Congo’s influential Catholic bishops have called on the president to allow a popular football magnate, who is running in the country’s delayed presidential election, to return to Congo, dismissing criminal charges against him as a “farce.”
The confidential letter, sent by the Congolese bishops’ conference (CENCO) to President Joseph Kabila at the end of March and leaked to AFP Wednesday, addressed the situation of Moise Katumbi, a former ally of Kabila and ex-governor of one of the country’s largest and mineral-rich provinces.
Katumbi resigned from the president’s party in 2015 and announced in 2016 he would be running for the presidency. In June 2016, he was convicted in absentia of seizing a building that did not belong to him and sentenced to three years’ imprisonment, and he is awaiting trial on allegations of recruitment of mercenaries. Katumbi has described the charges as “entirely fabricated.”
Congo has sunk deeper into a political crisis since the country failed to hold scheduled elections at the end of Kabila’s mandate, which expired in December 2016. The Congolese government and the main opposition coalition, called Rassemblement, struck a deal on New Year’s Eve, which was mediated by CENCO, to hold elections in 2017 and appoint an opposition-selected prime minister.
But implementation has been slow and the bishops pulled out of mediation in March, citing a lack of progress. The opposition was also left rudderless by the death in February of Etienne Tshisekedi, who has led the main opposition Union for Democracy and Social Progress (UPDS) for more than three decades.
In its letter, CENCO said that Katumbi should be allowed to return to Congo “as a free man and exercise his civil and political rights.” The bishops referred to the trial of Katumbi as a “purely political settling of scores” that had the sole goal of blocking his presidential ambitions.
Katumbi is widely regarded as one of Congo’s most well-liked politicians: An October 2016 survey by the New York-based Congo Research group found that he was the most popular presidential candidate, with 33 percent of respondents saying they would vote for him ahead of 18 percent for Tshisekedi and 7.8 percent for Kabila. Much of his popularity is derived from his role as chairman of TP Mazembe, the country’s most successful football club. The team has won Africa’s Champions League, the continent’s top title, five times—more than any other team except Egyptian giants Al Ahly.
The former mining magnate served as governor of Katanga from 2007; Katumbi built a reputation as an effective leader, rebuilding many of the province’s roads and increasing access to water. But he left Kabila’s ruling party in 2015, accusing the president of trying to stay in power beyond the 2016 elections.
Katumbi told The New York Times Thursday that he welcomed the bishops’ intervention and that he had “nothing to fear” in Congo and would return soon. But Katumbi has been absent from the country for over a year, and the Rassemblement coalition has appointed Felix Tshisekedi, the son of the late Etienne, as its leader in the meantime.
A spokesman for the Congolese government, Lambert Mende, told AFP that the bishops should address its requests in relation to Katumbi to the courts and not the president.
Kabila has been in power since 2001 and has now served the constitutionally-mandated two terms. Opposition politicians have accused him of trying to stay in power in order to change the constitution and run again for the presidency; the government has denied the accusations.
Around half of Congo’s 80-million plus inhabitants are Roman Catholic and the Catholic Church is seen as one of the few legitimate institutions in the country following decades of civil war. Pope Francis met with President Kabila at the Vatican in September 2016 and raised concerns with the Congolese leader about the deaths of protesters in the capital Kinshasa who had demanded that the president step down.