Edward B. Rackley
Unlike in Latin America, where liberation theology was once an influential force, Christians in Africa rarely confront political oppression. On the surface, African Christian institutions claim not to meddle in affairs of the State. These days, ‘conversion of the heathens’ is passé, as Christianity is now a widespread and entrenched belief system. Churches of all denominations offer manifold development initiatives in education, health and agriculture. In many countries where the State has limited reach into rural areas, churches represent the sole link to the outside world for isolated communities.
But it’s only half the story to say that African Christian institutions are above political interests and the establishment of a modern State. Throughout colonial occupation, the Church completed the political and economic triangle that comprised the massive social engineering project of colonialism. Here was a hearts and minds program that worked—colonial control encapsulated Maslow’s entire hierarchy of needs. From material conditions, social space and into the spiritual realm, colonialism repackaged the indigenous African experience and replaced each dimension with a foreign substitute. Little has changed since independence: neither the school curricula nor the political dispensations (despite elections, ‘Big Men’ reign in a colonial style). Formerly vibrant traditional belief systems are now subaltern and syncretistic, fusing in curious ways with imported Christian ideas.
Where legitimate grievance has erupted in armed conflict, as in Congo, Rwanda and Sudan, the Church has been neither neutral nor salutary. In Rwanda and Congo, the Church actively fomented ethnic divisions (Hutu/Tutsi, Hema/Lendu), ultimately facilitating ethnic cleansing campaigns in both countries. During Southern Sudan’s famines in the 1990s, the Church leveraged its food distributions to starving animist populations against Bible study and conversion.
The failure of Congo’s recently elected officials to improve the suffering and destitution across the country aggravates an already desperate, vulnerable mindset. No surprise then that Congo is a breeding ground for rival evangelical Christian sects, many with massive US support, whose pastors implore their congregations to submit to divine providence. God, not human agency, will resolve Congo’s political morass. The sleep of reason is a powerful drug, and a convenient soporific to distract attention from Congo’s kleptocratic institutions. Political elites welcome the evangelical fervor—as long as pastors keep the population’s gaze focused on the heavens above. Liberation theology would never last a day here, because its proponents would find themselves muzzled in no time. Such is the story of Bundu Dia Kongo, an Afrocentric religiou s movement that dared to challenge State corruption and ineptitude.
Alongside its myriad Christian sects, the province of Bas Congo has a long tradition of grassroots, Afrocentric spiritual movements that have little appeal to Congolese east of Kinshasa. Besides their call to traditional Kongo beliefs, these movements advocate authenticity by recovering ancestral ways of self-governance as a means of salvation in the present. Disengagement from Congo’s political failures was off-set by reconstituting the pre-colonial Kongo kingdom, which originally covered northern Angola, much of Congo Brazzaville and Bas Congo province in the DRC.
In 2006 Bundu Dia Kongo (BDK) gained national attention when unarmed supporters began to clash regularly with police. The exchanges were exceptional for their extraordinary bravery and persistence on the BDK side, and the unwarranted brutality and unprecedented use of lethal force by state security forces. Independent reports by the UN and Human Rights Watch suggest several hundreds of unarmed BDK supporters were massacred; Congolese authorities continue to label BDK a ‘terrorist group’ and maintain a death toll of around 30.
While BDK is the latest in a long series of independent religious movements in Bas Congo, it is not the most well known or the oldest. This would be the Kimbanguist movement of Kongo prophet and folk hero Simon Kimbangu, who claimed to have been sent by God to heal and lead the black race. His ministry lasted only a few months in 1921 before he was arrested by Belgian authorities and imprisoned in Katanga where he died in his cell in 1951. His surviving sons later founded the Kimbanguist church, today recognized as one of three Christian churches. As many as fifteen prophets and messianic movements appeared in Bas Congo from 1920 onwards. Many of these, like BDK, claimed to promote African authenticity. Another notable movement, still powerful today, is the Eglise des Noirs. Founded by Simon Mpadi in 1939, he was also arrested by Belgian authorities and deported to Katanga on the other side of the country.
The BDK story shares the elements of persecution and authenticity with Kimbanguistes and the Eglise des Noirs, but with one major difference. Recent BDK experience marks a clear break with how religious groups of all stripes have historically responded to Congo’s long succession of repressive and brutal regimes. The trajectory of BDK spiritual leader and founder, Ne Muanda Nsemi, from academic lecturer and part-time minister in the late 1960s to gubernatorial candidate in the lead opposition party in 2006, to jailed and excoriated head of a ‘terrorist organization’ in 2008, reveals much about the spectacular failures of Congo’s body politic. Despite the massive loss of life, BDK is also a sign of enormous hope. The BDK challenge to a corrupt and predatory government—to the point of mortal sacrifice—is a long overdue sign of ‘politicization’ among Congo’s destitute and illiterate masses.
In 1969 Muanda Nsemi fasted for a month in order to ask the higher spirits to ‘save the black race’ and to ‘enlighten the world’. His prayer was answered in the form of a visitation by the Great Spirit Muanda Kongo, who listed a series of crimes against Africans and attributed responsibility for the plight of the black race to Western civilization. He relates the terms of his illumination:
“The West massacred millions of Africans through slavery. The Gods know this, so does the West. The West is responsible for Africa’s current economic misery. The Gods know this, so does the West. The West colonized Africa on inhumane grounds. The Gods know this, so does the West. The West established the borders of African countries arbitrarily, and for this Africans continue to bleed. Western crimes in Africa are well known to all, both in the West and in the higher realms.”
Fast forward to 2006. Muanda Nsemi continues to lead BDK; its supporters now number in the tens of thousands. He has written extensively, publishing over 500 books and brochures in French and Kikongo on the religion, history, culture and politics of the Kongo people. In the buildup to national elections as Congo struggles to recover from years of war and dictatorship, Muanda Nsemi allies BDK with the main opposition party and its candidate Jean-Pierre Bemba. Bemba lost the presidential elections to Kabila in late 2006 and was soon run out of the country. He is now in The Hague, indicted for crimes against humanity committed by his troops in neighboring Central African Republic. BDK, meanwhile, asserts territorial control in Kongo homeland areas, underscoring Kinshasa’s manifest inability to extend the reach of the State beyond the capital.
Pyramids of payback
DRC has a long history of political elitism, predation by civil servants and abusive behavior by armed forces. King Leopold’s Ghost, by Adam Hochschild, chronicles the atrocities of the Congo Free State in the late 1800s, a period made famous by Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Hochschild also documents the heroic attempts by a few to halt the economic tyranny, slavery and mass murder that characterized Leopold’s gruesome reign. Congolese workers were threatened with amputation if they did not produce their daily quota of rubber. Their Congolese overlords, loyal to Leopold, had to present the severed hands of workers whose quotas were not met.
In Kongo folklore the hunting dog provides a dual analogy. First, as a traitor to one’s own kind; second, for blind loyalty to foreign interests. For Muanda Nsemi, Congo’s political leaders are the mbua ntantu – dogs who aid man in his hunt for their fellow animals. Historically and today, Congolese political elite have pursued power as a means to wealth rather than as an end in itself (eg., governing in the public interest). Despite a merely symbolic presence outside the provincial capitals, the Kinshasa government deploys predatory elements (police, army, intelligence agents accountable only to the Executive branch) to pursue its extractive interests throughout the country. Echoes of Congo Free State are not arbitrary or imagined. The same extractive objectives for which the DRC was originally designed by colonial powers remain virtually unchanged.
Patronage systems turned kleptocratic during the Mobutu era, leading to a shadow economy that is wholly extractive. Those at the top of government departments expect to receive substantial cash payments from their subordinate, who in turn ‘tax’ those below or divert funds from public budgets. At the lowest level, bribes are extracted from the public in order to pay those above. In effect the public is taxed for the provision of state services, including health, education and security—a reversal of the normal expectation that the State should subsidize services. The situation is aggravated by the non-payment of government staff, including police and military. Teachers require ‘motivation fees’ from students in order to give classes and grade exams. Policemen have to submit a weekly ‘report’, effectively a fixed payment to their superior officers who in turn must make payments further up the chain. A policeman who fails to meet his quota will still have to pay up—an example of how it is practically impossible to remain in public service and not be corrupt.
A cadaverous State
Combined with years of dictatorship and the travesty of personality cults, the saturation of Western Christian values has led to a general disinterest in holding the State accountable for Congo’s misery. That there are voices like that of Muanda Nsemi and BDK demanding reform today is cause for hope. The Congolese political opposition, once led by Bemba, is now weak and fractured, its appointed leader now awaiting trial at the ICC. Apart from BDK the opposition lacks credible allies outside the political class who can channel the vox populi.
The novelty of Muanda Nsemi in this context lies in shifting blame for Congo’s freefall away from Western manipulation and colonial legacy and onto the Congolese state. In a country renowned for its obsession with conspiracy theories and a recurring victim complex, BDK delivers straightforward and empowering invective where it is rightfully due. In one of my favorite moments of Muanda Nsemi oratory, a 2007 speech to Parliament following a series of BDK massacres (video here), he tells his fellow deputies: « The State is a cadaver that is still breathing » (L’Etat est un cadavre qui respire encore). Parliamentarians then bellow and hiss, and the Speaker forces him to retract the statement.
Whether the courage and sacrifice of BDK will set an example to be followed by other Africanist movements remains to be seen. The average Congolese, it must be said, finds Muanda Nsemi and the BDK worldview to be quite insane (check the ridicule by fellow deputies in the above speech to Parliament). On the other hand, given the strong traditions and proud history of the Kongo people, Bas Congo province will likely generate further spiritual movements. That one or some of these will press for political reform is always possible.
Impunity for atrocities committed against BDK supporters by state security forces from 2006 to 2008 aggravated already open wounds; these will not heal quickly. Popular grievances against Kinshasa and its appointed leaders (mbua ntantu) in Bas Congo will deepen and fester. Kongo memory of injustice is long, and Muanda Nsemi will continue to preach this history, reminding his people of the unbroken continuum between colonial occupation and the string of corrupt tyrannies since independence.
The BDK experience shows that where the stateless void of rural Congo persists, traditional forms of authority will arise to fill the power vacuum. For Kinshasa, BDK and its vision remain a threat, not a partner or an intermediary solution. It is also an object lesson in Kinshasa’s tendency to counter dissent not with dialogue or mediation, but with crushing, lethal force. For now, Muanda Nsemi is in many ways the only credible dissident voice in the country. The opposition is fractured and skeptical of BDK as a viable political asset. Despite the blood on his hands, Bemba could have led an effective opposition to the Kabila regime. But before returning he must first learn his fate at the hands of a remote legal body on distant continent.