As Kabila steps down, Catholics in DR Congo continue push for democracy

Joseph Kabila Credit Government ZA CC BY ND 20 CNA Joseph Kabila, president of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, who announced Aug. 8 he will not seek re-election in December. | Government ZA (CC BY-ND 2.0).

President Joseph Kabila of the Democratic Republic of Congo announced this week that he will step down after 17 years in power. The announcement follows years of protests, supported by Catholics bishops, against the delaying of elections.

Kabila has been ruling in defiance of term limits, remaining president two years after he was required to leave office in 2016.

Kabila announced Aug. 8 he will not seek an unconstitutional third term and endorsed a political ally, Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary, for the upcoming presidential election in December.

Catholics in the Democratic Republic of Congo welcomed the news and urged the necessity of free and fair elections in what could be the first peaceful transition of power in the central African nation's history.

"Congolese people, the fight for democracy continues!" begins a statement released by the Catholic Lay Committee (CLC) on Aug. 10.

This group of lay Catholics activists organized three protests calling for Kabila to step down after the cancellation of national elections that were supposed to be held in December 2017.

The protests took place after Sunday Masses throughout 13 cities until February 2018. In an effort to suppress the protests, police forces surrounded churches and killed a total of 18, according to local sources.

Pope Francis called for a worldwide day of prayer and fasting for the Democratic Republic of Congo Feb. 23.

The United Nations, African Union, European Union, and United States have all backed the Congolese efforts to peaceful democracy protests.

"This well-deserved victory is only one step in the struggle that must lead us inexorably towards total and definitive victory, that of organizing free, credible, transparent, peaceful and inclusive elections," the Aug. 10 CLC statement continued.

CLC suspended their scheduled protests for Aug. 12-14 "to show good faith" in Kabila's announcement.

Both the bishops and lay people alike have been very outspoken critics of Congolese political corruption. The Catholic leadership previously negotiated agreements between Kabila and the opposition, and then actively supported the protests against Kabila when he broke the agreement's terms.

The Catholic Church is well-respected in the DRC and Catholics make up about 40 percent of the country's population. Catholic clergy in the Congo are known for courageously standing up to corrupt leaders, such as Mobutu Sese Seko, the DRC's military dictator from 1965 to 1997.

An estimated five million people were killed between 1997 and 2003 in ethnic violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo under Joseph Kabila's father, Laurent Kabila, who violently overthrew Mobutu. Joseph Kabila took power in 2001 at age of 29 after the assassination of his father.

The bishops must realize how fragile the hope of a truly democratic transition is in one of the most resource-rich countries in the world where the people are so poor that an estimated 10 percent of the population of 78 million people experience extreme hunger.

However, the clergy still hold the bar high for their national government, remaining "convinced that only credible, transparent and inclusive elections are the solution to the current crisis in the DRC."

The bishops denounced the current government's decision to prevent the opposition leader, Moïse Katumbi, who has been living in exile, from re-entering the country to become a presidential candidate. The bishops stressed that everyone should be given the "equality of opportunity" in the elections.

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Meanwhile, the former vice president Jean-Pierre Bemba, who was convicted of war crimes in International Criminal Court in 2016 and then acquitted in June, returned to the DRC last week to seek election.

"The elections that the Congolese people are waiting for must be credible, transparent and inclusive," said the bishops' statement earlier this week.

The bishops called on the intercession of Blessed Marie-Clementine Nengapeta and Isidore Bakanja as their country attempts its first peaceful transition of power in modern history.

The U.S. State Department said it is "encouraged" by the news that Kabila will not seek a third term, according to a statement released Aug. 9, which calls on the DRC National Independent Electoral Commission and Congolese authorities to provide public access to the new voter registry and voting methods.

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