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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

The Transitioning Democracy of Sudan

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Sudan has been the focus of conflict for much of its six decades as an independent nation. Despite being an anomaly in a region crippled with totalitarian populism and escalating violence, the country hasn’t witnessed much economic or political stability in years. While the civic-military coalition, leading a democratic transition towards elections, has managed to subside the fragments of civil war, growing hostility in the peripheries has begun threatening the modest reforms made in the past two years. The recent coup attempt is a befitting example of the plans that are budding within the echelons of the Sudanese military to drag the country back into the closet. And while the attempt got thwarted, it is not a success to boast. But it is a warning that the transition would not be as smooth a ride as one might have hoped.

The problems today are only a reflection of Sudan’s issues in the past: especially which led to the revolution. The civil unrest began in Sudan back in December 2018. Sudan’s long-serving ruler, Omer al-Bashir, had turned Sudan into an international outcast during his 30-year rule of tyranny and economic isolation. Naturally, Sudan perished as an economic pariah: especially after the independence of South Sudan. With the loss of oil revenues and almost 95% of its exports, Sudan inched on the brink of collapse. In response, Bashir’s regime resorted to impose draconian austerity measures instead of reforming the economy and inviting investment. The cuts in domestic subsidies over fuel and food items led to steep price hikes: eventually sparking protests across the east and spreading like wildfire to the capital, Khartoum.

In April 2019, after months of persistent protests, the army ousted Bashir’s government; established a council of generals, also known as the ‘Transitional Military Council.’ The power-sharing agreement between the civilian and military forces established an interim government for a period of 39 months. Subsequently, the pro-democracy movement nominated Mr. Abdalla Hamdok as the Prime Minister: responsible for orchestrating the general elections at the end of the transitional period. The agreement coalesced the civilian and military powers to expunge rebellious factions from society and establish a stable economy for the successive government. However, the aspirations overlooked ground realities.

Sudan currently stands in the third year of the transitional arrangement that hailed as a victory. However, the regime is now most vulnerable when the defiance is stronger than ever. Despite achieving respite through peace agreements with the rebels in Sudan, the proliferation of arms and artillery never abated. In reality, the armed attacks have spiraled over the past two years after a brief hiatus achieved by the peace accords. The conflict stems from the share of resources between different societal fractions around Darfur, Kordofan, and the Blue Nile. According to UN estimates, the surging violence has displaced more than 410,000 people across Sub-Saharan Africa in 2021. The expulsion is six times the rate of displacement recorded last year. According to the retreating UN peacekeeping mission, the authorities have all but failed to calm the rampant banditry and violence: partially manifested by the coup attempt that managed to breach the government’s order.

The regional instability is only half the story. Since the displacement of Bashir’s regime, Sudan has rarely witnessed stability, let alone surplus dividends to celebrate. Despite thawing relations with Israel and joining the IMF program, Sudan has felt little relief in return. The sharp price hikes and gripping unemployment which triggered the coup back in 2019 never receded: galloped instead. Currently, inflation runs rampant above 400%, while the Sudanese Pound has massively devalued under conditions dictated by the IMF. And despite bagging some success in negotiating International debt relief, the Hamdok regime has struggled to invite foreign investment and create jobs: majorly due to endemic conflicts that still run skin-deep in the fabric of the Sudanese society.

While the coup attempt failed, it is still not a sigh of relief for the fragile government. The deep-rooted analysis of the coup attempt reveals a stark reality: the military factions – at least some – are no longer sated in being equal-footed with a civilian regime. Moreover, the perpetrators tried to leverage the widening disquiet within the country by blocking roads and attempting to sabotage state-run media: hoping to gain public support. The population is indeed frustrated by the economic desperation; the failure of the coup attempt means that people have still not given up hope in a democratic government and a free-and-fair election. Nonetheless, it is not the first tranche of the army to rebel, and it certainly won’t be the last. The only way to salvage democracy is to stabilize Sudan’s economy and resolve inter-communal violence before leading the county towards elections. Otherwise, it is apparent that Bashir’s political apparatus is so deeply entrenched in Sudan’s ruling network that even if the transitional government survives multiple coups, an elected government would ultimately wither.

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Africa

Money seized from Equatorial Guinea VP Goes into Vaccine

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As a classic precedence, the Justice Department of the United States has decided that $26.6m (£20m) seized from Equatorial Guinea’s Vice-President Teodorin Nguema Obiang Mangue be used on purchasing COVID-19 vaccines and other essential medical programmes in Equitorial Guinea, located on the west coast of central Africa.

“Wherever possible, kleptocrats will not be allowed to retain the benefits of corruption,” an official said in a statement, and reported by British Broadcasting Corporation.

Obiang was forced to sell a mansion in Malibu, California, a Ferrari and various Michael Jackson memorabilia as part of a settlement he reached with the US authorities in 2014 after being accused of corruption and money-laundering. He denied the charges.

The agreement stated that $10.3m of the money from the sale would be forfeited to the US and the rest would be distributed to a charity or other organisation for the benefit of the people of Equatorial Guinea, the Justice Department said.

The UN is to receive $19.25m to purchase and administer COVID-19 vaccines to at least 600,000 people in Equatorial Guinea, while a US-based charity is to get $6.35m for other medical programmes in Equatorial Guinea.

Teodorin Nguema has been working in position as Vice-President since 2012, before that he held numerous government positions, including Minister of Agriculture and Forestry. Known for his unquestionable lavish lifestyle, he has been the subject of a number of international criminal charges and sanctions for alleged embezzlement and corruption. He has a fleet of branded cars and a number of houses, and two houses alone in South Africa,

Teodorin Nguema has often drawn criticisms in the international media for lavish spending, while majority of the estimated 1.5 million population wallows in abject poverty. Subsistence farming predominates, with shabby infrastructure in the country. Equatorial Guinea consists of two parts, an insular and a mainland region. Equatorial Guinea is the third-largest oil producer in sub-Saharan Africa.

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Africa

African Union’s Inaction on Ethiopia Deplorable – Open Letter

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The crisis in northern Ethiopia has resulted in millions of people in need of emergency assistance and protection. © UNICEF/Christine Nesbitt

A group of African intellectuals says in an open letter that it is appalled and dismayed by the steadily deteriorating situation in Ethiopia. The letter, signed by 58 people, says the African Union’s lack of effective engagement in the crisis is deplorable. The letter calls on regional bloc IGAD and the AU to “proactively take up their mandates with respect to providing mediation for the protagonists to this conflict”.

The letter also asks for “all possible political support” for the AU’s Special Envoy for the Horn of Africa, Olusegun Obasanjo, whose appointment was announced on August 26, 2021. A United Nations Security Council meeting on the same day welcomed the former Nigerian president’s appointment.

Earlier in August 2021, UN  chief Antonio Guterres appealed for a ceasefire, unrestricted aid access and an Ethiopian-led political dialogue. He told the council these steps were essential to preserve Ethiopia’s unity and the stability of the region and to ease the humanitarian crisis. He said that he had been in close contact with Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and had received a letter from the leader of the Tigray region in response to his appeal. “The UN is ready to work together with the African Union and other key partners to support such a dialogue,” he said.

August 26, 2021 was only the second time during the conflict that the council held a public meeting to discuss the situation. Britain, Estonia, France, Ireland, Norway and the United States requested the session.

Fighting between the national government and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front broke out in November 2020, leaving millions facing emergency or crisis levels of food insecurity, according to the United Nations. Both sides have been accused of atrocities.

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