Between December 27-31 last year, Cardinal Fridolin Ambongo, the man with unchallenged power and influence in DR Congo, undertook what was described as a peace mission to eastern Congo.
Cardinal Ambongo specifically held huge gatherings in Goma, Butembo and Beni, – all regions that have borne the biggest brunt of the raging conflict in eastern DRC. At the time, Lamuka opposition block led by some of the most powerful political leaders in Congo, also held big rallies in the same regions.
Cardinal Ambongo, the Archbishop of Kinshasa, publicly alleged there was plan for “balkanisation” of DRC. When he returned to Kinshasa, Cardinal Ambongo in media interviews told the leaders of unnamed neighbouring countries “to stop dumping their populations in Congo”.
These comments were not new, as they have been said by politicians for more than two decades, but they gained prominence because they had come from such a powerful voice. Though Cardinal Ambongo didn’t name countries or individuals, it was openly clear to everyone he was referring to the government of Rwanda.
The comments expectedly attracted furious reaction from Rwanda in the form of a government dismissal, a media campaign against Cardinal Ambongo – following by social media. To date, the vitriol continues.
It is this man Cardinal Ambongo that Rwanda’s new and first Cardinal, Antoine Kambanda, finds in an already heavily polluted region. Kambanda received his instruments of power from Pope Francis at a Vatican function on November 28, together with 12 others from different continents.
Immediately, Antoine Cardinal Kambanda went on a media offensive to give a hint of his vision for the region. It was the clearest of indications that the complicated geopolitics of the great lakes region would be his priority.
In interview with Vatican News, which was actually reproduced in French, pointing to a possibility of its target being both Burundi and DR Congo, Cardinal Kambanda said Rwanda was peaceful but its neighbors were in conflict and war.
“…there is so much to do,” said Cardinal Kambanda. “In Rwanda, peace and stability have reigned for many years. We work in tranquility. It is this, as the Church, which has helped us to create a framework for the reconciliation and reconstruction of society.”
Cardinal Kambanda added: “But, in the region, we have concerns, with neighboring countries living through conflicts and wars. We have refugees in Rwanda, armed combatants in neighboring countries, etc.”
The prelate went further to point out that the ordinary peoples of the region have no problem against each other. “People need peace and do not have conflicts among themselves, if they are not deviated and not fed on ethnic ideology and hatred. We have had a lot of experiences,” said Kambanda.
He said local people at borders depend on each other, trade amongst themselves – when given chance with a peaceful environment.
“There are no problems, if they are not manipulated and terrorized. The day we overcome these ideological manipulations, we will have peace,” said Cardinal Kambanda, but didn’t say who exactly is responsible for the instability.
It is this above perspective of what is wrong with the region from Cardinal Kambanda that puts him on an obvious collision course with the Catholic Church in DR Congo, particularly senior counterpart Cardinal Ambongo.
Cardinal Ambongo and his bishops have for years pointed to a scheme to break up their vast country in what is termed as ‘balkanization’. The promoters of this narrative, openly name Rwanda and Uganda as the leads behind the project, specifically naming the leaders of the two countries.
In one media interview from Kinshasha in January this year, Cardinal Ambongo said: “It is the enemy’s plan, of sowing terror, in order to oblige the population to flee, by consequence abandon this place to be freely run by other occupants who will come to settle.”
“Whether the project will ever be achieved depends on us Congolese. It all depends on us to protect our country.”
A taste of how much Congo’s Catholic establishment resents the government of Rwanda and Uganda, was on open display when DRC was holding elections in late 2018. The Catholic Church deployed election monitors to the deepest corners of the vast country. Not even the government could reach where the Church reached.
The DRC church’s conference of bishops shared their tally of the election result with key embassies in Kinshasa, clearly showing the opposition Lamuka candidate had won the election. It was confirmation of the rejection of the presidency of Joseph Kabila and everyone associated with him. Extremist political actors in Congo don’t consider Kabila as Congolese.
Cardinal Ambongo’s hardline comments, like those of his bishops before, were widely shared in social media platforms of Rwandan exiles. It was the talk on their online radio channels. And then a bombshell fell; Pope Francis elevate Monseigneur Kambanda from Rwanda to Cardinal.
Within days of the announcement, two exiled Rwandan Catholic priest Fr. Theophile Murengerantwari (Germany) and Fr. Fortunatus Rudakemwa (France), put up an online petition asking the Pope to rescind his decision to make Kambanda cardinal.
Their sentiments were widely shared by Rwandan exiles, some of whom are wanted in Rwanda for their alleged involvement in the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi.
The common narrative the exiled priests and politicians, was that Monseigneur Kambanda was a project of the ruling Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF) to infiltrate and weaken Rwanda’s Catholic Church. For years, the ruling party and by consequence the government, have had a very difficult relationship with the Catholics.
Before Kambanda became Archbishop of Kigali at a big consecration ceremony in the stadium in January 2019, he was a little-known head of an insignificant diocese in eastern Rwanda. In his speech, President Paul Kagame’s conciliatory tone was unusual – a complete departure from the public attacks he had directed at the Catholic Church for years.
Kagame even committed to support the Catholic Church financially to build a new cathedral. The commitment was within months followed through with Kigali City surprisingly handing the Church a prime piece of land in the city center.
The land is where the historic maximum security prison ‘1930’ sat. The jail was moved as part of plans to turn the space into a luxury hospitality spot as Rwanda seeks to become a high-end tourism destination. The site is now Catholic land.
In less than two years, Antoine Kambanda has moved from not appearing among the most recognizable names in Rwanda’s Catholic Church establishment, to the country’s first Cardinal. It is a rise only similar to that of his superior Pope Francis whose ascendancy to the papacy equally took the world by surprise.
But as Cardinal Kambanda has risen to the pride of many Rwandans, for exiles, who share the sentiments of Congolese Cardinal Ambongo towards the government of Rwanda, it is just a new chapter in the fight for the minds and souls of the great lakes region.
In the Vatican News interview, Cardinal Kambanda said in attempt to bring peace to this region he would work within the Central African Episcopal Conferences (ACEAC) which converges bishops from Rwanda, Burundi and DRC.
Already, the first week of the Advent month in this December, was consecrated to prayer for peace in the great lakes region.
“Together, we have also put in place several initiatives such as “ACEAC Justice and Peace” – initiatives for peace in the Great Lakes, although very often the scale of the conflicts is beyond us,” said Cardinal Kambanda.
“Nevertheless, the gospel, even if it doesn’t display itself,….. it transforms society.”
Cardinal Ambongo sat in same room with Cardinal Kambanda when both were in Vatican for the latter’s consistory. They will of course have many more secret meetings we may never know. Observers will be eagerly looking forward to the first public meeting of the two prelates.
What a Cardinal does and power
The Cardinals of the Catholic Church are the most senior clergymen (priests) in the Church below the Pope. They form what is called the ‘College of Cardinals’ among whom the next Pope is either appointed, or they sit and choose a Pope from outside the College.
Over centuries the role of Cardinals has significantly evolved and come from different congregations. Many represent whole countries and regions of countries like Cardinal Kambanda and Cardinal Ambongo.
From time to time, the Pope will bring the Cardinals together for a Consistory, to consult with them as a whole body. It is at these times that new Cardinals are named. Cardinals who are under 80 years of age are allowed to vote in the election of a new Pope. The maximum number set (though it can be changed by the Pope) of elector Cardinals is 120.
The Cardinals by extension wield enormous influence and power in their country, region and globally. They act as some kind of spiritual guide over that territory, with far reaching impact on the life of that region.