Catholic Church better placed to midwife just transition in tense DRC

Supporters of Democratic Republic of Congo opposition leader and presidential candidate Martin Fayulu as they take part in a protest to contest presidential election results on January 11, 2019 in Kinshasa. (Courtesy)
The presidential election results in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) were released on Thursday and Felix Tshisekedi declared the winner. The contentious result has just added to the chaos, cancellations, postponements, delays and irregularities that have marred the polls.

The ballot was two years late as Joseph Kabila had tried every possible means to extend his years in power. He agreed to step down and settled on an election date of December 23, 2018. The Electoral Commission (CENI) however postponed the vote up until December 30th while deferring the ballot for 1.25 million voters for three months citing Ebola and insecurity.

That the election took place at all is a bit of a miracle when we consider that DRC is as big as Western Europe, with a population of eighty million and a dreadful infrastructure that results in much of the country being ungovernable. That the vote occurred is mainly due to continuous pressure from the Catholic Church whose impact on public life for the last thirty years is colossal. In particular the figure of recently retired Cardinal Laurent Monsengro Pasinya stands out as an extraordinary leader who courageously attempted to keep the country from descending into anarchy, civil war and dictatorship over the years.

Resisted the polls

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When Mobutu Sese Seko was eventually deposed and forced to flee, Pasinya for several years held a variety of powerful positions from President of the High Council to Speaker of the transitional government in the early 1990s. More recently, he stood up to Kabila who resisted holding elections due in 2016. The Cardinal held demonstrations demanding that the ballot proceed. He did not relent even when several of his priests were gunned down.

The good Cardinal not only talked tough, he organised the faithful in a professional and non violent manner so that when the elections were eventually permitted, he had 40,000 trained monitors spread across the country in every polling station. From the outset, the church appeared more organised that CENI so that soon after the voting ended, they collated their own tallying sheets from the ground. As a result, the church demanded that the results be released immediately since they had ‘the acts and the facts of the electoral process’ to show that there was a clear winner in the ballot and CENI was warned to ‘publish all results in the interests of truth and justice’.

The church then was headed into familiar territory and another collision course with the government. No wonder that CENI accused the church of ‘poisoning the population by preparing for an uprising which the Bishops will be solely responsible’. But those warnings revealed that CENI had already plans in place to announce a winner other than Martin Fayulu who was 20 points ahead in the pre-election opinion polls and whom foreign observers disclosed the Church had as the clear winner according to the tallying of their 40,000 observers.

When Tshisekedi was announced the winner, Fayulu claimed the result was ‘an electoral coup’. The church said that its result differed with CENI without saying who the winner was. It also exhorted the public to remain peaceful and those challenging the results to use the legal means to do so. Interesting to note is that neither the African Union nor foreign diplomats have so far congratulated Tshisekedi.

The church will certainly have a critical role to play in the coming weeks and months if DRC is to make the transition to a peaceful and just change of leadership for the first time since Patrice Lumumba was assassinated in 1961.

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When push comes to shove, most voters trust the Church more than the CENI or government but how this will impact is yet to be seen.

Kenyan voters will appreciate the current uncertainty; three successive elections with contested outcomes. Regretfully, the churches observers’ teams here had nothing to offer in terms of challenging or verifying the disputed results. That is where they failed the public and so protestors took to the streets and lives were lost.

The DRC Church, however, has taken risks, shown leadership and put justice and integrity ahead of its own comfort or privileges. Their role exemplifies Pope Francis exhortation, ‘I prefer a church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a Church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security’.

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Twitter: @GabrielDolan1

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Catholic ChurchDRCFelix TshisekediDemocratic Republic of the CongoJoseph Kabila