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The 'unusual political clout' of the DRC’s Catholic Church

Cristina Krippahl
January 2, 2017

The Congolese Catholic Church has brokered an agreement between political foes in the DRC, renewing hopes for an end to the political crisis in the country. But why does the Catholic Church hold such sway over the Congo?

President of the National Episcopal Conference Archbishop Marcel Utembi and other Catholic bishops in full white garb with purple sashes arrive for the signing of the agreement.
Image: Getty Images/AFP/J. D. Kannah

The agreement reached on New Year's Eve foresees a transition government headed by a prime minister who is to be appointed by the opposition. This administration will run the country until presidential elections towards the end of 2017, when President Joseph Kabila must step down. The breakthrough agreement was brokered by the Catholic Bishops' Conference in Congo (CENCO). The Catholic Church is one of the few institutions that have managed to preserve their credibility throughout the Democratic Republic of Congo's (DRC) tumultuous history.

It is a history in which the Catholic Church was always a key player, starting in colonial times. Congolese human rights lawyer Pascal Kambale sees the roots of the church's prominent role in the country's distant past when the Congo was the property of the Belgian King Leopold II: "The king could not rely on the Belgian administration to run the country. So he outsourced the day-to-day administration to different Catholic congregations." This gave the church a "political clout that it doesn't have in many other countries," Kambale told DW.

Help from the Vatican

Equally important for the church's role was the presence in public life of a number of charismatic leaders like Cardinal Joseph-Albert Malula, who "opposed President MobutoSese Seko's policies in the 1970s and 1980s," according to Kambale. But the most important factor driving the church's influence may well be its social activities: "They run an impressive network of schools. Some of the best hospitals in Congo are run by the Catholic Church," he said. 

A women holds up a red sign as a red card for President Kabila for not having stepped down at the end of his mandate on December 19.
Protests in the DRC are likely to continue if the agreement is not swiftly implementedImage: Reuters/F. Lenoir

The church relies heavily on outside help to finance these social activities. That assistance can come from the Vatican or Catholic congregations in richer countries. Aware of the church's popularity beyond the 30 million Catholics, or about 50% of the population, Kabila's government has tried to maintain good relations wit the Vatican. Recently, it signed a bilateral treaty that will return property to the church which was confiscated under Mobutu.

Some inconsistency

While the Catholic Church has stood up against corruption and campaigned for democracy and human rights in the DRC, its policies have not always been consistent. That is especially true when its own interests were at stake. In the 2011 presidential elections, CENCO's network of 30,000 observers had no doubts that the vote was rigged. But the church preferred to keep this quiet, analyst Kambale said. "In 2011, the church was so divided that it seemed very risky to the majority of the bishops to publish the results, because a very important minority of bishops objected. I think they decided that the unity of the church was more important than publishing the results they had."

But that has changed, with the church now being "extremely united behind the need to see the constitution respected," Kambale said, adding: "I think that allowed the church to play the role that it has played this time around."

A portrait of President Joseph Kabila
President Joseph Kabila has been known to break agreements beforeImage: picture-alliance/dpa/M. Kappeler

Serious worries

The agreement brokered by the church explicitly does not allow for President Kabila, whose second mandate expired in December, to run for a third term. The suspicion that he was planning to alter the constitution to be able to run again led to recent bloodshed. Observers feared more violence would be ahead if the president refused to step down.

Striking a cautious note concerning the agreement's chances, human rights lawyer Kambale said: "We know that President Kabila did not commit himself personally." He didn't sign the agreement and made no mention of it in his traditional end-of-the-year address: "That is worrisome," Kambale said, stressing that the president still controlled the military and the police. Other analysts note that no concrete date has been set yet for presidential elections and point to Kabila's past maneuvering. It remains to be seen whether the agreement will be implemented and when. Nevertheless, Kambale feels optimistic about his country's future prospects. The agreement, he said "was a very important milestone." And in spite of all remaining problems he believed that: "We enter 2017 with a little more hope and more confidence than before."