Though Pope Francis did not actually wag his finger at Democratic Republic of Congo’s President Joseph Kabila at their meeting in Rome on Sept. 26, by all accounts the event was tense. This is unsurprising given that presidential elections due in November were recently suspended and that violent protests have broken out over both the delay and a court’s decision to let Kabila hold onto power until another election could be scheduled. This, and ongoing massacres in Congo’s North Kivu province, reflect badly on a regime that is as corrupt and kleptocratic as its predecessors. It begs for some kind of moral intervention by agencies like the Catholic Church.
Having watched a video snippet of the Francis-Kabila meeting, I was struck by the pope’s body language, which told me that Francis was not amused by what he has heard from Congo. I don’t blame him.
I happen to have been in Kinshasa, Congo’s sprawling, chaotic capital, in early August for a meeting. Tensions that have subsequently erupted in violence were already in the air. Ironically perhaps, the purpose of my visit was a meeting of African Jesuit centers for the Social Apostolate, and the common theme that emerged from every corner of the continent was the leadership deficit.
Corruption and mismanagement, and dictatorship and the elites’ manipulation of democracy, are at the heart of contemporary Africa’s “darkness” (if I might make an allusion to Joseph Conrad’s classic novel about the Congo region in colonial times). Wholesale theft of resources and politicians using their positions for personal gain have reduced a potential economic superpower to a failed state. It is said that hydroelectric power from the Congo River could light up the whole African continent. But instead those who can afford it in Kinshasa have to rely on generators; the power supply here (as in many other parts of Africa) is spotty at best.
One of the best things I found about Kinshasa—a more benign legacy of Belgian colonialism—was the variety and excellent quality of local beer. A state cannot function on booze alone, but the cynical tyrant in me can see the benefits of keeping a populace merrily sozzled.
Another remarkable thing in Congo is the importance of faith: the Catholic Church is very strong, well-organized and deeply involved in trying to improve the quality of life of citizens. The Jesuits themselves are a very impressive group who are involved directly in education, social work and through their center for social research and action, who hosted us, trying to promote democracy and good governance.
I cannot say the same for the many storefront Pentecostal churches I saw in Kinshasa. Though my French is pretty ropey (almost nonexistent), it was easy to see the religion they peddled: prosperity, healing and miracles. Quite a reasonable sales pitch under the circumstances, and no doubt very lively worship, but hardly the kind of theology that promotes a real transformation of society. No sign of the evangelical-Pentecostal social gospel here. Read perhaps with the preponderance of beer, as we crawled through traffic on Kinshasa’s main drag, I could not help but think of old Marx’s comments about opium.
The other side of the picture I saw at our August meeting. The Congolese Jesuits and their lay co-operators, just like those from other countries in Africa, were really committed to change. While prophetic denunciation, or “finger wagging,” remained an important component of the church’s task, it is recognized that more could and should be done. Intense, brutally frank analyses of conditions in our countries yielded a commitment to help create a new generation of African leaders, a commitment developed the following month into a program at a meeting in Nairobi, Kenya. There a group of Jesuits—scholars and social activists—from a range of disciplines hammered out a kind of syllabus in political education. Theologians, ethicists, philosophers, political scientists, anthropologists and economists all made their contributions.
Meanwhile, Francis continues to speak up for human rights internationally, as do priests, bishops and laity in Africa and elsewhere. Both ways of proceeding—challenging tyrants directly and skilling people for democracy—are needed on our continent if the current leadership deficit is to be overcome.
Anthony Egan, S.J., is one of America’s Johannesburg correspondents.