Will Pope help silence the guns in DR Congo and South Sudan?
Pope Francis begins his tour of the Democratic Republic of Congo on January 31 with a message of peace and reconciliation, a trip that is hoped to bring the much-needed balm in the conflict-scarred nation.
The Catholic Church in Kinshasa says purpose of “the pastoral trip of Pope Francis to the Congo is to invite the Congolese men and women to intensify prayer to heal the wounds of all kinds in the manner of the Good Samaritan towards each other to face together the real perils of the country’s upheavals, the symptoms of which are visible today.”
When he touches down in Kinshasa, the head of the Roman Catholic Church will be making his 40th trip abroad since he ascended to the papacy. But DRC, the 59th country in his itinerary, is just as unique as the 60th, South Sudan. He will stay in Kinshasa until February 3 when he departs for the Juba tour with Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby.
His trip to the DR Congo is themed “All Reconciled in Jesus Christ” and he has spoken passionately about the importance of letting the Congolese decide their future, subtly lampooning foreign players for looting local resources while conflict rages.
“The Democratic Republic of Congo … it’s like a fortress, a bastion of inspiration. You only have to look here in Rome at the Congolese community,” he told Mundo Negro Magazine, run by the Comboni Missionaries in Spain, earlier in January.
“I have been looking forward to this trip, wishing it to be as soon as possible. South Sudan is a suffering community. (Even Congo is suffering at this time due to armed conflict, which is why I am not going to Goma, since it is not possible due to the fighting. It’s not that I’m not going because I’m afraid, but with this (volatile atmosphere and seeing what is happening… we have to take care of people.”
Pope Francis’ initial trip to the two countries back in July 2022 was postponed due to a knee problem. Now, the timing could not have been better. The pontiff comes to the region amid high tensions between DRC and its neighbour Rwanda over security breaches and accusations of support for armed groups hostile to both governments.
This week, Kinshasa declined a mediation offer by Qatar which is keen to have the two sides climb down and give peace a chance. Sources in Kinshasa said President Felix Tshisekedi withdrew from the Doha talks, in spite of earlier indicating willingness to the Qataris, after a former aide gave an interview saying Kinshasa had approached Kigali to end their feud and agree on business cooperation.
The official, whom Kinshasa says has since been detained, had claimed DRC approached Rwanda to help reach out to investors in the mineral refining sector in exchange for rapprochement.
The EastAfrican could not verify the actual accusations the official was facing, and he had not been charged in court by press time.
But sources indicated the official’s claim had infuriated President Tshisekedi, who last year suspended business dealings with Rwanda in protest over Kigali’s alleged support of the M23 rebel group fighting the Congo army in the east.
When this week’s talks fell through, Doha was reportedly furious. The Qataris have an obvious stake in harmony between Rwanda and DR Congo: They are investing in the aviation business in Rwanda, whose growth requires more routes to places such as Kinshasa and other Congolese cities.
Then on Tuesday, the Rwandan military shot at a Congolese military jet over alleged breach of its airspace, raising more heat in an already simmering situation.
While the exact airspace in which it was shot at was unspecified, Rwanda said it had taken “defensive measures” against what it said was Congolese aggression.
“At 5.03pm, a Sukhoi-25 from the DRC violated Rwandan airspace for the third time,” said a brief statement from the Rwanda Defence Forces.
The Sukhoi-25, however, managed to land at Goma airport in North Kivu, eastern DRC. The DRC government said that the plane was “attacked as it began its landing on the runway of Goma International Airport.”
“The Rwandan fire was directed at a Congolese aircraft flying inside Congolese territory. It did not fly over Rwandan airspace in any way,” the statement from DRC said.
Rwanda’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Vincent Biruta accused the DRC of disregarding peace agreements and using Rwanda as a scapegoat for “issues that date back to colonial times.”
Mercenaries and incursions
In an address to the Lower Chamber of Parliament on Thursday, Mr Biruta said that the DRC had boycotted mediation meetings and continued to violate the African Union 1977 Convention for the Elimination of Mercenaries in Africa by hiring mercenary groups, a claim that the DRC has denied.
“Most of the mediation meetings are requested by the DRC and yet they boycott or disregard what we discuss with them. The goal is to distract the international community as they continue to provoke Rwanda,” Minister Biruta said.
He said Rwanda was ready to defend its sovereignty since peace agreements have been ineffective.
Kinshasa made similar accusations against Rwanda on Tuesday, after Rwanda shot at its military jet.
‘Act of war’
Kinshasa termed the firing of the missile “a deliberate action that amounts to an act of war whose objective is to sabotage the ongoing efforts in the implementation of the actions agreed upon in the framework of the peace process.”
Kinshasa was referring to the Luanda mini-summit of regional leaders whose aim is to seek a solution between the escalating tensions.
Both countries accuse one another of fanning rebel movements against authorities in each other’s territories.
At the summit in November, the DRC and Rwanda committed to seeking peace. Huang Xia, the UN Special Envoy for the Great Lakes Region said he was deeply concerned with the incident and asked the Expanded Joint Verification Mechanism (EJVM of the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region (ICGLR and other regional instruments to “help ascertain the facts surrounding this incident and address any misunderstanding.”
Withdrawal of M23
At the Luanda summit in November, leaders from DRC and Rwanda came together and agreed to work towards the withdrawal of the M23 rebel group from occupied areas, addressing the issue of Congolese refugees, and cutting ties with the FDLR rebel group.
Rwanda has long regarded FDLR as an enemy and has accused the DRC of working with them group.
UN experts have maintained that Rwanda continues to support the M23 rebels while the war between the rebels and the Congolese army continues, with each accusing the other of launching attacks.
Adding to the complexity of the situation are killings of civilians in the volatile eastern DRC, which some Rwandan members of parliament say may result in genocide.
“The FDLR is a terrorist group of genocidaires extending their genocide ideology in the DRC. Both DRC and the international community should not be oblivious to this,” said MP Eugene Mussolini.
Alice Wairimu Nderitu, UN Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide, expressed her concern about the deterioration of security and human rights situation, particularly in Ituri Province.
As the Pope visits, the question is whether he can talk the parties in the Congo conflict to pursue peace. The withdrawal of M23 rebels from all occupied areas has not happened. The DRC, the US and some European nations have claimed the fighters are being supported by Rwanda while the East African Community, which is facilitating the peace process, wants parties to de-escalate.
Former Kenyan president Uhuru Kenyatta Wednesday urged the parties to lay down arms and begin working on a planned dialogue series in North Kivu.
He spoke after violence resumed between the Congolese army and the rebels. The M23 said in a press statement that the Congolese army was attacking its positions.
“We do not understand how the Kinshasa government chose the option of war instead of a peaceful resolution of the conflict,” the M23 Political Spokesperson Laurence Kanyuka said.
Offensive in Kitchanga
The Congolese government accused the M23 of having “triggered the offensive in Kitchanga” in North Kivu. Kinshasa said it “observed Rwandan army columns coming from Rwanda to reinforce its positions in Kibumba and Bwito…” Both towns are in North Kivu.
This is the atmosphere the Pope is flying into. The conflict has a multiplicity of players inside and outside Congo. If he succeeds in pacifying Congo, will the peace extend to its neighbours?
Kinshasa authorities are excited about the four-day visit. Not so small city traders whose business premises were flattened on the governor’s orders.
Governor Gentiny Ngobila ordered the clearing of kiosks on the streets, leaving the traders crying foul, accusing the authorities of not issuing adequate notice.
Pedestrians, motorists banned
Governor Ngobila also banned pedestrians and motorists in parts of the Gombe Commune, west of Kinshasa, where the Pope will be staying.
Only accredited individuals will be allowed in this area during the four days.
This will be first papal visit to the Congo since 1985, when Pope John Paul II set foot on Kinshasa soil. Since then, many things have happened: Mobutu Sese Seko, who was in power then, was toppled and his successor Laurent Kabila assassinated. Kabila’s son, Joseph, who took over and led the country for 18 years left power in 2019, paving the way for Felix Tshisekedi.
But one thing has remained constant: DRC’s conflict has spiralled and become complex, forcing the international community into multiple missions seeking to solve it.
This will be the 20th papal visit to Africa but only the fourth by Pope Francis, who visited Kenya, Uganda and Central African Republic in 2015, and Morocco in early 2019, before returning the same year to Mozambique, Madagascar and Mauritius.
“Africa is unique… (but there is something we must denounce: there is a collective unconscious idea…that says Africa is to be exploited,” he told the Mundo Negro Magazine.
“History tells us this, with independence halfway: they give them economic independence from the ground up, but they keep the subsoil to exploit, we see the exploitation of other countries taking their resources. Today we see that many world powers going there for plunder, but do not see the intelligence, the greatness, the art of the people.”
On Thursday, South Sudan’s Reconstituted Joint Monitoring and Evaluation Commission (RJMEC urged the country’s leaders to use the papal trip to “renew confidence in the peace process, rebuild trust and demonstrate genuine political will and unity of purpose, with the spirit of forgiveness and magnanimity.”
Maj-Gen Charles Tai Gituai, RJMEC Chairperson, said the trip is an indicator that lasting peace can be achieved in South Sudan.
“I hope the RTGoNU and the people of South Sudan will find inspiration and a spirit of forgiveness in these visits in order to renew public confidence in the peace process…,” he added.
By Patrick Ilunga, Aggrey Mutambo, and Ange Iliza