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.”

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A Season of Hope

In commemoration of the third annual Congo Week October 17-23, I am posting the following article with a plea to all to visit www.congoweek.org and www.afjn.org for updates on how to express solidarity with the people of Congo in their struggle for peace with justice.

A Season of Hope

Wrinkled and hard, the woman looked 70; I did not know her age, only that she was a native of Bunia, the beleaguered city in the eastern Congo terrorized by rebels and its own nation’s army in recent years.  I met her in Mbandaka, a thousand miles from her first home After returning to Bunia and finding none of her family had survived and nothing else to hold her there, she had fled a second time to Mbandaka.

I met her the last night of my two months stay this summer in Mbandaka, the provincial capital of Equateur Province and for me she represented the truth I would have to contend with and describe on my return to the States. Countless times prior to the trip I had been asked about the risk of revisiting the place I lived for two years from 1969 to  1971.  My response had become something like a tape replayed again and again:  Mbandaka was far from the troubles in the eastern Congo and relatively unaffected.

Over the last fifty years since independence as a new nation free of Belgian colonial rule, most of the violent conflict has occurred in the mineral producing areas of the country.  In 1969 there were reports of combat in the Eastern Congo with its array of rare minerals as well as gold.  And the rebel armies in Katanga battled the national army over control of the Province’s copper mines.  But Equateur Province lacks mineral reserves and its relative poverty seemed to create a safe haven from the conflicts bedeviling other areas of the country, the East particularly.

The Hutu refugees who had made it all the way from the East to Mbandaka following Tutsi Paul Kagame’s rise to power in the mid’90’s in Rwanda had sought refuge in Equateur Province..  They managed to live off the fertile land of the Province and survive until the march of the Rwandan troops supporting Laurent Desire Kabila’s persistent ambition to rule Congo.  These Tutsi soldiers made it to Mbandaka and executed every Hutu they could find in the area.

Referring to their prey as “cockroaches”, Kabila’s Tutsi backers stayed three days before descending the River on their way to Kinshasa in the final days of the Mobutu dicatatorship.  A prominent church leader told me the soldiers ordered all residents to stay in their homes while they searched for provisions and wreaked revenge.  Hutu men, women and children were found, lined up and shot with a single bullet.  “They weren’t worth wasting ammunition on” my informant reported they had told their captives.

The man’s account confirmed  journalist Howard French’s reports at the time (see his A Continent for the Taking) of Tutsi forces massacring Hutus in the Mbandaka area. And it convinced me to no longer speak of Mbandaka as insulated from the incessant violence of the eastern Congo.  Surrounded by the Church’s abundant hospitality, I learned first hand of other occasions when Congo’s conflicts had shaken this city.of over a million.

On Easter Sunday this year, a rogue rebel group had attacked Mbandaka and worshippers remained in their churches until they could return home under the cover of night.  The rapid routing of the rebels by the U.N.  troops and the death of a U.N. Ghanaian soldier did not win over the public’s favor.  Security troops of any description appeared to be met with distrust if not disdain by local Congolese

Twice in the last five years local troops of the Congolese Army have gone on the rampage when they had not been paid.  My cook and housekeeper “Papa Jean” lost all of his flock of 50 plus chickens in the latest pillaging.  He is not optimistic enough about the current regime to have restocked his coop with even a pair of chickens.  Although Kabila’s son’s administration has made payments to the army a priority, resulting in long delays for salary payment of teachers, medical workers and civil servants, the uncertainty over the elections scheduled for next year prevails.

A jolting revelation during my stay came with Congolese referring to the Mobutu era as the “good ol days” compared to the current Kabila regime.  Many question the legitimacy of the current ruler and even the legitimacy of the President’s claim to be a citizen of Congo.  There is frequent reference to the young President Kabila having served in the security forces of both Rwanda and Uganda.

Will President Kabila allow elections to be held next November as called for by the country’s constitution and as announced  the week of my departure?  While many educated Congolese are introduced as candidates for Deputy to the National Assembly, few of them speak with certainty about the rules and procedures for running this time. 

The question of whether the election will in fact take place is now giving way to whether President Kabila will be forced by the U.N. presence to relinquish control of the process to impartial overseers.  Although the U.N. troops in Congo represent the largest peacekeeping force in the world today, their record of guaranteeing a fair election in the country is not encouraging.  But Congolese are talking politics more openly and there is unrestrained opposition to the current rule, a notable change from 1971 during the height of Mobutu’s power.

The truth represented by the woman from Bunia had become undeniable by the time I met her the last night in Mbandaka.  I had come to the realization that the entire nation has been gripped and held in check by the foreign exploitation of this richest store house of natural resources in Africa and perhaps anywhere else on the earth.  That the Congo holds such incomparable wealth seems to be another fact which some people would like to remain in the darkness.

Perhaps an even more important and relevant truth about the country as one seeks to influence the march of justice in Congo is that the incessant and unrestrained exploitation of Congo by foreigners did not begin with King Leopold’s creation of the Congo Free State in 1885.  We have to go back to the Portuguese slavers trading at the mouth of the Congo River early in the 1500’s as setting the pattern for the horrors visited today on the people of the Congo.

And the more important and relevant truth about the woman from Bunia is that she has taken another name for herself as a displaced person living in Mbandaka today. She has replaced  the name given her by her family and given herself a  name which suggests what has kept her going through all her losses and the brutality she has suffered.  She is now introduced as Marie Catherine Sauve Vie or Marie Catherine “who saves life”. Strange to say, she may be the clearest sign I received during my stay that God has certainly not finished with Congo yet.