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Congolese bishops back new president after initial doubts about election results

Amid the deadly Congolese conflicts and civil wars, the Catholic Church has served as the conscience of the society and has come to be the most trusted institution in the country.

Supporters of Congolese President Felix Tshisekedi react before his inauguration ceremony in Kinshasa Jan. 24, 2019.(CNS photo/Olivia Acland, Reuters)

NAIROBI, Kenya (CWR) – In the Congo’s “new dawn”, Catholic bishops are taking steps to move the country forward, even as the presidential election result continues to stir controversy.

Initially, the bishops had rejected the results of the Presidential elections, in which Felix Antione Tshilombo Tshisekedi was declared elected as the President of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

But in what is seen as an exercise of a “delicate balance”, senior church officials now say they are ready to work with Tshisekedi in order to help renew their country.

Congo, one of Africa’s largest countries, held general elections on December 30, amid threats from rebel violence and an Ebola outbreak in eastern parts. Joseph Kabila had been the president for 18 years, but was forced out by a constitutional term limit.

Kabila brought relative stability to Congo, bringing to an end the African Great Wars of the late 1990s and early 2000s, which resulted in millions killed and displaced. During his presidency, multinational companies started investing in the mining of minerals such as copper, gold diamonds and cobalt, helping grow the economy. But by the time Kabila’s presidency ended, very little money had trickled down to local communities. At the same time, the eastern parts of the country remained largely unstable, with a host of rebel militia roaming the hills, killing people, raping women, and committing other brutal atrocities.

After the release of preliminary results in January, Catholic bishops of rejected the figures given by the Independent National Electoral Commission (CENI). CENI results indicated that Tshisekedi has garnered 38.5 percent of the votes, while Martin Fayulu had obtained 34. 7 percent. Kabila’s preferred successor Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary had obtained 23.8 percent. The voter turnout was estimated at 47.6 percent.

Referencing data from the field, the bishops charged that CENI’s outcome contradicted the findings of the 40,000 strong election monitoring team which they had deployed across the country. On January 14, the bishops issued a statement in which they said the result contradicted that of their observers.

Although the bishops did not say it in their official statement, they indicated in meetings that the front runner, Fayulu, the leader of the Engagement for Citizenship and Development party, had won the poll.

Fayulu went to court to challenge the vote results, claiming they had been rigged against him. At the same time, observers claimed that Tshisekedi’s Union for Democracy and Social Development (UDSP) had cut a power deal with Kabila’s Common Front for Congo (FCC). Fayulu later described the elections as a constitutional coup and an electoral swindle.

On January 19, the court threw out Fayulu’s petition and declared that Tshisekedi had validly been elected. The court said that Fayulu had failed to prove the allegation. But, backed by two former vice-presidents, Jean Pierre Bemba and Moise Katumbi, Fayulu’s significant influence on DRC politics cannot be ignored.

When he was sworn in on Jan.24, Tshisekedi sounded conciliatory as celebrations took place in Kinshasa and his home region of Kasai.

“We want to build a string Congo, turned towards development in peace and security, a Congo for all in which everyone has a place,” Tshisekedi stated at the inauguration.

Whether the 55-year-old Tshisekedi will bring peace to the conflict-hit nation, or if the mineral rich country will experience even more division and chaos, remains to be seen.

The young Tshisekedi was born Leopoldville, in the then Zaire in June 13, 1963. His father, Etienne Tshisekedi, was a prominent opposition party figure who founded the Union for Democracy and Social Development (UDSP) party. Following his activities in the opposition politics, the older Tshisekedi fell out with the then-President Mobutu Sese Seko and was banished to his hometown of Kasai. In 1980, he left DRC to move to Belgium, taking his son with him.

While in Belgium, the young Tshisekedi earned several degrees. He then worked as a marketer before turning to politics. In 2008, he became the secretary of national affairs in his father’s party. Prior to this recent election, the closest he came to holding an elected post in DRC was in 2011 when he contested for a parliamentary seat in the general elections but lost in what was widely seen as yet another fraudulent elections in DRC.

When his father died in 2017, the young Felix was elected the head of UDSP, a development that placed him in a powerful position in national politics. But his political resume is slim, and he has little direct experience in national politics. Some observers say he is riding on his father’s accomplishments and reputation.

Amid the deadly Congolese conflicts and civil wars, the Catholic Church has served as the conscience of the society and has come to be the most trusted institution in the country. The Church’s role will be critical as Congo wades through a tense and fragile period.

But some Catholic leaders want to stick with the “truth in the ballot”, which suggests that Tshisekedi was not properly elected. One of them is Cardinal Laurent- Monsengwo Pasinya, who earlier this week maintained that opposition leader Martin Fayulu had won the election.

Pasinya told the press in  Brussels on Monday that Fayulu won the election. He has expressed doubts about Tshisekedi’s ability to guide the country into peace and stability.

Fr Donatien Nshole, the secretary general of the National Episcopal Conference of Congo (CENCO), is striking a different chord.  He has expressed the bishops’ conference readiness to collaborate with the new president.

“The head of state who is there is officially recognized and we can only deal with him,” Fr. Nshole was quoted as saying during Head of State’s greeting ceremony on February 15th. Archbishop Marcel Utembi of Kisangani and the President of the CENCO was present at the meeting.

By supporting Tshisekedi, said Nshole, the Church was showing respect to the country’s institutions, including the judiciary which ruled that Tshisekedi won.

Earlier, while the national conference had remained quiet about on whether or not to recognize Tshisekedi’s victory, Catholic bishops from Kasai, his home region, acknowledged his election.

“We thank God for the new President of our country…. its advent is a step in the realization of a dream of democracy and progress of all the Congolese people,” they stated.

According to the Congolese bishops, one the immediate dividends of the Tshisekedis victory was the laying down of arms by the deadly Kamwina Nsapu militia in the name of peace and stability.

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About Fredrick Nzwili 26 Articles
Fredrick Nzwili is journalist based in Nairobi, Kenya.

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