

3. Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad (1899)
What Conrad saw on the Congo in 1890 while serving briefly as a steamboat skipper burnt in his soul for eight years until, in a few hectic months, he ran off this most haunting of novellas. Is it a racist attack on the savagery of black Africa? Or, maybe, a lament for the evil that bursts from all of us when our moral compass starts to spin?

5. A Burnt-Out Case, by Graham Greene (1961)
Where would a troubled novelist go for solitude in the 1950s? A leper colony halfway up the Congo near the town of Mbandaka was Greene’s choice and the resulting fiction tells of a troubled individual – this time an architect – seeking time away from life’s pressures by escaping to a remote medical station. When I visited the ruins of Mbandaka a few years back, no trace was left of its once famous medical centre, the missionary nurses or the writer. (MY NOTE: IN FACT THE CATHOLIC MISSION IYONDA WHERE GREENE STAYED STILL OPERATES FIFTEEN KILOMETERS BETWEEN MBANDAKA AND WENDJI SECLI.)

7. The Poisonwood Bible, Barbara Kingsolver (1998)
Magical, multi-voiced account of a family’s spiralling doom at a remote mission station in the Congo around the time of independence in 1960. Narrated in turns by the mother and the daughters, it captures the singsong sound of Lingala, the language of the lower river, and the jungle’s hidden terrors. The day the ant column comes, consuming all before it, forcing the villagers to decide what – and whom – they can leave behind is unforgettable.

9. The African Dream – The Diaries of the Revolutionary War in the Congo, Che Guevara (2000)
Written in the mid-1960s but only published recently, this book reminds us of the heady days when lefties acted on their belief that revolution was to be exported. Guevara found himself fighting against white mercenaries in the eastern badlands of the Congo. Four decades later, and the fighting has still not really stopped.” (MY NOTE: GUEVARA’S COMMENTS ON THE INEFFECTUAL, OPPORTUNISTIC LEADERSHIP OF GUERRILLA CHIEF LAURENT KABILA, THE CURRENT PRESIDENT’S FATHER, IS NOTABLY PRESCIENT)

As you see, I’ve eliminated some of Butcher’s choices I either don’t recommend (Naipaul’s A Bend in the River) or haven’t read. I confess to not having read the first two which are essential sources for the story of Congo’s increased contacts with Europeans and Americans in the late 1800’s. For twentieth century developments, the Flemish writer David Van Reybrouck has published the highly readable The Congo: The Epic History of a People based on extended interviews with elderly Congolese who lived the history from a variety of viewpoints and social positions. The result surpasses anything Butcher suggests as an in-depth view of Congolese life in the pre and post independence era. For a more scholarly history of the twentieth century Congo I recommend the Congolese expatriate political scientist Georges Nzongola-Ntalaja’s book The Congo: From Leopold to Kabila. On King Leopold’s rule over the Congo and the campaign to free the country from his depredations, Adam Hochschild’s King Leopold’s Ghost can’t be beat. And Mark Twain contributed to bringing Leopold’s rule of Congo to an end with King Leopold’s Soliloquoy, a worthy satire.

In closing I will share some favorites that are less well known. One of the first Peace Corps volunteers in Congo wrote an account of his cultural mishaps, misunderstandings and mistakes in a remote village. Mike Tidwell’s The Ponds of Kalambayi is a delight. The anthropologist Colin Turnbull has stirred much controversy with his research and books on northern Uganda but his classic The Forest People remains a beautiful rendering of his love and admiration for the Pygmy inhabitants of the Ituri Forest. Finally, I have just finished Noble Prize winner Mario Vargas Llosa’s account of the life of Roger Casement in The Dream of the Celt. Already mentioned above as one of the first international human rights campaigners focused on Congo, Casement led a fascinating but very difficult life worthy of the great novelist Llosa’s nuanced account.

Finally, I want to encourage Lokole ya Congo readers to explore the writing of the Congolese poets, short story writers and novelists who have gained literary attention since 1960. From the DRC, the late, lamented Sony Labou Tansi stands out as does our contemporary Fiston Mwanza Mujila whose recent first novel Tram 83 has been highly praised. The Republic of Congo’s Alain Mabanckou and Emmanuel Dongala continue to garner attention and literary awards. After reading Dongala’s The Fire of Origins, I want to read more of his work in the coming year. It is regrettable that a brief internet search brings up no mention of Congolese women writers. We need their voice to balance the images, views and impressions of Barbara Kingsolver’s highly regarded novel, probably the most widely read book on Congo in the U.S. Kingsolver’s book is written from an American missionary family’s standpoint, her parents also lived in Congo as missionary doctors before independence, during and following the Congolese transition to self rule.

I close this wish list with the wisdom of Congo’s “article quinze” (referring to the non-existent fifteenth article of Congo’s first Constitution) or “debrouillez-vous” which loosely translated advises, “carry on with what you’ve got”.

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Dr. Mukwege I Presume

We celebrate the co-awarding of this year’s Nobel Peace Prize to Dr. Denis Mukwege of Panzi Hospital in eastern Congo.  See this blog’s 2016 post on Dr. Mukwege’s call for political change in Congo titled “From ‘Beyond Vietnam’ to Congo 2016” and found below here:

https://lokoleyacongo.wordpress.com/2016/05/01/beyond-vietnam-1967-to-congo-2016/

Equateur’s Ebola Crisis Is Over

Congolese health officials prepare to disinfect people and buildings at the general referral hospital in Mbandaka on 31 May. Photograph: John Bompengo/AP

The Ebola outbreak that killed 11,000 people in West Africa three years ago has ended its threat in the Equateur Province of the Congo (DRC). The relatively low death toll of 29 during this most recent crisis can in part be attributed to Congo’s past experience in countering 8 prior outbreaks in the country. This was, however, the first instance of Ebola’s spread in Congo to an urban center, Equateur Province’s capital of Mbandaka with 1.2 million people. The organizing of an international campaign and the crucial contributions of local Mbandaka partners are highlighted in the following article by the DRC’s Minister of Health that appeared July 25 in The Guardian newspaper of the U.K.

“We’ve halted the spread of deadly Ebola in Congo – so what went right?”

by Oly Ilunga Kalenga, Minister of Health, Democratic Republic of the Congo

“The ninth and latest outbreak of the deadly Ebola virus in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is now over. I did not think I would be able to utter these words so soon after it all started on 8 May. This outbreak, the most challenging the country has ever faced, had all the makings of a major crisis.

M. Kalunga, DRC minister of health, during the launch of the Ebola vaccination campaign in Mbandaka. Photo: Junior D Kannah/AFP/Getty Images

Ebola surfaced simultaneously in two remote rural zones, with health workers among the confirmed cases. The virus quickly spread to Mbandaka, a city of more than 1.2 million inhabitants on the Congo, a heavily used transportation corridor. It could have spread to other major cities including Kinshasa, our capital, where more than 12 million Congolese live, and neighbouring countries, but it did not.

So what went right? The global community’s ability to contain the spread of the Ebola virus has greatly improved since the 2014 west Africa Ebola epidemic. With our partners, we applied many of the lessons learned from our experiences in both west Africa and DRC.

Local ownership remains the cornerstone of a successful response. The Ministry of Health stepped up to lead the efforts on the ground. By the time international support arrived in DRC, the major elements of a full-blown response were already in place and functioning.

Swift mobilisation of finances is another key factor. The government’s $56.8m (£43.3m) three-month action plan was fully financed within 48 hours of it being released, starting with the DRC government putting forward $4m. International partners including donor governments and the World Bank also stepped up – the latter triggered its newly operational pandemic emergency financing facility for the first time and swiftly repurposed funds through its existing health programme in DRC to support the effort. This is in stark contrast with west Africa, where it took months to raise the necessary funds, while the death toll kept rising and finally reached 11,000.

Nurse prepares to begin Mbandaka vaccinations Photo: Junior D Kannah AFP/Getty Images

The use of the Ebola vaccine, which proved highly effective in a clinical trial in Guinea in 2015, was one of the most innovative components of this response. The new vaccine has not just proved safe and effective against Ebola; it also changed community perceptions of the disease, which is now seen as treatable. Throughout the outbreak, more than 3,300 people were vaccinated. I was vaccinated myself to show the vaccine’s safety and break the stigma around it.

I learned that working with the community, especially on public health information campaigns, will get you a long way. Church and traditional leaders are your best allies to carry public health messages that require communities to change age-old habits and challenge their traditions. In Mbandaka, our strongest health advocates became the 4,000 motorcycle taxi drivers, whose daily work put them at risk of transporting infectious people. They started promoting vaccination and hygiene messages on local radio.

The pan-African nature of this response was quite exceptional. Epidemics do not stop at national borders. The importance of regional cooperation for outbreak prevention and management cannot be overstated. Health responders from Guinea participated in the vaccination efforts, epidemiologists from the newly created Africa Centres for Disease Control and the African Field Epidemiology Network worked with our experts on surveillance. This regional collaboration sends a strong signal that Africa is willing to take the driver’s seat in solving its problems.

While Ebola remains a formidable challenge for DRC and the rest of the world, we raised the bar on our own ability as a country to detect and respond effectively to outbreaks despite highly challenging circumstances. We must continue to improve our capacity to contain diseases and prepare for Ebola outbreak number 10, which we know will happen.

This ninth Ebola outbreak in DRC was unlike any other, but the lessons learned here can be applied anywhere in the world. With increased levels of global trade and travel, there is a higher risk of outbreaks increasing in frequency and spread. In this respect, all countries are equally vulnerable, and it is in our common interest to achieve global health security. The firs step is to learn from each other and take responsibility by improving our capacity to detect and respond to any outbreak that starts within our national borders.”
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The Guardian newspaper also featured Mbandaka in its “Cities in the Spotlight” series on June 27. The article by
the Mbandaka director of a local radio station, Peter Gbiako, was titled “Mbandaka has fought off Ebola – but can the DRC’s equator city recover?” The entire article with accompanying photos and videos can be found at:

https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2018/jun/27/mbandaka-in-the-spotlight-fought-off-ebola-but-can-the-drc-equator-city-recover

Congolese Threatened Most by “Country’s Own Security Forces”

Soldiers fire tear gas on protestors following worship in Kinsahsa January 21, 2018. REUTERS/Kenny Katombe

“It is sadly apparent that the gravest threat to Congolese civilians comes from the country’s own security forces” declared the Central Committee of the World Council of Churches meeting on the occasion of the ecumenical movement’s 70th Anniversary. Along with welcoming the first visit of Pope Francis to its Geneva headquarters, the World Council singled out for concern and action the DRC as the nation with more displaced persons than any other in Africa due to the “deepening political, human rights and humanitarian crisis and escalating conflict”. In warning against further postponement of the presidential election now scheduled for December, the statement calls “upon the Government of the DRC to stop the killing due to political intolerance” and “to respect fundamental human rights to assembly and to freedom of opinion and expression”.

With over 90 % of the population now professing some form of Christianity, the Congo has the eighth largest number of Christians among the world’s nations. It has more Roman Catholic adherents than any other country in Africa and the Archbishop of Kinshasa, Cardinal Monsengwo, was considered to be a top drawer candidate in the last papal election. The World Council’s June 20 statement notes the significant role of the Catholic Church leadership in designing a process for peaceful, democratic political change while also deploring the firing by Congo security forces “into Catholic church grounds to disrupt peaceful services and processions following Sunday mass”.
The statement provides a comprehensive summary of the worsening crisis in Congo and closes with some calls for action. It is reprinted below in its entirety:

“Solidarity with the People and Churches of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (revised)

1. The people of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) have already suffered so much for so long at the hands of so many self-interested actors from within and from outside the country. A deepening political, human rights and humanitarian crisis and escalating conflict are again afflicting the country and its people.

2. Some 4.5 million people – more than in any other country in Africa – have been displaced from their homes, and tens of thousands of refugees are again fleeing to neighbouring countries. DRC’s neighbours are already hosting approximately 600,000 people who have fled conflicts in the centre and east of the country.

3. More than 13 million Congolese affected by recent violence are in need of emergency assistance, including food, sanitation, shelter, and education – the same level of need as in Syria. The conflict and instability have been accompanied by exceptionally high levels of sexual and gender-based violence, and have entailed particular suffering for people living with disabilities. Well over half of the number of crisisaffected people are children. An estimated 2 million children are at imminent risk of starvation.

4. Despite its great wealth of natural resources, the DRC remains one of the world’s poorest countries due to endemic instability, conflict, corruption, poor governance and unregulated exploitation of its resources. Ten out of 100 children in the DRC die before they reach the age of 5, and more than 40% have stunted growth due to malnutrition

Detail of ironwood sculpture depicting women at the foot of the cross presented by Congo churches to the WCC

5. President Joseph Kabila has stayed in power beyond his constitutionally mandated two-term limit, and elections have been twice postponed on questionable grounds. In the context of this constitutional crisis, dissent and opposition is being brutally repressed, and violence is being fomented in different parts of the country for political ends, particularly in the Djugu territory of Ituri province, the Kasai region, North and South Kivu, and Tanganyika provinces.

6. It is sadly apparent that the gravest threat to Congolese civilians comes from the country’s own security forces. According to the UN human rights office in the DRC, some 1,180 people were extra judicially executed by Congolese “state agents” in 2017, far more than those killed by any of the armed groups, and a threefold increase over two years.

7. Government security forces have even fired into Catholic church grounds to disrupt peaceful services and processions following Sunday mass, killing at least 18 people and wounding and arresting scores of others. Hundreds of opposition leaders, supporters and pro-democracy and human rights activists have been imprisoned, often without charge or access to family members or lawyers, and meetings and demonstrations banned.

8. The Saint Sylvestre Accord, a power-sharing agreement signed on New Year’s Eve 2016 following mediation by the Roman Catholic Church, allowed for President Kabila to remain in power another year beyond the end of his constitutional two-term limit on 19 December 2016, but included a commitment to organize elections by the end of 2017. However, in November 2017 the Electoral Commission (CENI) set 23 December 2018 as the new date for elections, but suggested that numerous “constraints” could result in further postponement.

9. This long-running political crisis is deepening the misery of the people of the DRC, and raising the spectre of increased regional instability with very serious effects for the whole Great Lakes region and beyond.

10. The DRC has been identified as one of the ‘stations’ – or focuses – for the ecumenical movement’s Pilgrimage of Justice and Peace. The WCC central committee, meeting in Geneva on 15-21 June 2018, reflecting on the mid-point of the Pilgrimage of Justice and Peace between the WCC’s 10th and 11th Assemblies, and with deepening alarm and concern for the deteriorating situation in the Democratic Republic of the Congo:

-Calls upon the Government of the DRC to stop the killing due to political intolerance, to protect its citizens from violent attack and harassment by state or non-state actors, and to respect fundamental human rights to assembly and to freedom of opinion and expression;

-Further calls on the Government of the DRC to uphold the constitution and refrain from worsening the crisis and provoking more widespread conflict and violence by further postponement of the elections;

-Appeals to all members of the international community, and particularly the Southern African Development Community, to strengthen their engagement for durable peace, stability, justice, development, and human rights in the DRC;

-Implores that countries and companies engaged in exploiting the natural resources of the DRC respect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the country and the human rights of its people;

-Urges all churches and faith communities of the DRC to work together against politically-motivated violence and incitement to atrocity crimes, for a peaceful and fair election process, and for social and economic justice that provides a foundation for sustainable peace;

-Requests strengthened international ecumenical solidarity with the churches and people of the DRC in the midst of the current severe crisis, and support for their struggle for peace, for justice and for dignity.”

Mark Twain’s Defense of Human Rights in Congo

Mark Twain’s booklet published in early 1905 contributed to the international human rights campaign that ended King Leopold of Belgium’s personal rule over the Congo.

“We have gone there to conquer, not to redeem…. And so I am an anti-imperialist. I am opposed to having the eagle put its talons on any other land.” So stated Mark Twain in an interview published in The New York Herald in 1900. As U.S. business and military figures settled in the Philippines, the most widely read American writer at the time increased the fury of his attacks on the U.S. occupation of the Islands. In 1901 Twain proposed a new flag that would be fitting for the U.S. “Philippine Province”: “We can have just our usual flag, with the white stripes painted black and the stars replaced by the skull and cross bones.”

Twain deplored his country’s imitating the European pattern of foreign imperial rule and joined in denouncing the European and American suppression of the Boxer Rebellion in China. “My sympathies are with the Chinese” Twain wrote. “They have been villainously dealt with by the sceptered thieves of Europe, and I hope they will drive all of the foreigners out and keep them out for good”. But Twain’s fiercest denunciation of the exploitation of another people by a Western power was directed at Belgium’s King Leopold and his Congo Free State’s systems of extracting ivory and then rubber from the heart of Africa.

The celebrated writer’s 1905 treatise detailed the horrors perpetrated by the agents of a King “whose mate is not findable in human history anywhere, and whose personality will surely shame hell itself when he arrives there.” So wrote Twain in his journal a year after he published King Leopold’s Soliloquy as a small book benefitting the Congo Reform Association. The principal organizer and founder of the CRA, Edmund Morel, supplied Twain with photos of Congolese whose hands had been cut off for insufficient harvesting of rubber. In the writer’s view, the photos would counter the whitewashing by most of the American press of the Congo Free State’s depredations.

The Congo photos taken by British and American missionaries greatly agitated the Belgian King. Leopold, in Twain’s words, mutters to himself, “Ten thousand pulpits and ten thousand presses are saying the good word for me all the time and placidly and convincingly denying the mutilations. Then that trivial little Kodak, that a child can carry in its pocket, gets up, never uttering a word, and knocks them dumb.” The “incorruptible Kodak” was deemed an indispensable aid in countering the Belgian despot’s campaign to portray himself in the U.S. as “the benefactor of a down-trodden and friendless people”.

Providing evidence of the Congo Free State’s common practice of cutting off hands of unproductive rubber harvesters is a missionary of the Congo Balolo Mission. From the collection of the Centre for the Study of World Christianity, Edinburgh.

Twain’s considerable efforts to shed light on conditions in Congo and bring about change were driven in part by the U.S. 1884 official endorsement of the Congo Free State, the first foreign power to do so. He imagines Leopold gloating over his sales job, “Possibly the Yankees would like to take that back now, but they will find that my agents are not over there in America for nothing.” The U.S. President’s Order of Recognition brings a “mocking smile” to the King’s face as he reads, “the government of the United States announces its sympathy with and approval of the humane and benevolent purposes of my Congo scheme”. The guile deployed in establishing his Congo Free State brings another smile as he reads the report from Congo of the American missionary Rev. W.H. Morrison, “Our government would most certainly not have recognized that flag had it known that …..having put down African slavery in our own country at great cost of blood and money, it was establishing a worse form of slavery right in Africa” (author italics, ed.).

Once the U.S. President approved the Belgian King’s rule over the vast Central African territory, leading American businessmen, among them John D. Rockefeller and the Guggenheims, were granted concessions in Congo. Adam Hochschild in his book King Leopold’s Ghost quotes one of the King’s public relations agents in the U.S. as advising the King, “Open up a strip of territory clear across the Congo State from east to west for benefit of American capital. Take the present concessionaires by the throat, if necessary, and compel them to share their privileges with the Americans.”

Always a savvy manipulator of the media of his day, King Leopold sponsored publication of this defense of his Congo rule soon after release of Twain’s booklet

Once Leopold was forced to relinquish his rule of the territory in 1908, U.S. businessmen and government officials developed even closer ties with the agents of Belgian colonial rule. The U.S. business and financial sectors’ heightened involvement in the extraction of Congo’s unmatched strategic mineral reserves led to use of the country’s uranium in the creation of the atom bombs dropped on Japan. At independence in 1960, the international concessions holding the rights to most of Congo’s mineral wealth included a substantial U.S. share. Like the U.S.in the past, China today seems to value access to Congo’s mineral wealth above the human rights and living conditions of the country’s people. Its two billion dollar commitment to the country’s development projects places China in the position of being the leading ally and supporter of the present-day Congolese administration and its defiance of the country’s constitution and those defending its authority.

Kabila Regime Confronts the Power of the People and the Church

Priest and protestors January 21 in front of Congo Parliament Building Kinshasa

Pope Francis has called on the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics to pray and fast for an end to the growing political instability and decades of conflict in Congo and the South Sudan. In his February 4 prayers on St. Peter’s Square the Pope declared,”I invite all the faithful to a special day of prayer and fasting for peace on February 23, the Friday of the first week of Lent. We will offer it especially for the populations of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and of South Sudan.”

The date selected by the Pope precedes the third nationwide demonstration organized by Congo’s Catholic Lay Committee to end the “dictatorship” of President Kabila. Anticipating a large turn out among Congo’s 40 million Catholics for protests following worship on Sunday February 25, the Pope proclaimed, “Our heavenly Father always listens to his children who cry to him in sorrow and anguish, who ‘heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds.’ (Psalm 147:3) I make a heartfelt appeal so that we also listen to this cry and, each one of us in his/her own conscience before God, ask ourselves, ‘What can I do for peace?’

With the potential for violent repression by the Kabila regime of the demonstrators, the Pope also urged non-Catholics to join in prayers on Friday, the 23rd. “I also invite non-Catholic and non-Christian brothers and sisters to join us in this initiative in whatever ways they deem most appropriate”.

Without pledging to join in the prayer vigil and fasting or the nationwide demonstrations, the leading voice of Congo’s 26 million Protestants did respond to the Catholic-organized initiatives. The President of the Church of Christ of Congo (elected last August) Rev. André Bokondua Bo-Likabe addressed the nation’s growing political conflict in opening the meeting of the unified Protestant Church’s Executive Committee. “We are called Protestants because we always protest against what is unjust”, averred the President, who appears to be taking his Church in a new direction in opposing the regime in power. Quoting from Proverbs 29 :2 Rev. Bokondua added, ‘When those committed to justice are in the majority, the people rejoice ; when those who are evil dominate, the people groan.” Reflecting on recent events in Congo, he summarized, “the situation of the Congolese people today is a collective groaning”.

President Rev. André Bokundoa of the Church of Christ of Congo Ph. John Bompengo of Radio Okapi

The Kabila administration now faces the most serious threat to its seventeen year rule. Recognizing that his hold on power is weakening, President Kabila recently held his first ever extensive press conference, made a rambling two and a half hour defense of his rule, and named a new Minister of the Interior to take office five days before the demonstration on February 25. In another move to avoid the example of Mugabe in Zimbabwe and Zuma in South Africa in resigning, the President and administration officials have pledged that the election to replace Kabila will take place in December this year. But the regime’s violation of the December 2016 Saint-Sylvestre agreement terms for organizing elections and the brutal treatment of protestors by security forces loyal to the regime has increased anger and opposition to the government.

Summarizing the administration’s response to the two prior nationwide protests, the Catholic Lay Coordinating Committee has noted “the persistence of its arrogance, of its scorn and uncaring attitude. In brief”, the Committee went on, “its categorical refusal to take into serious consideration the protests of an entire nation”. The Committee speaks for the vast majority of Congolese in stating that the people desire “free, democratic elections organized in a transparent and inclusive manner but not fixed and rigged elections which will not bring peace either before or after the elections are held”.

In what can be seen as an additional move by the Pope this month to strengthen the position of the Catholic Church in Congo, an assistant and successor to the Archbishop of Kinshasa Cardinal Monsengwo has been appointed by the Vatican. Twenty years younger than the current Archbishop, an outspoken, severe critic of the regime, the Archbishop of Mbandaka-Bikoro in Equator Province Fridolin Ambongo helped negotiate the Saint Sylvestre agreement with the administration. Archbishop Ambongo still serves as Vice President of Congo’s Conference of Bishops which issued a statement last week defending the rights of peaceful protestors. The Bishops endorsed the struggle for “a lawful State in the Congo” and encouraged the population to “remain steadfast and vigilant in taking its destiny in its hands with prayer and initiatives to block peacefully all attempts to seize power by non democratic and unconstitutional means.”

Congo Protestant Pastor Speaks Truth to Power

Protestant Centennial Cathedral filled with the power elite to commemorate assassination of President Kabila’s father 16 years ago. John Bompengo

On January 16, the highest officials of the government and members of President Kabila’s family heard the pastor of the Protestant national cathedral in Kinshasa call for dramatic change in rule of the country . In a stunning reversal of the Church of Christ of Congo’s (ECC’s) prior support of the regime in power, Pastor Francois David Ekofo lamented the deplorable conditions and poverty in a nation so rich in natural resources. “I have the impression that the State does not really exist” Pastor Ekofo declared.

“What kind of country are we going to pass on to our children and our grand children?” the preacher asked those gathered to honor the memory of Laurent Désiré Kabila, the current President’s father. “We must bequeath to our children a country in which the State is a reality, a State that is trustworthy, where everyone is equal under the law” the Protestant Bishop proclaimed. “We must bequeath to our children a rich country, a country producing enough food to feed its people. I recognize that there is need to import technology” he continued. “But to spend the limited foreign exchange we have to import what we must have to feed ourselves, that is unacceptable for the Congo.”

The public criticism of the Kabila regime by a leader of the ECC’s sixty plus Protestant denominations signals a stronger Protestant movement under new leadership. Pastor André Bokundoa of the Baptist churches was elected last August as President of the ECC following Rev. Pierre Marini Bodho who had held the post for twenty years. Marini followed the example of the Disciple Pastor Jean Bokeleale who as leader of the Protestant denominations founded during the early days of the colonial era benefited from his unwavering support of the Mobutu dictatorship. Both the Protestant Centennial Cathedral and the Protestant University of Congo were granted land in the capital’s center by Mobutu. Like Bokeleale, Mobutu was a child of the Equator Province and saw the Protestant Christian minority as a force to counter the majority Catholic Church which emerged as the primary opposition to the dictator’s rule.

The Sunday after Pastor Ekofo’s sermon, Catholic priests in Kinshasa and in several provincial capitals led their parishoners and others into the streets to protest the extended delay in national elections. Since Kabila’s five year term ended in December 2016, the administration has pursued a strategy described by critics as “glissage” or “slipsliding” to prolong administration control of the vast wealth flowing from foreign exploitation of the nation’s resources. The UN reported at least five deaths at the hands of the regime’s security forces in response to the January 21 demonstrations in Kinshasa. Among the over 200 arrests were a dozen priests according to one report.

Peaceful protestors, here in front of a UN peacekeepers’ compound, were met by heavily armed regime security forces for the second time in less than a month

The Catholic Lay Coordinating Committee, headed by three notable Kinshasa based academics, noted that the number of parishes and members participating was larger than the December 31 demonstrations which also were met with bullets. The regime’s response to the growing protest movement has been met by increasingly fiery condemnation by the Archbishop of Kinshasa, Cardinal Monsengwo. “How can someone kill men, women and children, young and old while they are singing hymns, carrying Bibles, rosaries and crucifix?” the leading voice of the opposition asked.

In a country where education, health and community development services are largely organized and carried out by Catholic and Protestant churches, and where the civil society institutions are relatively weak, it is not surprising that church leaders have assumed the role of spokespersons for the masses of people. That a high profile Protestant pastor in Kinshasa has joined in calling for regime change is another sign that the Kabila administration’s hold on power is weakening. Impatience with the regime and its severe repression of dissent have resulted in more calls for immediate departure of the President and an interim government to take over and oversee preparations for the Presidential election.