The Eastern Congo and the Failure of Christian Witness

Written by:
Monday, February 2nd, 2009

Briefly Newsworthy

When Laurent Nkunda was captured leaving the eastern Congo on January 22, 2009, a tentative sense of relief was felt by many in and around the area.  Nkunda has been the leader of a “rebel” army that has, since 2004 at least, roamed the north-eastern areas of Congo, killing, raping, and pillaging the populace in the name of defending Tutsi Congolese from the attacks of Hutu extremists who had infiltrated the area after their expulsion from Rwanda in the mid-1990’s.  Most recently, his army staged an offensive that seemed bent on overcoming areas protected by the UN following an agreement in 2003.  Hundreds of thousands of people fled, as Congolese and UN forces retreated, and Nkunda’s soldiers, raping and looting as they went, moved in.  For the first time, a man who had been ravaging a depleted and war-weary populace for 5 years, made it onto the front pages of a few American newspapers.  With news of his capture, and transport to Rwanda, the publicity chapter appears closed.

Closed once again.  For the sense of relief is at best tentative, given that Nkunda’s perpetrated  horrors are but one set among a string of ongoing violent assaults upon the well-being of the people of eastern Congo.  It is a long episode of victimization and degradation that goes back to the mid 1990’s and before,  and that has seen the deaths of upwards of 5 million Congolese – some put the figure higher.  This includes large numbers of women and children, many from the disease and starvation that has followed war and displacement.  Political and internationally-brokered resolutions to this tragedy have come and gone, and the closure of Nkunda’s role on this list may well mark but another temporary lull.  Occasionally, the newspapers and television stations around the world have noted the passing aspects of this long suffering, but only briefly, only in passing.  Meanwhile, groups like Human Rights Watch, the International Rescue Committee, and subcommittees of the UN, along with brave individuals – local leaders, exiled Congolese, reporters at a distance – have been compiling dossier after dossier of documentation on the atrocities that have left millions dead, even more displaced, and rendered the area a shifting ground of survival amid famine, disease, and violence.  And what this documentation points to is the explicit involvement, collusion, and willful ignorance of governments, businesses, and yes, even of churches.

Even churches.  It is a matter worth studying more carefully as to why some disasters garner public interest more than others.  Darfur, for instance, has now for a long time been at the center of international and Christian concern.  Zimbabwe also, although with much less Christian interest.  But the eastern Congo?  Only in the Fall of 2008 did an All-Africa Council of Churches decide to put together a team of representatives, led by the Anglican Archbishop of Burundi Bernard Ntahoturi, to act as church delegates to surrounding governments of the area seeking their help in bringing peace.  In itself the visit was significant, and marked a major shift in Christian witness.  For one thing that has been all-too evident in the travails of the eastern Congo is the way that church leaders themselves have been so entwined with the politics of the major players and supporters of the wars in Eastern Congo – Rwanda, Uganda, Congo itself, and various internal interests – that the notion of looking for a Christian witness for peace in the land has been all but pointless.  Abp. Ntahoturi  this past Fall listed some of the realities that have been the daily faire of the Congolese, not just this past year, but for almost 15 years: “The suffering of children fleeing into the bush with or without their parents, women atrociously raped, abused and sometimes buried alive, old people and innocent civilians cowardly killed, and the malicious destruction of property and community life.”  He concluded with the obvious, if repeatedly ignored, observation that silence from churches during “such a serious humanitarian disaster” makes it impossible for clergy to preach the love of God.   But fifteen years of silence will not be easily overcome, let alone explained to God.

An overview

The story of the Eastern Congo over these past years is not easy to decipher.  It takes a dictionary of acronyms to keep track of the groups and forces and parties and treaties and relief corps involved in all this, as well as a strong constitution to work through the details of horror and proliferating self-interest that marks the unfolding life of the area.

The long dictatorship of Mobutu Sese Seko from the early 1960’s is now almost forgotten, despite the fact that it laid the groundwork for the economic and political instability of the eastern Congo, and imbued the culture with the expectation of routine violence.   Northeastern Congo had, in the course of the 20th century, known several, sometimes forced, migrations of peoples from eastern Uganda and Rwanda itself, many of them considered “Tutsi” in their ethnic background.  These movements set up the dynamics of conflict for years to come.  Eastern Congo was the scene of one of the first rebellions against Mobutu’s seizure of power, in the mid-1960’s, one whose leaders, Laurent Kabila, was at the time a Maoist-inspired guerilla, briefly aided by Che Guevara.  Repulsed by Mobutu’s army, Kabila would lurk and linger on the fringes of the Zairean political world.  By the 1980’s, Kabila had amassed enormous wealth through the exploitation of some of the unparalleled mineral resources of the eastern Congo, and jet-setting among the capitals of east Africa, went about cementing political alliances with the leaders or future leaders of Uganda (Museveni) and Rwanda (Kagame) among others.    Massive violence against Rwandese settlers in eastern Congo broke out in the early 1990’s, and Kabila began to re-form his rebel army, with help from Uganda and the Tutsi-dominated Rwandan Patriotic Army of Kagame, also supported by Uganda,  that was beginning its own push into Rwanda in order to overthrow the Hutu government then in power.  In the wake of the Rwandan genocide and the RPA’s seizure of the Rwandan government, Kabila moved forward with his army into the midst of a political vacuum that the aging Mobutu’s own weakened grip on power had created.  Aided directly by the Rwandan Army, who had invaded eastern Congo in order to pursue and destroy the significant remnants of the Hutu military that had fled after the genocide, Kabila quickly overran Mobutu’s ill-organized and underfed Zairean forces, and rapidly moved west, finally taking control of the capital Kinshasa itself in 1997, and installing himself as President in Mobutu’s place.  It was an extraordinary accomplishment of a political and military dream that had been over 30 years in the making.

It barely lasted a year.  By 1998, the eastern Congo was again being torn apart by civil war, driven by various groups who had broken from Kabila, or who still supported him, or who pressed other interests.  The Uganda government was eager to go after the Lord’s Resistance Army that used the Congo as a base, Rwanda was still concerned with the existence of Hutu forces, and with them, local groups vied for either a return to security or more often a piece of the financial pie that came from the exploitation of minerals.  In all of this, more distant powers, from business interests to the governments of the United States and Europe, sought some degree of control over events.  By 2000 the armies of Angola, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Sudan, and Chad had joined the fray, in what has been called Africa’s first “World War”.  Kabila had been assassinated, and his son Joseph put in his place.  Various brokered peace-settlements were achieved, the last one in 2003, only to be ignored or to see the hostile pieces reconfigured on the ground.

Laurent Nkunda comes out of this last period:  a Congolese officer in the Rwandan Patriotic Army (although his actual origins remain obscure), he formed his own rebel group in 2004, and, with support from Rwanda and under the claim of protecting Congolese Tutsis, he has terrorized the Kivu region, recruiting child-soldiers, kidnapping, massacring, and growing rich on mineral exports from the areas he has controlled.  When, in the Fall of 2008, his army began an offensive that set it against UN forces, an unusual wave of Western publicity was unleashed, with pictures of fleeing families lighting up television screens around the world.  On the brink of a wider victory in the area, Nkunda was suddenly abandoned by his Rwandan backers.  On January 22, 2009,  he was taken by Rwanda forces as he crossed into their country.  Although there are numerous international arrest warrants for him, it remains to be seen what Rwanda will do with him.

And where do the people of eastern Congo stand?  5 to 6 million dead, and a land ravaged by competing greeds and fears.  Looking over this history, at least since the mid-1990’s, we can identify at least two realities driving the region’s bloody politics:  Rwanda’s self-interest, linked to Uganda’s parallel concerns;  and money from minerals, bound to a host of international players, some of the larger of whom represent key business interests with clout in the government policies of US, Canada, and Europe.    One does not have to engage in intricate conspiracy theories – of which there are many now with respect to this reality – to see the obvious pressures brought to bear.  Only here and there do the genuine political interests of local peoples, bound to the needs for security, economic stability, and just representation emerge as energies within this mix.

The failure of the churches

And the Christian churches?  They have either been cowed and caught in this web, or actively supported their own interests locally in upholding their local government’s actions.  It is no secret that, over the period of Mobutu’s rule in Zaire/Congo, Catholic and Protestant groups (the latter forced to join together in a quasi-federated single identity, with Anglicans coming to have their own separate status) competed in their alliances with his government.  Faithful people and pastors were many;  but the shape of larger ecclesial entities was mainly controlled by the desire of their leaders for state favoritism.  As the eastern Congo wholly disintegrated in the early 1990’s, organized ecclesial life devolved into a fragmented scramble for survival and shifting allegiances.  Finally, if at a remove, the ecclesial politics of the international community have subtly manipulated the conscience of Christians in the West with respect to these events.  The Anglican Communion’s travails are but one example of this, as conservative alignments with churches in East Africa and competing liberal alignments with other African churches have created a no-go zone of Christian examination, analysis, and witness.  Despite the testimony of various courageous individuals, Congolese, Rwandan, Ugandan, and even Western, the Christian public, among Anglicans as much as among other groups, has been serene and invulnerable to the news, however complicated, of the people of eastern Congo, let alone of the complicity of many of their erstwhile allies.

It has been only with difficulty – and still hardly to any real extent — that Anglican churches were led to acknowledge the terror visited upon the Acholi people in Northern Uganda, and the Ugandan government’s role in using its struggle against the Lord’s Resistance Army to punish the local people. Olara Otunna, a former UN under-secretary general for Children in Armed Conflict, and a Ugandan from a prominent Anglican family, has taken the lead in trying to draw to the world’s attention the destruction of the people there, caught between the crazed sadism of the LRA and the calculated sadism of the Ugandan army.  To this day, we still do not have clearly-established facts about what has been going on, and churches, including the Anglican Church of Uganda as a whole, have only begun to respond to a tragedy that their own government has deliberately tried to veil.

And what can we say of Rwanda?  The documentation here is far more concrete.  It begins with the detailing of the Rwandan Patriotic Army’s own massacres in the course of its push into Rwanda, even before the 1994 genocide.  It continues subsequently with the army’s activity, not only fomenting and engaging in warfare against civilians, including their murder, in eastern and northern parts of the country.  More broadly, it extends to the vast engagements of the Rwandan army within the borders of the Congo itself, from Kabila’s renewed war, through various other conflicts, and even into the past year, when Rwandan army units and armor have been identified as fighting with Nkunda’s forces.  Although the Ugandan military, either directly or by proxy, has also been involved in the violence of the eastern Congo, it is the Rwandan army and its allies and surrogates that has played the largest role.  At the same time, the Rwandan government has sought refuge under the otherwise understandable banner of seeking to establish that “never again” will the kinds of genocidal killings that marked 1994 recur.  With this justification ever deployed, the political party of Rwanda’s President, Paul Kagame, has consolidated and imposed its control over Rwandan civil life.  Through the gradual but rigorous and often violent and summary removal of political dissent, formal and credible inquiries into the Rwandan government’s involvement in the Congo’s torture and pillage has been rendered impossible.

Why have we heard nothing about this over the past few years?  In part, because the “shadow” of the 1994 genocide seemed even to those outside Rwanda to justify formally and politically the most stringent government responses to the presence of Hutu “genocidaires” in the eastern Congo.  But this shadow has also psychologically quieted those who might otherwise have raised a voice of concern, out of a desire not to appear insensitive to the recent history of the Rwandan people.

Actual events, however, show the moral failure of this kind of reaction, one that is still rampant among Westerners, especially within the Christian churches.  It is worth noting some of the reasons why the guilt of genocide cannot be allowed to dampen the world’s moral outrage and the imperative to accountability over the eastern Congo.

  1. There is no justification for massacre, period.  What thousands upon thousands of Congolese have suffered, at the hands of their own people to be sure, but at the hands quite deliberately of foreign powers like Rwanda supported by world opinion, constitute crimes against humanity in a technical sense, and crimes against God in the deepest sense.  In some cases, detailed by groups like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, not to mention the United Nations, the Rwandan government has promised to look into the matter.  But almost never has the government followed through with these pledges.  In most cases, in fact, the Rwandan government has simply brushed aside accusations as the product of antipathy and even genocidal cooperation.
  2. The clear and documented support by the Rwandan army and government of murderers like Nkunda and others before him cannot be justified except by the most cynical of realpolitik apologists, who in so doing contradict their Christian calling.
  3. The exploitation of Congolese minerals on the part of Rwanda, which provides a clear and otherwise unaccounted-for stream of foreign currency, gives the lie to the strict arguments for self-defense that have been offered.  There is, quite simply, greed at work as well at the base of this quagmire.
  4. The explicit use of “genocidal vocabulary” by the Rwandan government and its supporters to attack opponents has proven both deeply cynical and morally perverse.  By labeling critical speech – about political matters, human rights, and so on – as contributing to “genocidal” mentalities, and by only vaguely defining such speech while also assigning it draconian sanction by the judiciary, the Rwandan government has sought to buttress, through legal means, the power of its control over the country.  In this, it not only has sought to stifle dissent, but actually to reorient the critical categories of the populace, including those of the churches.  This last element is worth considering, since it has to do with the way the Gospel is articulated.

Laws against “divisionism” (or “sectarianism”) were introduced in 2002;  those against “genocide ideology” in 2008.  (In addition, the crime of “negationism” and “revisionism” is sometimes used in tandem with these.)  Neither of these categories is defined, although conviction can result in prison sentences of up to 20 years.  Combating “genocide ideology” has been a persistent propaganda program of the government for the past few years, involving “solidarity” camps for the young, the purging of schools and teacher pools, and the enlistment of churches, including Anglican churches in the campaign.  Those who have, for instance, raised questions about the Rwandan army’s involvement in human rights abuses have been charged with “genocide ideology”, and those who have sought to speak out in defense of human rights and due process, including Christians, have been charged with “divisionism”.

The desire to preach ethnic unity as a mandate of the Gospel represents a commendable motive; but that churches themselves have appropriated the government’s vocabulary is disturbing.  In some ways, this is a frightening descent into patterns that, analogously, upheld the dynamics of hostility that fueled the civil wars and massacres of Rwanda and Burundi from the 1950’s to the present.  The role of the churches in these events, as in the eastern Congo, was generally abysmal – ignorant, collusive, sometimes even actively involved, and only occasionally reoriented by the bravery of confession and martyrdom.  Church buildings were among the most common killing fields in Rwanda, in part because church leaders deliberately sought to entrap victims for easier destruction.  And books attesting to the churches’ failures in the years leading up to and including 1994  (still not properly acknowledged and faced into by the Roman Catholic church) have slowly begun to be written.  During all these years, church leaders encouraged “spiritual” concerns over “politics”, in Protestant circles strengthened by particular theologies of world- and society-denying salvation through individual faith.  It proved an evasion ominously recalled by more recent urgings on the part of church leaders to avoid political discourse in favor of internal transformation.

Anglican challenges

The current and often antagonistic disagreements among Anglican churches within the world-wide Anglican Communion has added another layer of confusion into this already difficult field of witness.  Concerns about the character of our various churches’ attachments to players in the eastern Congo tragedy are generally suppressed through a desire to maintain ecclesial alliances;  or, conversely, when such concerns are raised, they are dismissed and assigned to the motives of ecclesial politics..  But we must not fool ourselves:  the demise of truly catholic order and responsibility in something like the Anglican Communion mirrors the failures of global accountability in the secular world.  Archbishop Rowan Williams, at the close of this past summer’s Lambeth Conference made this point clearly (despite the Congo’s sad absence from his list):

“[…] a global church and a global faith are not just about managing internal controversy. Our global, Catholic faith affirms that the image of God is the same everywhere — in the Zimbabwean woman beaten by police in her own church, in the manual scavenger in India denied the rights guaranteed by law; in the orphan of natural disaster in Burma, in the abducted child forced into soldiering in Northern Uganda, in the hundreds of thousands daily at risk in Darfur and Southern Sudan, in the woman raising a family in a squatters’ settlement in Lima or Buenos Aires. This is the Catholic faith : that what is owed to them is no different from, no less than what is owed to any of the rest of us. That was the faith to which we witnessed in our march in London. And if the message of this Conference is silent about this, something has gone very wrong. […] And our calling is to make that further step to a ‘covenant of faith’ that will promise to our fellow human beings the generosity God has shown us; that will honour the absolute and non-negotiable dignities of all and strengthen us to resist any policy or strategy that implies that what is good and just for me is not good and just for all my human neighbours.[“Concluding Presidential Address, August 3, 2008]

If Christian churches, like those of the Anglican Communion, cannot get beyond the politics of their own conflicted life, what is left is a church, just like the civil societies in which she moves, that is picked apart, manipulated, ordered by competing personal interests, and drawn ever more deeply into to the pit of complicity with evil.  We have seen this happen.

Perhaps – indeed, surely, as the Psalmist writes —  one must eventually fall into the pit one digs for another (cf. Ps. 7:15; cf. Prov. 26:27).  But in the meantime, others have fallen in as well – too many others; millions of others.  The Gospel promises us, through the prophet, a leveling out of the land – a filling in of rough places and of the pits themselves (Is. 40:4; Lk. 3:5), so that, at least, what the evil man contemplates cannot catch another on his or her way.  The tentative pause in the eastern Congo’s holocaust can be extended, surely, through the corporate and cooperative determinations of participants.  But the Christian churches must get involved in this as well.  And to do that, they will need to extricate themselves from the expectations of and collaborations with governments that have already proven they cannot be trusted, and can only be pressured into acts of ostensive justice at best.  Writing as an Anglican, this will require a conversion on the part of all of us that goes far beyond the local ecclesial feuds that have ruined our ability to hear the voice of the Lord calling us into His light.  The common witness and pleas of the delegation led by Archbishop Ntahoturi mark only first steps.  They are long in coming.  They cannot falter or come to an end.

In the early 1980’s, I was a young priest working in Burundi.  I travelled across the border for the first time into Zaire, to attend the consecration of Fidèle Dirokpa, now the Anglican Primate of the Congo.  It was my first view of this beautiful and haunting land.  Already one could note the signs of lawlessness, gnawing at the edges and even in the midst of our common life – the unpaid soldiers, the bribes, the desperate country people, the hustling and posing.  But the land was not a cemetery.  Not yet.  To my shame and my church’s, this essay comes too late.

For further reading

For an accessible overview, and guidance into the intricate realities of the eastern Congo’s suffering, see Thomas Turner, The Congo Wars:  Myth and Reality (Zed Books, 2007)

More analytical, and by one the great political scholars of this area, see René Lemarchand, Dynamics of Violence in Central Africa (Univ. of Penn., 2008)

More general is the work of the late Canadian Anglican journalist Hugh McCullum, Africa’s Broken Heart:  The Land the World Forgot (World Council of Churches, 2006)

Among the most recent and fullest accounts simply of the human suffering of the area, with a full and relatively up-to-date bibliography, is the International Rescue Committee,,  See their Mortality in the Democratic Republic of Congo:  An Ongoing Crisis (2008).  Their online dossier on “Rape in Congo” includes and links with material that is deeply disturbing, especially as it implicates soldiers supported by a host of different powers in the area.

Human Rights Watch’s many reports, on the Congo and Rwanda and Uganda, among other places, can be found at their site   Their recent report “Law and Reality”(July 24, 2008) details Rwanda’s laws against “divisionism” and its current legal system in general.

On Rwanda’s early role in eastern Congo’s wars, as well as the political and ideological motives at work, see Johan Pottier’s Re-imagining Rwanda:  Conflict, Survival, and disinformation in the Late Twentieth Century (Cambridge University Press, 2002).

An important overview of Rwanda’s political evolution is given by Filip Reyntjens, in the article “Rwanda, Ten Years On:  From Genocide to Dictatorship”, in African Affairs (2004), 103, pp. 177-210.  Reyntjens helps direct the annual collection of articles entitled Collection L’Afrique des Grand Lacs, published by l’Édition l’Harmattan.  These important collections gather local and scholarly documentation of a range political, humanitarian, and cultural realities touching upon the area.  They are mostly in French.

Philip A. Cantrell has written an article specifically dealing with issues regarding the relationship of the Anglican Mission in America (AMiA) and the Anglican Church in Rwanda, and the latter’s close relationships with the current Rwanda government.  It is entitled “The Anglican church of Rwanda:  domestic agendas and international linkages”, in the Journal of Modern African Studies (2007), 45.3, pp. 333-354.  Cantrell’s piece, without engaging in direct accusation, raises troubling questions about ecclesial responsibility and its subversion in the current Anglican ecclesial debates.

For those who read French, there is a challenging transcript of a radio broadcast by the Congolese journalist Freddy Mulongo (Jan. 17, 2009), entitled « La République Démocratique du Congo à l’ombre du génocide rwandais: la responsabilité de l’Europe et de l’Amérique » (from Reveil FM, 105.4).  Mulongo provides what has now become a standard version of events from the point of view of many Congolese, and lays out the basic framework of international collusion in the destruction of the east Congolese people.

A more radical version of some of this – moving more decisively (although with some persuasive details) in the direction of conspiracy theory – is provided by Peter Erlinder, in a November 4th, 2008 article at the radical site, entitled “US/UK Allies Grab Congo Riches and Millions Die”.

On the churches and the Rwandan genocide in particular, see Hugh McCullum’s the Angels Have Left Us:  The Rwanda Tragedy and the Churches (WCC, n.d.);  Laurent Mbanda (an Anglican priest), Committed to Conflict: The Destruction of the Church in Rwanda (SPCK, 1997);  Genocide in Rwanda: Complicity of the Churches? (Paragon House, 2004), which is edited by Carol Rittner, John K. Roth, and Wendy Whitworth;  the essay by Roger Bowen (like Mbanda above) describes the limits of Protestant evangelical preaching.   In French, and from a Catholic perspective, there is Jean Damascène Bizimana’s L’Église et le Génocide au Rwanda:  Les Pères Blancs et le Négationnisme (L’Harmattan, 2001), which presents what is now a standard (if probably accurate) picture of Roman Catholic missionary contributions of the genocide.  From a slightly different perspective, there is the book of a Rwandan Catholic priest, André Simbomana, translated into English as Hope for Rwanda:  Conversations with Laure Guilbert and Hervé Deguine (Pluto Press, 1997/1999).  Simbomana became a fearless agitator for human rights in post-genocide Rwanda, and paid the price with an early death abetted by the Rwandan government.

February 02 2009 05:54 pm | Articles