Congo's Cautious Hope

On outdoor benches in a poor neighborhood of Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo, a small congregation prayed for wisdom as they prepared to vote in their country’s first democratic elections in more than 40 years.

“If we choose a good leader, after five years we will be doing well,” Rev. Fumunguya Muenekuangu preached at Manenga Mennonite Church, a congregation of about 15 adults and many more small children who meet under a tarp in a vacant lot. The earnest, soft-spoken pastor continued: “If we choose wrong, after five years we will be suffering.”

Many Congolese churches shared this sober assessment as their country held long-awaited elections last year. The problems facing Congo, the largest nation in central Africa, are enormous. Exploitive colonial rule, corrupt dictatorship, and war have left its 60 million citizens among the poorest people on earth. Two wars devastated Congo from 1996 to 2003, and lawless armed groups continue to plague the country’s eastern regions, causing an ongoing humanitarian crisis.

In the face of these challenges, Congo is struggling to become a democracy. Last year, the United Nations helped Congo’s transitional government organize presidential and parliamentary elections on July 30 with a presidential runoff on Oct. 29. It is too early to judge the success or stability of Congo’s newly elected government, but widespread public participation in the elections—including the involvement of Congo’s many Christian denominations—was a dramatic and hopeful sign.

About 18 million people, or 70 percent of registered voters, participated in the July 30 elections. In Kinshasa, voters waited in long lines in schools that were converted into voting centers. Mothers left their infants in the arms of poll workers while they voted. Illiterate voters participated by identifying candidates’ photos on the ballots.

Votes were cast and counted under the watchful eyes of tens of thousands of observers from civic organizations, churches, and political parties. This transparency was particularly remarkable to people who recalled the sham presidential elections held by Congo’s longtime dictator, Mobutu Sese Seko, when “voters” could choose only between green ballots to support him and red ballots to oppose him. It was understood that voting against Mobutu meant risking one’s life.

No presidential candidate won a majority in the July 30 election, so the two front-runners, interim President Joseph Kabila and a vice president, Jean-Pierre Bemba, faced off in an Oct. 29 runoff. Kabila won this contest with overwhelming support from Congo’s war-weary eastern regions, while Bemba still won a majority in Kinshasa and other areas of the west. Bemba has alleged fraud, but Congolese and international organizations that observed the election generally agreed that it was conducted fairly. It remains to be seen if Bemba and his supporters, which include a rebel group loyal to him, will be peacefully reconciled to Kabila’s victory.

CONGO IS A DEEPLY religious country—roughly 50 percent of the population is Catholic, 20 percent is Protestant, 10 percent is Muslim, and 10 percent is Kimbanguist, a Christian denomination native to Congo. In the run-up to the elections, many Congolese churches threw their weight behind the democratic process in the hope that an elected, representative government will alleviate poverty.

“What we want now is to have leaders that are elected by the people, who will be responsible to the people,” said Rev. Damien Pelende Tshinyama, president of the Mennonite Brethren Church of Congo. “God gave us a country which is potentially rich, but all the potential that God gave us in this country was never exploited in the interest of the Congolese.” Rev. Pelende said his denomination encouraged its members to vote, run for office, and serve in government for the first time in its history. However, the church did not endorse any party or candidate.

Explicitly Christian parties and candidates joined the fray as more than 9,000 candidates competed for 500 seats in the national parliament. However, they faced many challenges as newcomers to national politics. Wealthier politicians—often those who had served in previous, unelected governments—attracted many supporters by giving away food, clothes, and cash at their rallies.

Pascal Kulungu, a professor and administrator at Christian University of Kinshasa, ran for parliament unsuccessfully as part of a small Christian party. He had a tight budget and could not afford to give handouts to potential voters. “We told them that we don’t have anything to give them right now, but we have knowledge to defend their rights in parliament,” Kulungu said wearily on the eve of the July 30 elections. Kulungu said some voters rejected his explanation and told him, “We must eat first.”

Rev. Biasima Lala Rose, a Baptist pastor from Congo’s Bandundu province, was one of several Protestant women who were elected to the parliament. She said Protestant candidates won about 100 seats, which is fairly representative of Congo’s religious demographics. Rev. Lala said she hopes to work closely with Protestant and Catholic members of parliament to meet the basic needs of the Congolese people. However, the scale of the economic and humanitarian challenges is daunting.

“Where do we start? Roads? Schools?” Rev. Lala said. “There is terrible poverty, high levels of illiteracy, many girls with babies. Those people voted for me, and they think things will change fast now. They are full of anticipation that things will get better for them soon. That is a heavy burden for me to carry.”

Many Congolese churches found nonpartisan ways to support the elections, such as holding community meetings to explain the voting process. The Catholic Church created a set of posters that was used extensively by Catholics and Protestants to teach the principles of democracy to voters with little formal education. Both Congolese Catholic and Protestant organizations sent observers to voting centers throughout the country on Election Day. Mennonite Central Committee, a U.S. and Canadian relief, development, and peacemaking agency, assisted in these efforts by helping to bring 63 international volunteers from Africa, Europe, and North America to serve alongside Congolese Protestant election observers.

Rev. Milenge Mwenaluata, who directs the social service programs of Congo’s national Protestant council of churches, said that Congolese churches are playing a significant role in building civil society because there are few other functioning institutions in the country. “In Congo, the churches are respected as being an organization that still works,” Rev. Milenge said.

THE HUMANITARIAN SITUATION in Congo is among the world’s most neglected news stories, according to the U.N. Department of Public Information. Congo lacks the basics of public infrastructure and services—no paved roads connect the capital to the provinces, medical facilities are scarce, and about half of all children are unable to attend primary school. According to UNICEF, one in five Congolese children dies before the age of 5, usually from hunger and disease.

Congolese Christians sometimes express frustration at the perceived neglect of their brothers and sisters in faith in North America and Europe. Foreign visitors are occasionally asked to “send back the missionaries” that established and supported many Congolese denominations in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Basic needs are very apparent at Manenga Mennonite Church, where members prayed for wisdom on the eve of the elections. The Manenga neighborhood is a slum of dirt paths and low concrete-block buildings. The congregation meets outside because its makeshift sheet-metal building was destroyed by a storm. “We don’t have a place where we can pray,” Rev. Fumunguya said. “So we are struggling to do what we do now.”

Many of the church’s children do not go to school because their parents cannot afford it. Congo’s government is unable to pay teacher’s salaries, so students are forced to pay tuition in public schools. Parents at Manenga Mennonite Church hope that the newly elected government will make elementary schools free.

The U.S. Senate recently voted to increase U.S. aid to Congo by $52 million through the Democratic Republic of the Congo Relief, Security, and Democracy Promotion Act of 2006. As of mid-November, the act was under consideration in the House. If passed, it would provide funds to support the democratic process in Congo, promote peace and stability, and supply basic needs such as food, clean water, and education.

This assistance would represent a small concession to a country whose political problems are largely rooted in the Cold War. In January 1961, Belgian troops and Congolese soldiers loyal to Joseph Mobutu, the Congolese army chief of staff, assassinated Congo’s first elected leader, Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba. Prior to this, the Central Intelligence Agency is believed to have been working on its own assassination plan, because Lumumba, anti-colonial and friendly with the Soviet Union, was viewed as an enemy of the U.S.

Mobutu seized power in 1965 and ruled as a dictator for 32 years. He renamed the country “Zaire” and renamed himself “Mobutu Sese Seko” in the early ’70s. Mobutu’s rule was marked by human rights abuses and extreme corruption, but he was supported by the United States as a Cold War ally. Mobutu was overthrown by rebels, backed by the governments of Rwanda, Uganda, and Burundi, in 1997; he died of cancer months later. Another war broke out when the Congolese rebels dismissed their foreign supporters.

This 1998 to 2003 conflict, called the Second Congo War, involved nine African nations. It was fought mostly in Congo’s mineral-rich eastern region. Nearly 4 million Congolese are believed to have died as a result of the war, mostly through starvation and disease. Many lawless militias continue to operate in eastern Congo, including exiled Rwandan militants responsible for the 1994 Rwandan genocide.

In 2003, a transitional government was established in Congo under a U.N.-brokered peace agreement, setting the stage for national elections.

“We have had many years without peace, without rights in this country,” explained Sidonie Swana Falanga, president of an association of Congolese Protestant women theologians. “God is able to make changes, but in reality I’m afraid,” she said. “For those candidates that aren’t elected, will they accept defeat, or will they fight? I am asking you to pray for us that we will have calm in our country, and that we will have changes that people want to see.”

Tim Shenk, who was in the Democratic Republic of Congo for the July 30, 2006 election, was a writer for Mennonite Central Committee when this article appeared. Suzanne Lind, country representative for MCC in Congo, contributed to this article. The Congo Relief, Security, and Democracy Promotion Act was passed by the U.S. Congress on Dec. 6, 2006.

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