Martin Barillas reports for ChurchMilitant.com — A bishop of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is advising his countrymen that colonialists should not be blamed for the nation’s failures.
On the 60th anniversary of the Congo’s independence from Belgium on June 30, Cdl. Ambongo reflected on scriptural readings in which Moses called upon the Israelites to remember the day of their deliverance from slavery in Egypt. He said that Congolese should remember the date of independence as the “culmination of sacrifices and bloodshed by valiant sons and daughters of the Congo.”
Cardinal Ambongo, who serves as archbishop of Kinshasa, the capital city of the Congo, said that his compatriots should also remember that independence is “at the source of our misfortune today.” The cardinal noted that, while other African nations prepared for the consequences of independence, the Congo’s dreams of independence, though emotional and passionate, were initially irrational.
According to Ambongo, the Congolese did not know what awaited them when they became autonomous. Ambongo believes that some unhappy consequences of early Congolese leadership continue to be felt by the nation today.
Before listing numerous injustices suffered by ordinary people — such as a lack of equality before the law, the occupation of Congolese territory by armies from neighboring countries and the despoliation of the country’s rich natural resources — Cdl. Ambongo said that, for many, Congolese independence meant occupying “the posts of the whites, to sit in the white seats, to enjoy the advantages which were reserved for whites and not for indigenous people of the time.”
Ambongo also surmised that “achieving independence meant, for many, the end of forced labor.” He said that independence was widely understood as a means to end all dirty work: “On independence, we will no longer do land work, we will all be leaders. We are going to fill the white jobs.” The cardinal explained, “Congolese occupied white jobs. And … they didn’t understand what the whites did when they occupied such or such a job. Thus, the exercise of authority in the Congo was understood as an opportunity for enjoyment.”
Cardinal Ambongo, who is also a Franciscan friar, lambasted the manner in which his countrymen are discharging their duties: “We come to power to enjoy, not to render service to those under [our] responsibility, but to enjoy like the white man did.” The cardinal observed that while whites did enjoy sitting in power, they also understood the meaning of work. “We, on the other hand, have put aside service to others and have emphasized the notion of enjoyment,” he said.
The Democratic Republic of Congo, with its 84 million people is the fourth-most-populous country in Africa; it is surpassed in size only by Algeria. It has considerable natural resources, including petroleum, diamonds, copper, cobalt and other rare metals. In 1885, it became the private fiefdom of King Leopold II of Belgium.
The Belgian king’s rule became notorious for forced labor, systematic human rights abuses and summary executions. Congolese people were forced to produce rubber and export ivory and minerals. After an international uproar, the king relinquished his claim to the Belgian government in 1908 — but not before untold millions of Congolese died of overwork and disease.
Independence in 1960 saw a series of dictatorships and resultant political instability, problems that, in subsequent decades, have been exacerbated by ethnic conflicts and armed incursions from neighboring countries.
Foreign powers such as the United States, Russia, China and the European Union have often intervened in the region, showing considerable interest in the country’s resources. Rare minerals mined in the country are sought for use in, among other things, electric-vehicle batteries.
The great majority of Congolese are Christians, with Catholics comprising about 30% of the population. Other Christians comprise a little over 60%, while Muslims and adherents of local religions comprise a small fraction. Catholic missionaries brought the Faith to the Congo, along with hospitals and schools.
Cardinal Ambongo said in his homily that the dream the Congolese people had has been “gradually shattered” by tyrannical regimes:
We have known the succession of autocratic regimes which come to power like the colonists without any concern for the will of the people and this continues until today: By force, wars or by cunning, fraud and by installing a system selfish in the management of public affairs instead of promoting the common well-being of the Congolese people to whom we believe that we have no account to give him because it is not thanks to him that we arrived power.
He fears that the majority in Congo’s parliament is seeking to control the judiciary and the country’s independent elections commission. “When we talk about the rule of law, there are these principles — the independence of the body that organizes elections and the independence of the judiciary,” he said.
Cardinal Ambongo added that neighboring countries such as Rwanda, Zambia and Burundi continue to occupy and exploit Democratic Republic of the Congo border areas with help from Congolese who do not share the spoils with their country. He was flummoxed about how, after 60 years of independence, “Congolese people continue to become poorer to the point of being counted today among the most miserable on earth.”
He admonished his fellow Congolese that they have “shamefully failed,” saying, “We have not been able to make the Congo more beautiful than before. We have not helped our people to lift their heads up more. In all, we have collectively failed.”
Reflecting on the Gospel of Matthew and the Parable of the Talents (in which Jesus told of the reward for his good servants), Cdl. Ambongo said that it invites his compatriots to exercise responsibility: “Because each of us will have to account to God for what we have done with our talents for this beautiful country with its immense potential — what have you done for your country? This is the question that will be asked when we come before the Supreme Judge.“
He said that people should not rely on the political class to help the country emerge from distress. It is the Congolese people themselves, he said, who must provide solutions.
After saying that the current government has shown contempt for both the Catholic Church and Protestant churches, the cardinal asked the martyred Bl. Isidore Bakanja and Bl. Marie-Clémentine Anuarite Nengapeta to intercede before God to “liberate the Congo from all those who crush it and to lead it to its full sovereignty.”
Cardinal Fridolin Ambongo Besungu, age 60, was elevated to the cardinalate by Pope Francis in 2019. He is a frequent defender of political dissidents, many of whom were murdered during the tenure of former president Joseph Kabila. Despite getting death threats, he continues to speak out in favor of inter-ethnic and international peace, as well as equitable use of natural resources. He frequently advocates for an independent judiciary and fair elections.