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.
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.
Africa becomes area of global competition
The widespread view of Africa as one huge problem point on the planet’s body characterized by pandemics, hunger, poverty and wars – the so-called “Afropessimism” – has now been replaced with an approach which was launched by global powers as they compete for economic and political presence on the continent. After a lull, Russia has joined the race as well.
According to Russian President Vladimir Putin, “African states are steadily gaining political and economic weight, asserting themselves as major pillars of the global multi-polar system and enjoying ever more say in making decisions on the most critical issues of the regional and global agenda.” Significantly, Africa accounts for about one third of the votes in the UN.
After Russia made an impressive “comeback” in the Middle East, Moscow became attractive for states seeking alternatives to the old political and economic ties. The first African country to do that was the war-torn Central African Republic, and the next to follow was Sudan, a country facing a similar challenge. Then more countries did the same. At present, more than 30 African countries have reached agreements with Russia which envisage the development of geo-resources, the supply of produce of the military-industrial complex, and the training of army personnel and law enforcement forces. Among the most significant contractors are Algeria, Egypt, Angola, Uganda and Nigeria.
The consistent and rarely publicized efforts of the Russian diplomacy resulted in the first Russia-Africa summit, which was held in Sochi on October 23-24. The day earlier, the Russian-African Economic Forum opened in Sochi too. Of the 62 African legal entities officially recognized by the UN, the Russian forum was attended by heads of state of 43 countries while another 11 participated at minister and ambassador level. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi represented both Egypt and the African Union.
During the Sochi forum, Russia and African countries signed more than 500 agreements worth about 800 billion rubles. Considering the low solvency of African partners, the participants came to agreement to set up a $ 5 billion trade support fund. The success of the forum prompted the decision to hold it regularly, every two years.
China seems to be Russia’s top economic competitor on the Black Continent. Beijing offers African countries big but easy loans and builds social infrastructure facilities on a gratuitous basis. China attaches great importance to “soft power” by promoting cultural and scientific contacts in an attempt to form loyal national elites. Every year thousands of Africans are granted scholarships to study at Chinese universities. As a result, ten years ago, China snatched from the United States its leadership as Africa’s trade and economic partner thereby becoming one of the major investors and donors to African countries.
Since the beginning of the century, the China-Africa Cooperation Forum has been held regularly, with nearly four dozen African countries joining the One Belt One Road mega-project.
And finally, (as investments have to be protected) in 2017, a Chinese military base appeared in Djibouti, the first beyond the bounds of the PRC.
Simultaneously, Africa’s growing dependence on Chinese financing may become one of Russia’s competitive advantages as the continent starts to look for alternative partners.
The United States has unintentionally been contributing to this, by criticizing the policies of Moscow and Beijing in Africa. Washington has become seriously concerned with measures to repulse the “expansion” of China and Russia. In December 2018, the Trump administration presented a new strategy for Africa, or in fact, a plan to counteract the activity of Russia and China on the continent. There have been numerous official statements to this effect. “These countries are expanding their financial and political influence to Africa by applying “aggressive” practices and acting for their own benefit, which poses a threat to US national security,” – the then adviser to the American president, John Bolton, said, as he unveiled the program. It turns out that the United States is acting in Africa to the detriment of its own interests?
China bore the brunt of criticism. Bolton, as usual, lashed at Beijing for many things, but above all, for using loans to enslave the Black Continent. Last summer, during the US-Africa business summit in Maputo, the United States launched the Prosperous Africa Economic Program. The Program’s ultimate goal is the same – to contain the growing influence of Russia and China by expanding trade with countries of the continent, by promoting American technology and by boosting assistance in the anti-terrorism campaign. According to Bolton, the new approaches will allow African countries “to remain independent in reality, not in theory”. But for the rhetoric, there is little new in the American approach.
Europe boasts traditionally strong positions on the African continent. After they gained independence, the authorities in many former French colonies’ capitals installed monuments to Charles de Gaulle. African countries are interested in cooperating with the European Union in three interrelated areas: peacekeeping, which is so critical for the Black Continent, receiving economic and humanitarian aid, and assistance in the anti-epidemic effort.
In turn, the EU is more set on measures to thwart illegal migration from the African continent, which is its top priority for now. Simultaneously, the EU is trying to be realistic about the economic and political potential of African partners. As far back as in April 2000, Cairo hosted the first EU-Africa summit, attended by heads of state and government. Seven years later, the Strategic Partnership Agreement for Trade and Democracy was signed in Lisbon, designed to boost economic and political ties and calling for “genuine cooperation” and partner equality.
Nevertheless, the number of Europeans present on the continent has been dwindling. Even the French who until recently affected the political situation in Francophone Africa have become fewer in number. According to the authoritative French weekly Le Point, Paris “is losing ground here,” and should thus “come to its senses”, as its influence and economic weight on the continent are steadily declining.
Incidentally, Ankara embarked on cooperation with the continent years ago. The first summit on Turkey’s cooperation with African countries (mainly Muslim) was held in 2008. This year the third summit took place. Since 2010, the government has been following the so-called “African Strategy.” The Turkish Foreign Ministry has proudly reported on its website that the two parties have been demonstrating mutual interest in bilateral ties, which becomes clear from the following figures: while in 2009 there were only 12 Turkish representative missions on the Black Continent, today their number totals 39. And African countries have increased the number of their diplomatic missions in Ankara threefold – from 10 to 33 – over the same period.
Speaking of the prospects for cooperation between Russia and Africa, we can say first of all that Russia is one of the top ten exporters of food products to African markets. Secondly, Moscow is one of the major suppliers of military produce to the continent – the value of military contracts in 2019 is expected to exceed $ 4 billion. Thirdly, local consumers are quite satisfied with the price-quality ratio of many Russian-made products. And the contractors can pay for these goods: Africa accounts for up to one third of the developed mineral reserves, and given that surveys were not always carried out at the appropriate level and did not cover all resources-rich areas, there are more. So, the fourth area of Russia-Africa cooperation is geological prospecting work.
Addressing the Sochi forum, President Putin made it clear to African guests that Russia had no intention to repeat the mistakes of the USSR, which was determined to multiply the number of political pseudo-allies at the expense of economic feasibility. The United States and the EU have also reiterated the mutually beneficial nature of trade and economic relations. Moreover, all actors regularly write off Africa’s debts, and Moscow is no exception.
And finally, it is necessary to point out that Western countries invariably make this cooperation conditional on the “right”, from their point of view, foreign and domestic policies of their contractors. Russia has a clear edge here as it does not seek to force its opinion on anyone, be it Europe or the African continent.
From our partner International Affairs
Moscow’s Institute for African Studies Marks its 60th Year
The Institute for African Studies under the Russian Academy of Sciences was founded 60 years ago, precisely in 1959. Since then it has undergone various changes and carried out huge scientific research on Africa.
Professor Dmitri Bondarenko, the deputy director, discusses some aspects of its most current achievements, challenges and the future. Here are excerpts from the interview conducted by Kester Kenn Klomegah:
Institute for African Studies marks its 60th year. Can we look at its performance, at least, during the past five years? What are the landmarked activities during the past half a decade?
The 60th anniversary is a good reason for looking both back at the results to date and ahead. If I could speak further about the achievements of the most recent years, I would mention first and formost, we try our best to organize fieldwork in Africa, although we are limited in our possibilities rather rigidly.
The landmark activities during the last five years in the academic sphere are as follows: the 13th and 14th conferences of Africanists (2014, 2017) – this is the Institute’s “brand conference”. Every time, it brings together about 500 participants from all over the world, including many African countries. The next, 15th, conference will take place in May 2020; 48 panels with about 10 presentations in each are included into its preliminary program.
In the last five years, several important conferences were organized together with foreign partners – from Slovenia, Portugal and, what is especially important, from Tanzania. The conference took place in Dar es Salaam in March 2019 and brought together scholars from 13 states. The next conference in Tanzania is scheduled for November 2020.
Several dozen books have been published in the last five years, among probably the most important of which are: Federalism in Africa: Problems and Prospects (in Russian and English), edited by Igho O. Natufe and Khristina M. Turyinskaya (2015), Tropical Africa: Evolution of Political Leadership (in Russian) by Tatiana S. Denisova (2016), Islam, Global Governance and the New World Order (in Russian) by Leonid L. Fituni and Irina O. Abramova (2018).
Assess the importance of its research, in form of consultancy, for government institutions and private both in Russia and Africa?
This importance is definitely growing, especially in the most recent years. State institutions and business companies seek the Institute’s consultancy services more and more often nowadays. In particular, the Institute played an important role in the preparation of the Russia-Africa summit in October 2019.
As we are a research institution, my firm belief is that just academic research should be our primary task. The situation has been changing during the last few years. Today the importance of Africa for Russia in different respects, including political and economic, is recognized by the state, and the Russian Foreign Ministry and other state institutions dealing with the Russian-African relations in various spheres, not just purely political, ask us for our expert advice on different points quite often.
What are the current challenges and hindrances to research Africa these years? Do you have any suggestions here on how to improvement the situation?
The situation now is much better for African studies than for a long time before. In particular, today there are much more opportunities for doing fieldwork in Africa. Russian Africanists and their work are becoming better known in the global Africanist community. Quite a lot of junior researchers join the academy nowadays. In my assessment, African studies in Russia are on the right road.
The challenges our African Studies are facing now are the same as the whole Russian Academy are facing, and they are mainly related to the bureaucratic pressure on research institutions.
How about academic cooperation with similar institutions inside Africa? Do you exchange researchers and share reports with African colleagues?
At the moment, the Institute has Agreements on Cooperation or Memorandums of Understanding with 18 universities and research institutes from 12 African states and currently there are negotiations with two more institutions from one more country.
As noted above, many African scholars come to our conferences, and we had and will have jointly organized conferences with particularly Tanzanian partners. Our partners help organize the Institute researchers’ fieldwork in their countries the outcome of which, besides other points, are joint publications (for example, with our colleagues from Tanzania and Zambia).
It is important to say that African colleagues regularly publish their articles in “The Journal of the Institute for African Studies”. We also have book exchange programs with some of our African partners. However, we do not have well-established exchange of researchers with our African partners, especially because of financial difficulties from both sides.
Besides, I must say that not all African partners, even those with whom we have official Memorandums of Understanding or Agreements on Cooperation, are really active in supporting ties with us, some of them do not initiate any joint projects and remain passive when we propose something. Nevertheless, we do have good and diversified ties with many African partners.
And the future vision for the IAS? How would you like the IAS transform, or say, diversify its activities especially now the Kremlin prioritizes Africa?
As I see it, the Institute’s forseeable future will be based on two main developments. On the one hand, it will more and more become a “think tank” for the state and business, and most probably, this development will dominate.
On the other hand, I hope the Institute will remain as a research institution where fundamental studies into different aspects of African and African diaspora’s past and present are done. The Institute for African Studies has the potential and capacity for combining both trends at a high level and far into the future.
As it becomes clearer from the discussion, I see the prospects for the Institute’s further development, in attracting more young researchers with their energy and new visions and approaches, in extending fieldwork in Africa, and in broadening international cooperation with Africanists worldwide.
We Should Exempt Africa from the Russia–UK Geopolitical Confrontation
Today neither Russia nor the United Kingdom can claim a leadership role in Africa. London reached the peak of its influence here between World War I and World War II, when the British Empire had a larger part of the continent under its direct control. Moscow’s heyday in Africa goes back to the 1960s – 1970s, with the Soviet Union having played the role of the main overseas supporter of various national liberation movements. The odds are that in the XXI Century African countries’ destinies will depend more on the logic of the emerging US – China global competition than on any decisions taken in the Kremlin or at Downing Street, 10.
Moreover, today both Russia and the UK have limited economic, political and strategic interests in Africa, compared to some other parts of the world — e.g. Europe or the Middle East. Arguably, this is the main reason why Africa does not look as toxic for Russia–UK relations as some other regions do. However, we cannot rule out potential clashes between the two powers in various present or future crises and conflicts in Africa. We should avoid underestimating the likely benefits of Russia–UK cooperation, even if it remains quite limited.
Many current trends suggest the role of Africa in the international system will continue to grow over time — both in terms of global challenges that the continent is likely to generate and in terms of global opportunities that it is going to offer. If everybody’s attention seems to be focused on the Middle East today, tomorrow it might well shift to Africa. Russian and UK stakes on the continent are likely to grow, while the price of an uncontrolled confrontation is expected to increase.
Moscow and London have to start working on how to contain risks and cut costs of this confrontation. Ideally — on how to exempt Africa from their geopolitical confrontation altogether. The first important step might be to try to agree on an appropriate ‘code of conduct’ on the continent, which could be applied not only to Russia and the United Kingdom, but also to external players in general. Africa may well be an ideal place to test new ideas about such controversial notions as responsibility to protect, failed state, hybrid war or regime change. London and Moscow are more likely to reach an agreement on many African crises than on more sensitive matters like Ukraine or Syria. At the same time, with an understanding on ‘rules of engagement’ in Africa in hand, it would be easier to approach highly divisive cases in Europe or in the Middle East.
Another area for potential Russia–UK collaboration or, at least, for coordination in Africa could be the area of ‘African commons’. The continent is in desperate need of essential public goods, the demand for them is huge and our two nations could do better avoiding old-fashioned competition and increasing the efficiency of their respective assistance projects in Africa. Take, for instance, the domain of general and higher education and human capital development in Africa, where both the UK and Russia have considerable experience and overlapping comparative advantages. Another area for potential cooperation is public health, which will require substantial investment, as well as personnel training and emergency management. Joint projects in infrastructure development, including private-public partnerships, constitute yet another opportunity.
In the security domain, Russia and the United Kingdom could explore options for more intense interaction in fighting international terrorism coming from Africa or targeting African countries. At the same time, Moscow and London could consider enhancing their respective roles in the UN led peacekeeping operations in Africa and demonstrating more appetite for consorted votes within the UN Security Council. They can work together in fighting piracy in the dangerous waters of the Gulf of Guinea, and so on.
It is evident that any Russia–UK interaction in Africa or about Africa cannot and will not be completely separated from the rest of their bilateral relations. If we fail to settle the core problems dividing Moscow and London today, this divisive agenda will continue to limit opportunities for cooperation in Africa as well. However, the Africa of today and especially the Africa of tomorrow will be too important for the world at large to approach it only as an extension of the ongoing Russia–UK confrontation. It is one of the most apparent cases, in which an exemption would not be a manifestation of weakness or cynicism, but rather a demonstration of political wisdom and a strategic foresight.
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