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DRC – Lost opportunity

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            With the fall of the Eastern bloc at the end of the 1980s, many African countries experienced a brief democratic spring. In DRC – then called Zaire – President Mobutu allowed popular consultations on the future of the country, giving people some hope of a democratic change. However, on January 19th, 1992, Prime Minister Karl i Bond stopped the work of the Sovereign National Conference (SNC) which was discussing a new political framework for the country. The decision sparked strong reactions, especially in Kinshasa. The Catholic Church was instrumental in organizing a peaceful march to ask the reactivation of the SNC. The march took place on February 16th, thanks especially to the commitment of Amos, a group of non-violent resistance to Mobutu’s dictatorship founded by Father Jose Mpundu.
            Many a Congolese perceived that march as the starting point of true democratization. More than one million people joined the march. After the first Mass of that Sunday, people left the churches to converge to St Joseph’s in Matonge, in the centre of the capital. People walked peacefully showing the signs of their faith: rosaries, crosses, and wearing the uniforms of their respective movements and associations.
         con2   Joseph Ntumba went to the march that day, was shot by the police and lost his right leg. He says “We were all frightened in those days. No one risked going out at night, the Presidential Guards – we called them awls – did nothing else than stealing and killing people. I wanted to participate in the march to give a sign that people were tired of the situation”.
            Mobutu’s reaction was terrible: 37 people were shot death, hundreds were injured, an unknown number disappeared. Presidential Guards took some of the bodies and make them disappear. Jesuit Father Leon de Saint Moulin organized his parishioners to gather the bodies of those killed in the church of Saint Joseph, had them identified and put a label on each one with the essential data.
            The march had a strong impact on the population. “The most spectacular outcome was that people realized their power. They stood high and had fear no more. Fear moved to the other field. The repression would become even more violent, but the people knew they were going to win”, says Father Mpundu.
            The SNC reconvened on April 6th under the chairmanship of Laurent Monsengwo, then archbishop of Kisangani. No one knew what would happen. Mobutu was not inclined to cede power. The SNC was not united and foreign interests were for a fast change. The USA ambassador, Melissa Wells, told Mobuto that the States wanted change and they were ready to organized a military intervention. This intervention actually happened. In 1996, the Alliance of democratic forces for liberation (Adfl) – headed by Laurent Desire Kabila – opened the hostility supported by Uganda and Rwanda, which obeyed to Washington’s directives. The war ended on May 17, 1997; Zaire – Congo paid a high tribute of more than 5 million deaths.
            Yet democracy remained an illusion. Uganda and Rwanda did not want to leave theircon3 positions inside Congo. The resources they could tap into justified their continued presence. A new war started in August 1998 opposing Congo and its allies – Angola, Zimbabwe, Chad and Namibia – to Uganda and Rwanda, still supported by the USA. The Lusaka peace accords (1999), the discussions of Sun City (2002), and the unity government that resulted, are signs of the deep divisions and the continue state of conflict imposed on the people. Kabila was assassinated in 2001, and his place taken by his son Joseph.
            The 2006 elections gave the impression democracy was growing. An impression completely reversed by the general election of 2011, marred by rigging and the lack of independence of the Electoral Commission.  Monsengwo, in the meantime he had become bishop of Kinshasa in 2007 and elevated Cardinal in 2010, declared that the official results did not reflect the will of the people. The government reacted violently to the words of the Cardinal and of other bishops who supported him. On occasion of the 20th anniversary of the march, the Congo Lay catholic Council organized a March of Christians to remember the martyrs of democracy. On February 15th, the government showed its strong hand. A few priests were arrested, police and military personnel occupied the centre of Kinshasa, armoured cars blocked the major roads, especially close to Catholic churches, people were not allowed to congregate in small groups, teargas was used to disperse the crowds.
         con4   Many international bodied protested against this slap to democracy. Worse still are the cracks opened within civil society and the Church. Some bishops did not support the march, they instead appreciated the political set up wanted by President Kabila. In the weeks that followed, influential Catholics invited the bishops to concentrate on the Gospel, leaving policy making to them. The Episcopal Conference is divided on how to talk to the government and in which way to support the democratic aspirations of the people. The March of Christians has had a strong international impact, but did not help the local Church in developing a renewed political commitment. So far it has been a lost opportunity. The road to democracy is still long.

T.F.

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