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Can the Catholic Church change Congolese politics?

For a long time, the opposition to President Kabila had a real problem: it looked too much like President Kabila. Many of its leaders––Vital Kamerhe, Moise Katumbi, Pierre Lumbi, Olivier Kamitatu––were allies of Kabila until recently. The main exception to this, Etienne Tshisekedi, is now dead, and his party has succumbed to infighting as his son Felix struggles to assert his father’s mantle. When the government began banning protests in September 2016 and repression became fiercer, it was not unreasonable to ask: ‘Why should I go get myself shot for these political leaders?’

And for over a year, a mixture of repression, a disorganized opposition, and the remainders of a political deal kept demonstrations to a minimum. As I argued in the distant past:

In order to understand the failure of mobilization in the Congo, we need to look beyond the usual finger-pointing at individuals. This is not just a story about the relative merits of Kabila and Tshisekedi, about a spineless international community and abusive police forces. This is also a story about the fragmentation of the political sphere, the lack of broad alliances that can galvanize a social base. Modern Congo does not have broad, cross-cutting constituencies like labor or Islamist movements; grassroots mobilization retains a sharp ethnic character; and business and the media are heavily influenced by the state.

On December 31, this appeared to change. An organization of lay Catholics––le Comité laïc de coordination (CLC)––organized protests that reverberated in over a hundred parishes of Kinshasa, provoking the government to take drastic measures: beating priests, tear-gassing people inside churches, deploying tanks in front of churches. While the death toll was lower than the September 2016 or January 2015 protests, this one was far better organized, as it could avail itself of the social infrastructure of the Catholic Church: priests joined in the protests, and many used their pulpits to encourage their parishioners to march with them.

Since then, the Catholic Church, which had been trying to avoid being pulled into the political snake pit of Congolese politics, has doubled down. The papal nuncio in the Congo threw his moral weight behind the protests. Cardinal Laurent Monsengwo was much harsher (it is worthwhile listening to his whole speech) on January 2: “It is time for the truth to prevail over systemic lies, and that the mediocre leaders leave.” He then went on to denounce the “hoarding of wealth and hanging onto power by unconstitutional methods.” Following the speech “mediocre” became a meme and a hashtag in the Congolese twittersphere.

One really needs to listen to the speeches to understand to what extent the gloves have come off within the Catholic Church. During his homily on January 4, the day on which priests around the country commemorate the killing of the martyrs of the independence, Mgr Sébastien Muyengo, the bishop of Uvira, said:

We need a republican army and police, not those engaged in the service of a few individuals or groups of individuals in power. I am speaking to you who are there and who represent all the others: Your primary mission is to defend the people, not the men in power. Even at the height of Mobutu’s dictatorship, we never saw images like those sent to us from Kinshasa: soldiers and policemen entering churches to kill, rape, steal, etc.

Not all the Catholic Bishops agree with this message, and on December 31, it was mostly in Kinshasa and a few other towns that churches were the at the center of mobilization. Bishops in ButemboGoma and Mbuji-Mayi discouraged the demonstrations.

Nonetheless, this sentiment has apparently infected even protestant churches, once relatively loyal to Kabila (with exceptions such as Fernando Kutino). The Église du Christ au Congo, the most important coalition of protestant churches, used to be led by Marini Bodho, who had been deeply loyal to President Kabila. Marini had supported changing the Congolese constitution (the subtext was probably: to allow Joseph Kabila to run again) and had supported the controversial Accord de Cité de l’OUA of October 2016.

And yet, yesterday during a service commemorating the death of Laurent-Désiré Kabila 17 years ago, an ECC minister David Ekofo preached in front of a well-heeled crowd that included President Kabila’s two children, wife, sister, brother, as well as some of the most powerful government insiders:

We must leave our children a country where the state really exists. I say ‘really exists’ because I have the impression that the state does not really exist. We must strengthen the authority of the state. We must bequeath to our children a country where the state is real, a responsible state, where everyone is equal before the law.

It was not as frontal an attack as that of the Catholic Church (and government ministers quickly said that he was criticizing everyone, not just them), but one that reverberated across social media.

It is yet to be seen whether a the Congolese political culture, often derided for its cynicism, will be infused with a new impetus from the churches. The next test will be the next march planned by the CLC for January 21, this time calling on Christians of all denominations to come out in the streets.