Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo—In the sweltering heat of the garden of the Palais de la Nation, President Félix Antoine Tshisekedi welcomed Pope Francis to Central Africa.
The continent had been waiting for this moment. Last week’s visit was the first by a pope to Congo in 38 years. Francis had come to address violence in this crippled nation. Some 1 million Congolese attended a mass at Ndolo airport to commemorate the occasion. With the east of the country too dangerous to visit, his “pilgrimage of peace” would be confined to the capital.
Congo has suffered in a chain of wars since the fall of the dictator Mobutu Sese-Seko in 1997, and was brutally colonized by the Belgians until its independence in 1960. The intervening years were also marked by violence: En route to the airport in Rome, the pope’s motorcade stopped by a memorial to 13 Italian airmen—members of a United Nations operation who were killed and eaten by Congolese troops post-independence.
But Francis’s trip to Congo—and to the neighboring state of South Sudan, which has suffered civil wars since its independence in 2011—often seemed contradictory, as many in the crowd greeting him were responsible for the very atrocities and corruption he was decrying.
Francis had come to encourage peace; applauding in the audience was Jean-Pierre Bemba, a warlord turned politician whose militia led a genocidal campaign against the country’s pygmies called “effacer le tableau,” or “wipe the slate clean,” which killed 70,000 people.
Francis preached against corruption; before him sat Tshisekedi’s erstwhile chief of staff Vital Kamerhe, who was convicted of stealing $48 million during the president’s first 100 days in office (he was later acquitted on appeal for lack of evidence).
Francis urged free and fair elections later in 2023; Martin Fayulu, in the first row in front of him, sat stony-faced. During the last election, in 2018, Fayulu led opposition parties to near-victory, but was defeated by Tshisekedi in a dubious vote.
“Did Tshisekedi understand the message that the pope gave him?” Fayulu wondered when The Nation called him on Friday. “The message was very clear when the pope was talking about free, credible, inclusive elections, talking about no corruption, talking about the need to end violence, the need to end tribalism. But that’s all Tshisekedi’s government does: He only thinks about tribalism. He only thinks about himself. He only thinks about getting rich for himself, his family, and his friends.”
Tshisekedi, Fayulu said, was trying to use the visit as a way to prove his legitimacy, but the pope’s message was otherwise. Tshisekedi, he said, “was certainly expecting something else. But the pope didn’t pay much attention to what the president wanted. He came to deliver a message to Christians, to deliver a message to those who plunder Congo’s natural resources, including foreigners, and to the country’s children. I just don’t know if Tshisekedi had the finesse to understand the pope’s message.”
Perhaps the mission was more motivated by pragmatism than anything else. La Croix Africa, the continent’s edition of the Catholic newspaper, had published an interview with Cardinal Fridolin Ambongo, the archbishop of Kinshasa, the day before. “We know his election was a deception. We said so,” he said. “However, the international community recognized this election. As archbishop of Kinshasa, I do not have the power to stand apart. Common sense dictated that we come to terms with him”—Tshisekedi—“and accompany him in his work for the good of the country.”
On stage at the Palais de la Nation, Francis, the head of the Catholic Church, sat next to Tshisekedi while giving a speech amping up rhetoric against neighboring Rwanda, which, according to the United Nations, is supporting a rebel group called the M23 in the East.
“This country, so immense and full of life, this diaphragm of Africa, struck by violence like a blow to the stomach, has seemed for some time to be gasping for breath,” Francis told the gathering. The week before Francis arrived, the M23 had seized a strategic town in the eastern North Kivu Province. Almost half a million have fled violence in the past year, and at least one mass killing of over 130 civilians has occurred.
In the crowd, soldiers of Tshisekedi’s Republican Guard scanned the crowd for disturbances, outfitted in new uniforms for the occasion. They clutched modern weapons that soldiers on the front lines have scant access to. (“The Congolese army,” Fayulu said, “doesn’t have the necessary equipment or weapons to fight in the east.”)
Francis had also come to preach against the plunder of Congo’s resources. For the occasion, Tshisekedi, the leader of one of the world’s poorest countries, decided to wear a gold Patek Philippe Nautilus, a watch that sells for around $200,000.
When Fayulu spoke with The Nation, he railed against “a government of the corrupt.” “If you don’t take care of the interests of the population and you put a gang of thieves in control that systematically robs the country,” he said, “how can you pay the soldiers who are fighting at the front?”
Pope Francis slammed the wealthy world, which has so long drained the country of its minerals. He made reference to the vast mineral deposits below Congo’s soil. “The poison of greed has smeared its diamonds with blood. This is a tragedy to which the economically more advanced world often closes its eyes, ears and mouth,” he said. He made much of the metaphor of diamonds—the country’s vast reserves of copper and cobalt, all of which are key to the electric vehicle revolution were not mentioned, but implied. “Hands off the Democratic Republic of the Congo!” said Francis. “Hands off Africa!”
The people in the audience who were selling Africa sat and cheered.
The following afternoon, four victims had been chosen by their communities to stand before the pope and describe the horror they had seen in the country’s east. They were from Beni, Goma, Ituri, Bukavu—places that, as Pope Francis would tell them, “the international media hardly ever mentions.” These regions remain poor and brutally violent as militias, warlords, and politicians from Congo and abroad scramble to control the riches in the soil; regions where over 120 illegal armed groups are active; tough, hard regions where rape is common and peace seems never to hold.
Catarina Legge Kissa, from Goma, presented testimony about how she was “raped like an animal” by militiamen who abducted her for 19 months.
Emelda M’karhungulu, from Bukavu, stood as her statement about how she suffered three months of slavery at the hands of a militia was read to Francis. “We want to leave behind this dark past,” she had written, “and be able to build a beautiful future.”
The next day, Francis visited the Stade des Martyrs, a huge soccer arena built by Mobutu in central Kinshasa. “The youth”—a constituency that has shaped the country since independence in 1960—had come out en masse to see the pope in the heat. Once again, he preached against corruption. “If someone offers you an envelope, promises you favors and riches, don’t fall in the trap,” he told them, in an energetic speech that had the stadium rumbling. He could have been talking about the dignitaries he had sat with in the previous days.
“Toboyi corruption!” the youth chanted back in Lingala. “We refuse corruption.”
Then, “Thief, watch out!”
Then, “Fatshi”—one of Tshisekedi’s nicknames—“Get ready, your term is up!”
(After the mass, Congolese security services detained five of the students who chanted, as well as a priest, for 34 hours.)
“The whole world must understand the Congo’s problem,” Fayulu said, referring to the lack of legitimacy of the country’s institutions and its leaders. “The only solution today is to have transparent elections, impartial elections, peaceful elections, so that the leaders are put into their positions by the people and have to be accountable to the people. If we continue to accept leaders like Tshisekedi, if the international community continues only to say ‘we have taken note’—no, things won’t improve.”
To mark his final day in Congo, Pope Francis held a service in the cool halls of Kinshasa’s Notre Dame Cathedral on Thursday afternoon before flying to South Sudan. These grounds had also experienced a small measure of the violence that plagues Congo. In 2018, at a march that began after a Sunday mass here to protest the country’s delayed elections, six people were killed in volleys of police gunfire.
Just a few meters from where those bodies lay five years ago, Francis pleaded for healing. Ethnic divisions, he said, must be forgotten; the love of God could bring “rivers of peace” to the country. Yet many of his words seemed mere drops in the ocean of sadness that is the endless humanitarian crisis faced by Congo. The nation’s history, like that of the Notre Dame church itself, might be simply too bloody and too complex for an outsider to understand or even address in such a short visit.
But also on Thursday, Pope Francis, who reportedly made a special point of traveling to Central Africa, quoted “an old proverb” he knew: “The wind does not shatter whatever is able to bend.” Bending would eventually bring strength, he said. Play the long game. People chanted and swayed, knowing they would be bending a long time yet.
Hugh Kinsella Cunningham reported from the papal entourage in DRC and South Sudan. Nicolas Niarchos reported from Paris.