Faced with a deadly crisis sparked by longtime President Joseph Kabila’s refusal to leave office, many Congolese are putting their faith in the Catholic Church, an institution that has periodically played a defining role in local politics.
More than a dozen bishops from across this vast, resource-rich nation of 70 million returned to the capital Kinshasa on Monday tasked with preserving a tenuous succession plan that would see Mr. Kabila step down by December. Sealed in the final hours of 2016, the clergy-brokered agreement has yet to be implemented amid pushback from smaller parties and questions over whether it has the president’s backing.
The bishops’ effort has been supported by the Vatican, with Pope Francis on Monday highlighting the church’s mediation role in a speech to foreign ambassadors to the Holy See. Congolese clergymen en route to the talks struck an optimistic note, stressing the need to prevent more violence after dozens were killed in antigovernment protests that followed the end of Mr. Kabila’s mandate in December.
“We’ve already attained compromise from both sides. Our next target is to have the agreement implemented,” said Archbishop Marcel Utembi, one of the leading players in the talks.
Photo: robert carrubba/Reuters
If the church leaders are successful, they could help deliver the Democratic Republic of Congo’s first democratic transition in more than five decades, paving the way for new leadership 16 years after Mr. Kabila succeeded his father, Laurent, who was assassinated by a bodyguard.
Failure, on the other hand, would threaten to throw the Central African country deeper into turmoil, potentially destabilizing a region that has suffered some of the most brutal conflicts of the past century.
“I can’t really envisage who another mediator would be if the church walks away from this,” said Phil Clark, a specialist on the Great Lakes region at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London. “It will be deeply embarrassing [for the church] if this process collapses.”
To succeed, the talks will need to corral opposition parties that object to the New Year’s Eve deal—either because it still gives Mr. Kabila an extra year in power or because they preferred an ultimately unsuccessful accord in October that would have given them cabinet positions.
Observers are also waiting for Mr. Kabila, known as a wily political strategist, to openly commit to relinquishing power. His ruling coalition has signed the deal, but has said implementation, including speeding up the mammoth task of organizing national elections this year, will have to wait until everyone is on board.
The delicate diplomacy revives the more activist role the church played after Congo’s independence and under longtime dictator Mobutu Sese Seko. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Catholic bishops and priests, many of whom had been trained in Congo’s old colonial master Belgium, engaged in at-times violent skirmishes with the state and were a powerful voice in favor of democratization.
Despite that turbulence, the church—which was brought to Congo by Belgian King Leopold II to help him administer this country roughly the size of Western Europe— has built up huge stakes in society and the economy over the past century. More than half of Congolese students passed through Catholic schools, while many of their parents work for the church’s agribusinesses and textile factories, or have sought treatment at one of its many hospitals. That has extended the church’s reach beyond the 30 million Congolese who identify as Catholic.
It is why criticism of the church swelled in 2011, when church leaders, who were working as election observers along with the Carter Center, failed to speak out against large-scale irregularities in that year’s presidential election.
“I…stopped attending Sunday church services. I was very disappointed,” said Pierre Mbonimpa, a 25-year-old youth activist in Kinshasa, of the vote that saw Mr. Kabila win a five-year term that officially expired on Dec. 20.
Today, Mr. Mbonimpa says he is optimistic about the bishops’ chances of success. “Church leaders have demonstrated that they can stand for the truth and the country’s constitution,” he said.
This broad perception of legitimacy distinguishes the church in Congo from other former Belgian colonies, such as Rwanda and Burundi, where priests and nuns were sometimes caught up in broad-based state and ethnic conflict. It also helped the bishops win over warring parties as transition negotiations dragged on in late December. At one point during the dayslong meetings with opposition and government delegates, one bishop showed a Power Point presentation of images depicting the country’s violent history, a participant in the negotiations said.
The gruesome images, which included some from last year’s street clashes, sent many delegates turning uneasily in their seats, while others took notes, this person said. Soon after, the participant said, both sides abandoned their most rigid negotiating positions. Mr. Kabila’s coalition agreed to hold elections by December, instead of in 2018 as it previously insisted, and to name a prime minister from the largest opposition party, Union for Democracy and Social Progress.
But each day of additional talks steals time from preparing voting lists and ballot distribution for the promised elections and reduces the likelihood that the New Year’s Eve deal will ever be implemented.
“There is a real danger of violence escalating,” Mr. Clark said.