When touring the continent of Africa over the span of a few weeks in January, Pope Francis asked a massive crowd in the Congolese capital on Kinshasa to join him in saying “no to corruption.” The energized audience took it one step further and cried in unison “Fatshi (a nickname for the country’s president), it’s over, your mandate is finished.”
While the head of the Roman Catholic Church does not engage in earthly politics, citizens of this predominantly Catholic country in the heart of Africa have looked to Rome for a fair broker in the recent past when the government of their unraveling country has failed to deliver on its basic obligations.
For the estimated 1 million Congolese who flooded the streets of the capital to see and hear the first pope to visit their country since 1985, incremental change will not do. If the voice of the people is any indication, necessary reforms must be bold, sweeping, and near the horizon.
In planning this trip, it had been the pope’s intent to visit the Democratic Republic of Congo’s war-ravaged east. An uptick in fighting around the city of Goma made such an excursion impossible, authorities said. So instead he carried on to South Sudan, where it is relatively safer. That fact alone is damning for the government of President Felix Tshisekedi, whose contested victory in an early 2019 election could not be seen as wholly legitimate, the Vatican’s own observers said at the time.
Four years later, corruption and instability persist in the DRC, whose refugees have been flooding into neighboring Rwanda since the start of the year.
In 2022, Transparency International ranked Congo 166 out of 180 countries surveyed in its Corruption Perception Index. And 85% of those surveyed in the DRC say their government is corrupt and 80% have had to pay a bribe in the last year. Given its abundance of minerals and other natural resources – including the world’s largest supply of coltan from which key elements of smartphones are made – the nation could be tremendously rich.
Instead, the average annual wage in DRC is $785, making it one of the poorest countries in Africa.
Multiple insurgencies afflict Eastern DRC. While the largest of these are extensions of other countries’ internal fights that have spilled over into Congo, DRC’s security forces have been unable to protect citizens there from indiscriminate violence, including mass rapes, torture, and killing. In the week prior to the pope’s visit, the Islamic State claimed responsibility for an attack that destroyed a church and left 23 dead in the North Kivu province.
Tshisekedi campaigned for president under the slogan “the people first,” yet those who live in his home province of Kasai in the country’s center say life has not improved for them since he came to office. While his father was a former prime minister and also opposition leader during the regime of the late Mobutu Sese-Seko, Felix ascended to the Palais de Marbe without a record of having run anything.
His administration has been simply, short on results. According to The Economist, he spent more time abroad in his first year than tending to searing issues at home.
Continued arrests of political opponents and what critics have called a massive failure in strategic foresight have left the Congolese to fend for themselves in an atmosphere plagued by the same repressions and indifference Tshisekedi and his father decried while in opposition.
Three days before Pope Francis touched down in Kinshasa, the canopy covering a stage where he was scheduled to speak collapsed. This embarrassing incident is emblematic of how what little infrastructure exists in the geographically massive DRC is in decline.
But even if “Fatshi” were moderately good at his job, that would not be enough. The Congolese today demand and deserve a radically different approach than what their governments have offered since Mobutu was toppled in 1997. With coming elections at the end of the year, prospective voters will likely hear many more promises from Felix. But running for re-election, he will face an uphill fight, unless he attempts to change the rules of engagement.
At the same time, his opponents will need to propose something bigger than an alternative to the status quo. There are disruptors in the mix who plan to do exactly that.
A 2023-era blueprint is ultimately necessary for not only quashing the internal violence and striking at the heart of corruption, but also for delivering some semblance of the kind of government that DRC deserves.
Babatunde Odukoya is a media contributor and policy analyst based in Lagos, Nigeria