DRC: Fridolin Ambongo, leading adversary

In depth
This article is part of the dossier: God Almighty: When religion influences politics

By Anna Sylvestre-Treiner, in Kinshasa
Posted on Friday, 23 December 2022 15:35

Cardinal and Archbishop of Kinshasa Fridolin Ambongo Besungu. © MARCO LONGARI/AFP

At 62, the archbishop of Kinshasa is one of the main critical voices against the excesses of power. While it is said that he could one day become Pope, he is preparing to play the role of watchdog in the 2023 presidential election.

This is part 5 of a 7-part series

“There is a time for everything, a time for everything under heaven […]. A time to be silent and a time to speak.” Fridolin Ambongo Besungu knows these lines from Ecclesiastes by heart. But for him, “the time to be silent” never lasts long.

Cardinal Fridolin Ambongo seems to have an irrepressible bluntness. During a visit to Kikwit on Sunday 29 May, he expressed himself with unflinching frankness. “The Congolese are among the most unfortunate people on earth,” he said.

Condemning the state of the road between Kikwit and Kinshasa, some 500 kilometres apart, he deplored the living conditions of some of his fellow citizens and called on them “to act”. “Should we just sit back and do nothing? No!” he continued. “While the country is in danger, we spend most of our time talking about positions, about money, about a few dollars. And the defiant prelate concluded: “If this is heaven, I’d rather not go there.”

For the government of Félix Tshisekedi, the respite was short-lived. Here he is again violently targeted by the head of the Congolese Church. “I am a sentinel”, he says. The two institutions already clashed in the last months of 2021.

Revolutionary spirit

Fridolin Ambongo had taken the lead, along with the Protestants, in the protest against the appointment of Denis Kadima as president of the Independent National Electoral Commission (CENI), a key post for the next presidential elections scheduled for the end of 2023.

While an assembly of eight churches has the task of submitting a candidate for this position – a sign of the eminently political role of religious leaders in the country – the National Episcopal Conference of Congo (Cenco) and the Church of Christ in Congo (ECC) have vigorously opposed the proposal of the six other denominations.

In an interview with us at the end of October, Fridolin Ambongo expressed concern about the lack of “independence and credibility” of an electoral process led by Denis Kadima. He denounced the “pressure” and “corruption” that led to the choice of this man, saying he had proof of this – which was never made public.

The tension was such that the president of neighbouring Congo, Denis Sassou Nguesso, tried to mediate and Felix Tshisekedi sent a large delegation to the cardinal’s home. The Prime Minister, Jean-Michel Sama Lukonde Kyenge, Christophe Mboso, the President of the National Assembly, Modeste Bahati Lukwebo, the President of the Senate, and François Beya, the then powerful security advisor to the President, had come – nothing less.

A rebel is someone who turns against his camp, I have always walked in the same direction.

“It is because at the highest level of the state, people are worried about the rebellion of the Church,” confided a member of the Union for Democracy and Social Progress (UDPS). There is good reason for this, given the pugnacity of Laurent Monsengwo’s successor. “Since the UDPS came to power, the Catholic Church, which has always been supported and even applauded by this party, has become a formidable opponent. It has become the enemy to be destroyed. [Today, I no longer feel safe in the city of Kinshasa”, the archbishop continued in the interview – from now on, he no longer wants to talk about this incident.

Not a rebel

“He is a prophet,” Raymond Tshibanda comments soberly. His mission is to denounce.”  The boss of the Common Front for the Congo (FCC) knows something about this. Joseph Kabila has also experienced this, confronting the intransigence of CENCO while he lingered in power, constantly postponing the elections. For years the image of this round-faced good-natured cleric has haunted the guilty consciences of Congolese presidents.

But he refuses to be called a “rebel”. “A rebel is someone who turns against his camp, I have always walked in the same direction.” The cardinal wants to be free. “I met him in the 1980s and he already had a certain charisma and a sense of state,” recalls a well-known person from the same region as him.

That province is Ecuador. Young Fridolin was born on 24 January 1960 in Boto, in what is now the province of South Ubangi. His father, who would have eleven children, worked three kilometres away in a rubber plantation in Bobabili. His family was not poor, because when you live on this bountiful land you are rarely hungry, but they were modest. “We were not miserable, we lived in a workers’ camp, there was food and water in our plot.

The young boy went to school and met Henri Evens, a Belgian priest, who inspired him. “This man was deeply human, he was a refined human being, who was everybody’s father. I wanted to become like him. For the young Fridolin, it was to be the priesthood. Very early on, he imposed himself as a leader, supervised the young people and directed the choir. Once a student (in philosophy and theology, which he learned between Bwamanda and Ndim, in the Central African Republic), he became ” Dean “. “I did not want to become a leader, but I see that I have always been chosen,” he says today.

Anti-Mobutu

The young man was not exactly a normal person. He was 24 years old and had just been ordained a priest when, in 1984, he could vote for the first time. He had to choose between the green ballot “for Mobutu” and the red one “against”. “When I arrived at the polling station, I saw that there were only green papers, they had hidden the others. I demanded to be given a red ballot paper, but the election officials refused. So I left without voting.” Since then, he has never missed an election.

Because being born in Mobutu’s province does not mean being a Mobutuist. “I remember that Mobutu’s men used to steal animals from the peasants and that once a mother came to see me with my friends. She was in tears after losing her cattle. We then prepared a letter to the Prime Minister to denounce the authorities who were extorting the population and we went to show it to the person in charge in the province. He immediately returned the six goats to the mother.”

Our vocation is to be vigilant. So I think that those in power always tend to be suspicious of us, and that those in opposition feel close to us, it’s quite natural.

Years later, he would still denounce the actions of the Marshal’s men. He agreed to testify in 2016 before the International Criminal Court, where Jean-Pierre Bemba, the leader of the Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC), is being tried for crimes against humanity. “Given the moral authority he represents, I asked him if he would agree to testify. It was not easy, no one wanted to stick their neck out, Jean-Pierre Bemba was an outcast,” recalls Kikolo, one of the defense lawyers. But Ambongo did not hesitate.

On the stand, Fridolin Ambongo recounted his life travelling between Kinshasa and his province, a risky journey via Douala or Yaoundé and then Bangui, at the end of which he begged the border guards in Zongo not to stamp his passport so as not to leave any trace. He described the houses looted and the churches desecrated by Mobutu’s former soldiers.

“You can imagine, for us who have faith in Christ, it is more than shocking. And if on top of that, they rape your sister, your mother, humanly speaking, it is unbearable. Unfortunately, in Congo, it is not over, it continues”, he said before the judges. He then described the protection offered by the MLC when its men arrived in the region: “It’s a movement that allowed us to feel at peace, because it came to restore everything that had been destroyed,” he said.

No political affiliation

Don’t tell him that he defended Jean-Pierre Bemba because they come from the same province, you will make him angry. “One day he is said to be pro-Bemba. Another says he is pro-Moïse Katumbi because Katumbi gives a lot of money to the Church and builds places of prayer. A third says he is pro-Kabila when you see the money that Olive Lembe Kabila [the former first lady] has put into the church in Goma. But he is not for anyone,” says the prominent local from Equateur, who has known him for a long time.

“Our vocation is to be vigilant. So I think that those in power always tend to be suspicious of us, and that those in opposition feel close to us, it’s quite natural,” says the cardinal.

“We must not alienate the Church,” acknowledges one of the leaders of the presidential party. This has always been true. The Churches have a great capacity to mobilise. For his part, Ambongo regrets: “The authorities are suspicious, but they don’t listen to us. The cardinal has forgotten nothing of the threats and attacks he has suffered, but it will take more to discourage the man who was one of the architects of the New Year’s Eve agreement in 2016. “As Jesus Christ said, we are lambs surrounded by wolves,” he says, referring to the political world.

For him, political engagement is inseparable from his office. He continues to admire John Paul II, the Pope who appointed him bishop in 2004, for his political role in Poland during the Cold War and the fall of the Berlin Wall. It was his successor, Francis, who made him a cardinal in 2019, and of whom he became one of the seven main advisers – the only African – playing a leading role in the Vatican.

Ambongo was due to accompany the Pope on a historic visit to Kinshasa and Goma in early July, the first by a pontiff in 37 years. For health reasons, this visit was postponed indefinitely at the last minute. Some now believe it is likely that the 85-year-old Pope will resign. A successor would then have to be chosen. In the Holy See, some believe that Ambongo is one of the few cardinals likely to be elected to the post. He would then become the first African pope.

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