In Kinshasa’s Saint Joseph parish on an August afternoon, a crowd gathered to give thanks: The man they had risked their lives to oust was stepping down from the presidency.
Just a week earlier, President Joseph Kabila, who has ruled the Democratic Republic of Congo for nearly 18 years, enriching himself and his family on the country’s vast natural resources, had announced he would not be standing for re-election in December. Those filling the wooden pews were one of the reasons why. Seated side by side were four of the Catholic lay leaders who organized the demonstrations many of the worshippers had participated in. Hunted by authorities for months, they came out of hiding for a service of thanksgiving—and to plot the road ahead.
“We still have a lot to do,” their lay leader Isidore Ndaywel, a professor, urged from the pulpit following communion. In a checkered shirt and horn-rimmed glasses, he projected a mild air, but his voice boomed over the speakers. “We have to consolidate this victory with vigilance, with transparent, inclusive, and credible elections. Even if we have won this battle, this is just the first stage of the fight. In this country, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, we want the future to be different than the past.”
Congo has not seen a peaceful or democratic transition of power since it gained independence from Belgium in 1960. Under Kabila, the country has endured years of armed conflict and humanitarian crisis, its citizens among the poorest in the world. And since 2016, when Kabila disregarded the constitutional term limits that should have brought his regime to an end, a coalition of activists has been fighting for democratic norms, led by what elsewhere would seem an unexpected institution: the Catholic Church. Having won a spectacular victory in August with Kabila’s concession, those activists now face a new test—as Ndaywel predicted at the service. On December 23, DRC is scheduled to hold elections. Kabila’s chosen successor, former interior minister Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary, oversaw a bloody crackdown on the Catholic-organized protests. To the opposition, he represents a continuation of Kabila’s corruption and oppression. They fear the vote will not be a fair contest.