So much uncertainty hangs over Congolese political life at the moment, its protagonists can be forgiven for looking for signs from above. On Christmas, some believed they found one: In Pope Francis’ urbi et orbi message from St Peter’s Basilica, he said:
We also pray for peace and concord among the peoples of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Burundi and South Sudan, that dialogue may lead to a strengthened common commitment to the building of civil societies animated by a sincere spirit of reconciliation and of mutual understanding.
Aha! Was this a subtle hint, the pontiff’s endorsement of the political dialogue that the Congolese opposition has rejected as a trick to extend Kabila’s mandate? Ok, that seems a bit far fetched (N.B.: nothing is too far fetched in Congolese politics). But, for whatever reason, right after Christmas, the Congolese Episcopal Conference (CENCO)––the body that represents the Catholic church in the country––began reaching out to the opposition and government to see whether they could reach some sort of brokered settlement.
The fact that the Catholic church was making a call for moderation and dialogue is significant. It was the same prelates, after all, who on November 27, 2015 denounced the increasingly repressive political climate and called for mass mobilization on February 16, 2016 to ensure that Kabila does not change the constitution. The entire political opposition then proceeded to pin its political future on that date. If you ask any member of the Front Citoyen––which includes all major opposition parties, but also civil society leaders––how they intend to push Kabila toward compromise, and they answer: February 16, 2016. They think that perhaps that this will force Kabila to finally declare he will not stand in the coming elections, that local elections will be held after national elections, and that under no circumstances will the constitution be changed.
To be clear, the Catholic church has not called off those demonstrations, although they insist on calling them “processions” to emphasize their ecclesiastic nature. And one opposition leader, who met a CENCO delegation recently, said that they had given him a nod and a wink and suggested that they were really still backing the opposition and would continue to call for protests.
The date chosen for the march has historic significance. On that day in 1992, the Catholic church called for demonstrations to force Mobutu Sese Seko to reopen the National Sovereign Conference, which was supposed to guide the country through a democratic transition. Led by Catholic priests and lay members of the Catholic church draped in white, the demonstrators faced fierce repression by security forces; at least 30 died.
Of course, people around Kabila tend to associate the date with another bout of protests: those following the deeply flawed 2011 elections. Then, too, the Catholic church––albeit not with the same gusto––called for demonstrations on that symbolic day. But army and police units swept in, dispersed protesters, and even beat up some priests. The demonstrations fell flat, and several months later the political elites had moved on, focused on a new rebellion in the East, and on wrangling for ministerial positions in Kinshasa.
Which will it be, CENCO: February 16, 1992, or February 16, 2012?