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The bishops making a dramatic appeal to the UN

Félix Tshisekedi: an 'electoral coup' (Getty)

Bishops are urging the UN to intervene after a hotly disputed presidential election result

Two weeks after long-delayed elections were finally held in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) – the country with the largest Catholic population in Africa – Church leaders are questioning the declared results and appealing for help from the international community.

In a video briefing at the United Nations last weekend, Archbishop Marcel Utembi of Kisangani, the bishops’ conference president, called for the full election data to be published. “This would enable the candidates to compare their count with the electoral commission’s,” he said, “as well as dispelling doubts among the population as to the outcome. If there are now challenges, our Church requests that the Security Council press key parties to prioritise the path of truth and peace.”

The archbishop was speaking after Félix Tshisekedi was declared the victor of the presidential ballot which took place on December 30. Tshisekedi’s rivals rejected the result, raising the prospect of continued instability in a country where President Joseph Kabila, in office for 18 years, has clung to power despite finishing his final term two years ago.

There are roughly 35 million Catholics in the DRC, out of a population of more than 80 million. The Church was heavily involved in preparations for the vote, after a 2016 accord between opposition politicians and the Kabila government was repeatedly violated.

Besides political disputes, the mineral-rich country has also suffered persistent violence by armed groups, leaving 4.5 million people displaced and a fifth of the population needing basic assistance, according to the UN.

This made the election crucial for hopes of a peaceful transition of power, the first since the DRC’s independence in 1960. It also underlined the importance of the Church, which deployed 40,000 observers and more than a thousand long-term monitors to ensure fairness and transparency.

In a post-election declaration, the Church’s Electoral Observation Mission said voters had “massively mobilised to carry out their civic duty”, despite an “atmosphere of insecurity”, and had not been prevented by irregularities from “clearly expressing their choices”. But after the country’s electoral commission declared the 55-year-old Tshisekedi the winner with 38.5 per cent of votes, the bishops questioned the official count. “For the first time in our country’s recent history, this election has opened the way to change at the top,” said a statement signed by Archbishop Utembi and 19 other bishops’ conference members. “The collected results have been analysed and published by our team of multidisciplinary experts, and we can state that the results published by the electoral commission do not correspond with them.”

Addressing supporters last week in Kinshasa, Tshisekedi vowed to be “president of all Congolese”, and praised the outgoing Kabila as “a partner in democratic change”. However, his victory was denounced as an “electoral coup” by his closest challenger, Martin Fayulu, who accused Tshisekedi of making a deal with Kabila and applied to the constitutional court for a recount.

Government officials in France and Belgium, the former colonial powers, have also questioned the declared results, while the UN secretary general Antonio Guterres called on all parties to channel their disputes through “established institutional mechanisms”.

Addressing Vatican-accredited ambassadors on January 7, the Pope said he hoped the election results would be “a determining factor for a sustainable peace” in the DRC, enabling reconciliation and an end to “the ongoing state of insecurity affecting millions of people, including many children”.

Meanwhile, the bishops’ conference insisted its own observers had aimed to boost “the legitimacy of state institutions” by promoting “a transparent and credible electoral process”, and bitterly rejected accusations by the electoral commission that the Church was “intoxicating the population and preparing an uprising”.

It said: “The bishops’ conference is well aware its legal powers are limited in electoral matters – it confines itself to observing realities between what the electoral law prescribes and what happens on the ground. The irregularity which would most seriously irritate the population and might drive the Congolese people to rebellion would be publishing results, however provisional, which do not accord with the truth of the ballot box.”

The best hope may now rest with proposals by the Southern African Development Community (SADC), which also closely monitored the election, for a government of national unity and negotiated political settlement. In any event, the DRC’s constitutional court must come up with a verdict by January 20. It could confirm Tshisekedi’s victory, order a recount or cancel the results entirely.

Having invested so much effort to uphold democracy and legality, the Church will be following developments closely. At least 17 Catholics were killed and dozens injured in Church-backed protests against the election delays in early 2018. Last June, the bishops’ conference condemned a violent raid on its inter-diocesan centre in Kinshasa.

The resulting hopes and expectations were expressed by the capital’s newly appointed archbishop, Fridolin Ambongo Besungu, in his Midnight Mass homily. He compared the DRC’s population to the people of Israel portrayed by the prophet Isaiah, when “the riches and treasures of their country were pillaged and exploited by foreigners”, plunging them into “total despair”. But he also urged Catholics “to persevere in their efforts, collaborating in God’s project and working for a true peace”.

“Are we so far from what Israel itself experienced?” the 58-year-old archbishop asked an applauding congregation at Our Lady of the Congo Cathedral. “Is it excessive to state that the Congolese people are also exiled in their own country? But true peace, especially in this agitated electoral period, will consist of opening to others, overcoming differences and engaging together for the construction of a better future.”

Jonathan Luxmoore covers Church news from Warsaw and Oxford