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Catholic Church under attack in the DRC

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In a country increasingly wracked by armed conflict, nothing is sacred anymore. The kidnapping of a Catholic priest in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and the subsequent demand for a ludicrous Sh50 million ($500,000) ransom, is just the latest instance of turbulence in this violence-ridden nation.

The abduction is concerning not only as the latest instance of the encroaching lawlessness that plagues the land, but also because it represents an openly hostile attack on the Catholic Church of Congo itself. With a corrupt president clinging onto power, the Church has become one of the DRC’s main sources of moral authority and resistance to tyranny. As a result, such a brazen assault on this influential institution only further undermines the country’s chances for a stable future.

Anarchy in the DRC

Despite its incredible natural wealth (it has vast resources of cobalt and copper, among other precious minerals), entrenched corruption in the DRC has kept the vast majority of the populace locked in entrenched poverty. With over 13 million people in need of humanitarian aid and 7.7 million of those facing “severe food insecurity”, the situation is comparable to the crisis in Syria. To add to the humanitarian emergency, armed rebel groups have been engaging in increasingly frequent attacks, especially in the DRC’s eastern provinces, prompting the UN to deploy over 16,000 peacekeepers in the country. That’s the largest peacekeeping operation anywhere on the planet.

15 of those peacekeepers were targeted by rebels in December last year in what has been described as one of the worst attacks on UN personnel in living memory, and the violence has recently spilled over into the religious community as well. The abduction of Father Celestin Ngango on Easter Sunday is just the latest attempt to extort money from the Church, as there have been several others in recent years. In October 2012, three priests were abducted from the Betumbo-Beni diocese, while two more were kidnapped in July 2016. None of the abductees have been seen since. Although a prominent bishop has admitted that kidnappings are virtually a daily occurrence in the DRC, the extortionate ransom demanded for Father Ngango represents a serious escalation vis-à-vis previous sums.

Church as a figurehead of freedom

The stakes have not only been heightened in monetary terms. By targeting clergymen, the rebels are destabilising the DRC further by victimising the very body which is fighting most to save it. The Church has long been an outspoken proponent of democracy and freedom, stretching back to the days of dictator Mobutu Sese Seko. After Mobutu attempted to quash the Church in the 1970s – seeing it as an obstacle to his attempts to consolidate absolute power – the institution enjoyed renewed popularity among the common people, aided by its role as provider of educational and welfare services.

Indeed, in a country where the authorities often fail to supply even the most basic public services to their citizens, the Church has filled a critical vacuum, resulting in enduring popularity even among non-believers. 35 million of 84 million Congolese call themselves Catholics, but many of those who do not identify with the Church still appreciate their support for democracy and social justice. The de-facto leader, Cardinal Laurent Monsengwo, enjoys wide popularity; perhaps more tellingly, he has also been a constant thorn in the side of the country’s dictators. Indeed, current leader Joseph Kabila himself once confided to a European diplomat that he viewed Monsengwo as his “main opponent”.

Striving for justice

It’s easy to see why Kabila is so wary of Monsengwo and his order. The Church fielded 30,000 observers in the 2011 elections and were the first party to cry foul play. When Kabila promised to step down at the end of his mandate in 2016, the Church acquiesced, only to step in as mediators and broker the Saint Sylvester agreement (which called for elections by December 2017) after he refused to keep up his end of the bargain. However, the failure of those elections to materialise has now shifted their position from mediators to mobilisers. Since the end of 2017, the Church has organized 149 peaceful protests, only 16 of which have been allowed to take place unchallenged. With the political opposition typically fractious in nature, the Church has provided a rare and crucial voice of unity against Kabila.

That fractiousness, however, may now be coming to an end with the rise of presidential candidate Moïse Katumbi. Championed by the Church and by dozens of opposition leaders, Katumbi announced his candidacy with the launch of a new “Together for Change” party earlier this year. Katumbi has the financial credentials and the widespread popularity to topple Kabila, prompting the latter to hinder the former’s campaign in any way he can. Kabila has levelled charges of real estate fraud and mercenary recruitment at Katumbi’s door and charged him with three years in prison, though Katumbi (and the Church) maintain his innocence. Additionally, Congolese authorities have blocked his passport application and raised his former Italian citizenship as problematic in blatant attempts to discredit his candidacy. Nonetheless, Katumbi has promised to return to the DRC by June at the latest and lead the charge against his old foe.

Situation critical

If elections are allowed to proceed as planned on December 23rd and Katumbi given the opportunity to stake his claim to the presidency, there is a real hope that the DRC can dig itself out of the corruption, conflict and poverty that has taken hold of the country. The support of the Church will be instrumental in giving that hope credibility.

Samantha is a freshly minted graduate in International Relations based in Cairo, currently working as a research assistant in a small think tank looking at development and inequality in Africa

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Africa

South Africa on the right side of history or captured by Cold War allies?

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Authors: Professor Gerrit Olivier and Michèle Olivier* 

A seemingly non-negotiable principle of SA’s foreign policy, is to be on the side of autocrats and dictators and habitually anti-West, irrespective of the issues. Cosy relations with the likes of Ethiopia’s Mengistu Haile Mariam, Sudan‘s Omar al Bashir Cuba’s Fidel Castro and Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, characterised our foreign policy under all presidents since Nelson Mandela. With the present government being enamoured with a rabid war criminal like Vladimir Putin, we see a continuation of this policy.

Obsessed with a myopic partisan ideology and habitual hop-nobbing with dictators, of course, come at a high price, particularly degrading SA’S erstwhile high international prestige, role and status as well as stunting our all-important economic development. In short, this means that SA’s prevailing foreign policy is totally out of zinc with its intrinsic national interests. 

According to ANC declarations, SA would ’stick to its principles‘ and not take sides in this war in spite of blatantly illegal and murderous Russian war crimes. Hence, it abstained from voting against Russia together with a motley minority of 34 other UN members in the 2 March General Assembly resolution (only 5 states voted against whilst 141 voted in favour). 

The minister of the department of international relations and development (DIRCO), Naledi Pandor, issued a statement demanding Russia to withdraw from Ukraine. This clearly upset the Marxist, anti-West faction in the ANC policy establishment who subsequently prevailed upon president Ramaphosa, to denounce the statement, no doubt to assuage Russian and local communist’s displeasure. 

For many, both inside and outside the country, this was a controversial decision resulting in a rare local public debate about our wayward foreign policy. What emerged was a conflict of opinion between the ideologues and realists in the foreign policy establishment. A hopeful sign, but unfortunately of little consequence in our fossilised ANC foreign policy establishment. 

All along, the ideologues accepted that being in cahoots with war criminal Russia was in SA’s best interests notwithstanding the normative constitutional dictates and founding moral principles concerning respect for human rights, sovereignty, democracy, and territorial integrity. 

What followed was indeed a case study of expedient, if not downright ’Walter Mitty’ diplomacy.  First, president Ramaphosa rushed to telephone Putin, obviously to bask the reflected glory and honour of speaking to the ‘great man’. Afterwards, he subserviently thanked ‘’his excellency president Vladimir Putin‘’ for taking his call.  At the same time, our ’great negotiator’ refused official engagement with the local Ukrainian ambassador as well as with ambassadors of the European Union, our biggest trading partners.

In the latest General Assembly meeting on Ukraine, SA persisted with its pro-Russian pseudo-neutrality but got a humiliating bloody nose after presenting a draft resolution, excluding the country of all blame. No wonder as this resolution was strictly in line with Kremlin propaganda lies casting doubt as to where exactly SA’s UN diplomats got their instructions from. 

Ramaphosa’s aim, it seems, is to push himself forward as facilitator in the conflict, recalling at length in parliament his past experiences a negotiator.

‘Illusions of grandeur’, it may be called, as SA ’s international status and role during about 3 decades of uninterrupted misrule has declined close to being almost insignificant. While most of the world reached out to end the horrible and unthinkable human and material misery inflicted upon Ukrainian people, he offered them naught for their comfort, except portending to be a great negotiator reporting for service.  

Belatedly, after strong criticism he rejected war as an instrument of policy, and signalled his wish to also speak to Ukrainian pres Volodimyr Zelinskiy, impressed perhaps by the latter‘s sterling performances addressing the American senate and the British, Canadian, Israeli, Italian and Japanese parliaments and the  German Bundestag. The pièce de résistance of his kindergarten diplomacy, was to blame NATO for being deaf to earlier warnings against eastward expansion, ignoring the Russian brutal invasions, of inter alia, Finland, Latvia, Hungary and Czechoslovakia, in the previous century not realising that NATO membership was their safeguard against future Ukrainian-type of invasions. Theirs was a wise decision.  Indeed, Mr President, ignorance is bliss….!    

Of course, good relations with countries like Russia are important provided they are based on pragmatism and national interest rather than sentimental ideological predilections. However, the ANC still acts as being a captive of the Cold War and, as if it still owes permanent a feudal fealty to Russia at a time when Soviet Union is passe and with communism on the ash heap of history. 

While the world must perforce deal with a totally different and dangerous Putinist Russia, the ANC obstinately refuse to accept that its subservient posture vis-a- vis that country is not in SA’s best interest. Lamentably, the global moral imperatives that saw them to power no longer guide its foreign policy. Like the apartheid regime, Putinist Russia today commits a crime against humanity in Ukraine with the support of the ANC government. 

The war in Ukraine may yet lead to unthinkable consequences for the world at large. What happens there is really a struggle between democracy and authoritarianism. Putin does not want a democratic Ukraine at his doorstep exposing his bland authoritarianism and precipitating a ’colour revolution’.  Given the solidarity in the democratic West and the sluggish performance of the Russian forces in Ukraine, he will probably end up losing. SA policy makers are demonstrably  myopic not realising the consequences for being on the side of a war autocratic war criminal war criminal. Like apartheid SA it would probably end up as an isolated global pariah.

An independent SA foreign policy is called for rather than one subservient to the preferences and dictates of Moscow and Beijing. This is the best way in which SA can regain international respect. The way in which it has handled the Ukraine crisis once again laid bare its diplomatic deficiencies, particularly lack of clear headed leadership. This will not change unless foreign policy making is democratised and professionalised rather than being monopolised by a small clique of badly trained  and inexperienced ideologues with the help of a few advocating stand-patters. 

* Michèle Olivier is a consultant of international law

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Reviewing Russia-Mali Strategic Partnership

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After withdrawing from the Joint Military Force of the G5-Sahel group which the United Nations described as “unfortunate” and “regrettable” middle of May, Malian Foreign Minister, Abdoulaye Diop, made a snapshot visit, for the second time under the new military administration to Moscow, intended to review various aspects of strategic partnership deals with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

“We paid special attention to the practical aspects of organizing deliveries from Russia of wheat, mineral fertilizers and petroleum products that are so much needed by the people of Mali today in conditions of illegitimate Western sanctions,” Lavrov said at a press conference after talks with Diop in Moscow.

The sound pace of military and military-technical contacts between the two countries was noted during the talks, according to Lavrov, and thanked his Malian counterpart for support for Russia’s resolutions at the latest session of the UN General Assembly. Lavrov made to explicit reference to the meeting of the UN Security Council the Western countries that consistently tried to “put their blame at Russia’s door” and to shirk responsibility for the food crisis. 

“It goes without saying that we discussed the situation in Ukraine and around it, including the meeting of the UN Security Council devoted to world food security issues, where the Western countries tried to put their own blame at somebody else’s door. They argued that the crisis, which by and large is a result of their own efforts, allegedly stems from the crisis in Ukraine. Of course, they blamed it entirely on Russia,” Lavrov said.

Russia reaffirms its readiness to render Mali support in raising the fighting efficiency of its armed forces. “We reaffirmed Russia’s readiness as a permanent member of the UN Security Council to further contribute to normalizing the situation in Mali, render Bamako comprehensive support on a bilateral basis, in particular, in the sphere of raising the combat efficiency of the Malian armed forces, training troops and law-enforcement personnel,” Russia’s top diplomat said.

France’s decision together with Western allies to end the anti-insurgent Operation Barkhane and the European special forces mission Takuba does not contribute to restoring security in Mali and the entire Sahel region. Reports say France has approximately 5,100 troops in the region under Operation Barkhane, which spans five countries in the Sahel – Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger.

With the final exit and the vacuum created by France, Russia now sees Mali as an excellent conduit to penetrate into the Sahel by pushing the much-criticized Wagner Group that organizes private military for countries in conflict. It is aggressively targeting the Sahel region, an elongated landlocked territory located between north Africa (Maghreb) and West Africa region, and also stretches from the Atlantic Ocean to the Red Sea.

“There is an obvious danger of the emergence of enclaves of power vacuum where militants of various outlawed armed gangs will feel free at hand and they have already prepared for such acts. This threatens the country’s territorial integrity and we repeatedly told our French counterparts about that,” Russia’s top diplomat said.

On March 2 at the United Nations General Assembly, African representatives and their votes were considered very interesting, and have geopolitical implications for study and analysis. Some 17 African countries abstained from the vote at the UN General Assembly to deplore the Russian invasion of Ukraine while some other 28 countries in the continent voted in favour. Mali was among those that abstained from vote. Eritrea was the only African country that voted against the resolution. It opposes all forms of unilateral sanction as illegal and counterproductive.

“All our initiatives were supported by Mali. We agreed to enhance coordination on the UN platform and in other international organizations. We are determined to work for this in earnest, including in the recently created Group of Friends in Defense of the Charter of the United Nations,” Lavrov assured.

During his first official visit in November 2021 to Moscow, Abdoulaye Diop and Sergei Lavrov, in fact, focused on increasing bilateral cooperation in economic sectors. But particularly significant was Russia’s military assistance to strengthen the position of the new military government and to fight rising terrorism in the Sahel region.

As developments explicitly show, Mali already stands in isolation there as the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the African Union, the United Nations, and the bilateral and multilateral partners endorse and support the implementation of sanctions and other strict measures to ensure a peaceful return to constitutional and democratic government in Mali.

Mali, a landlocked West African state with an impoverished population, faces increasing isolation from the international community over the political power grab. Even as the African Union (AU), the continental organization, and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the regional bloc, both suspended the membership of Mali following military coups in August 2020 and May 2021, the ruling military officials are still holding onto political power by delaying the proposed elections in February 2022.

The African Union, Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and foreign organizations such as the European Union (EU) and the United Nations (UN) have requested a quick transition to a civilian government. They further urged that efforts are taken to resolve outstanding issues relating to sustainable development and observing strictly principles of democracy in the Republic of Mali in West Africa.

Moscow is still planning to hold the second Russia-African summit. The “special military operation” approved by both the Federation Council and the State Duma (legislative chambers) to “demilitarize and denazify” the former Soviet republic of Ukraine has pushed the United States and Canada, European Union members and many other external countries to impose sanctions against Russia.

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Mali’s withdrawal from G5 Sahel, Joint Force ‘a setback’ for the region

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UN peacekeepers patrol the Menaka region in northeast Mali. MINUSMA/Harandane Dicko

Mali’s decision on 15 May to withdraw from the G5-Sahel group and its Joint Force is “unfortunate” and “regrettable”, a senior United Nations official told the Security Council on Wednesday, as she urged countries in the region to redouble efforts to protect human rights, amid protracted political and security crises. 

Martha Ama Akyaa Pobee, Assistant Secretary-General for Africa in the Departments of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs and Peace Operations, said the Joint Force was created in 2017 by the “G5” Heads of State – Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger – to counter terrorism in the Sahel “head on”. 

Challenging dynamics 

However, the challenging political and security dynamics in the Sahel – and uncertain outcomes of transitions in Mali and Burkina Faso, in particular – has already slowed Joint Force operations.  The G5 Sahel, meanwhile, has not convened a high-level political meeting since November 2021, while its Defence and Security Committee has not met in over six months. 

Thanks to Commander General Oumar Bikimo, she said, the Joint Force has been able to carry out operations in all three of its sectors since the Council last met in November, despite the absence of Malian battalions.  

How Mali’s decision to leave the G5 and the Joint Force will impact the dynamics in the region remains to be seen.  “It is most certainly a step back for the Sahel,” she said. 

MINUSMA on hand 

For its part, the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) will continue to provide support to the Joint Force long as it is mandated to do so by the Council.  It has been working with contractors to deliver life support consumables to the contingents and will honour requests received by the other four contingents outside of Mali. 

Cycle of radicalization 

“Protecting the most vulnerable has become ever more important,” she stressed.  

She cited reports of serious violations committed against civilians – by terrorist armed groups, as well as reportedly by armed and security forces.  

To be sure, uprooting terrorist groups deeply enmeshed or embedded within communities is “uniquely challenging” in the Sahel, she said, making counter terrorism operations immensely difficult to carry out.   

But if civilians fall victim to these groups, “those very efforts are going to be pointless”.  Terrorist operations cause immeasurable human suffering, seriously undermine trust in the State and fuel radicalization. 

Time for a re-think 

“It is perhaps time to rethink our approaches and change the way we do our work” she added.  “We need innovative approaches in the face of the constantly evolving tactics of terrorist groups, whose influence keeps expanding”. 

She noted that for the last five years, the international community, donors and partners have struggled to reach a consensus on the most effective support mechanism for a collective security response in the Sahel.   

And the lack of consensus persists – despite the recognition by all, that the terrorist onslaught in the Sahel constitutes a slow-burning, mortal threat to international peace and security. 

Holistic approach needed more than ever 

“It is now more urgent than ever to act,” she said.   

She called for a holistic approach that honours “the primacy of politics”, addresses the causes of poverty and exclusion, and provides opportunities and fulfilled lives for the many young people in the region. 

The African Union Commission and the United Nations Secretariat will jointly carry out a strategic assessment of security and governance initiatives in the Sahel, she said, with the goal of strengthening support to the G5-Sahel, its Joint Force and other security and governance initiatives in the region. 

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