After 60 years of independence, Africa is still mired in poverty and violence—only the Church is bulwark of positive change
1960 HAS BEEN called the Year of Africa, since in that year 17 African countries gained their independence from European rule—14 from France, two from Great Britain and one from Belgium. Cameroon became independent on the first day of the year, followed by Togo, Madagascar, Somalia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). August will mark the anniversaries of the independence of nine other countries, Benin, Niger, Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast, the Central African Republic, the Republic of Congo (Congo Brazzaville), Gabon and Senegal. Three more anniversaries will follow later this year, those of the independence of Mali, Nigeria and Mauritania.
Asking him to reflect on 60 years of independence in Africa, Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) spoke with Father Apollinaire Cibaka Cikongo, a Congolese priest, who serves as dean and Professor at the University of Mbuji-Mayi in DRC. He is the author of many books and articles of theology, social commentary and literature.
60 years after independence, Africa continues to suffer so much conflict and unrest. You referred to 60 years of failure that have turned Africa into the continent of violence. Is that not a very harsh analysis?
No, it is the truth. The current state of Black Africa is not the fruit of a positive dynamic but rather of a dynamic of violence caused by the Western conquest of Africa—the treatment of Negro slaves, colonialism, the false independences, the Cold War, the dictatorships and the apparent democracies. Activated both from within and from without, this violence is a constitutive feature of Black Africa, to the extent that it has become a geopolitical entity built upon violence, suffering from violence and living from violence.
Why is this?
The physical violence continues each year, and pitilessly, costing the lives of thousands of people. There are three key factors causing these wars to break out. First, the conflicts caused by “failed coexistences,” the result of artificial geopolitical configurations, the result of internal and external power interests which manipulate and create conflict between the different African peoples. Secondly, there are wars caused by greed and covetousness, by the economic interests of certain indigenous groups and international powers. The struggle for the control and exploitation of continent’s immense human and natural resources is costing many human lives in Africa. And finally, there are religious wars by means of which certain peoples and cultures are being forcibly converted and which currently, in the case of Islam, have assumed an expression of violent terrorism, blind, absurd and gratuitous in the name of causes that have nothing to do with the vital interests of the African people.
Why is this still the case after 60 years?
Our economy is built around the interests of the major powers which subjected us, and likewise by the new ones coming from Asia. These powers still get more benefit from the continent’s resources than the African nations themselves due to the unjust rules of a cruel market system. In addition, the economy has been unable to develop or diversify; it has not gone beyond the extraction, transport and sale of raw materials. Afterwards, we have to buy back these goods at high prices in markets controlled by others. It is also the result of mismanagement and theft in the countries themselves. What little is left in the country is not managed for the good of all citizens, but according to the wants and whims of those who flaunt the power of the state and its elected representatives.
Some of ACN’s project partners complain of a “social subjection” in relation to their culture. Many NGOs, including even the international aid agencies, impose conditions designed to change the worldview, the way life of the African people. Is this true? It’s a form of cultural violence exerted by external powers and interest groups who deny the deep-rooted African cultural values with the aim of imposing ideologies that are alien to us and very often contrary to natural law. This happens principally in matters relating to life and the family, through the use of economic, diplomatic, political and cultural pressure; it is also an anthropological form of violence, because it deprives us of the right to freely determine our lives, a right which belongs to every human being. This is the principal legacy of the slave trade, which transformed Africa into a veritable hell and in which black people have suffered centuries of denigration, not merely from outside, but also from a sort of “auto-racism” through the interiorization by the Africans themselves of their condition of being “less than human.”
What role has the Catholic Church played these past 60 years?
The Church functions better than any other institution. Despite the failings and the difficulties, it is the only one of all the institutions inherited from the West that actually performs. In many places, such as DRC, for example, you could say that the Church is the state, without which there would be no life, no hope, no future. This can be seen in many areas, notably in the field of education and healthcare. In the absence of a state that looks out for the education and health of its people, the Church is responsible for around 50 percent of all the schools, formation centers, hospitals and health centers, with some among them the best in the country. They are often the only ones in all those towns and villages forgotten by the state.
What are the difficulties for the Church in this respect?
The Catholic Church is carrying out its pastoral and social work in the face of internal fragility and external hostility which constantly threaten to undermine or ruin its work. We suffer an internal fragility on account of the laity, who have little sense of commitment to their secular vocation; the social commitment of the Church rests on the bishops and the episcopal conferences, and this weakens her. Additionally, we lack the material resources and depend on generosity from outside, for without this help the African Church would be unable to survive and serve.
Finally, we are facing a situation of fierce religious competition from the evangelical sects and Christians are decreasing demographically, because we have not succeeded in renewing our approach to the Christian apostolate.
What it the nature of external hostility to the work of the Church?
Because of her social work, the Church threatens many private interests and for this reason undermining her influence is the objective of many such actors, especially the politicians. The Church is inconvenient, hated and even persecuted by some states which, rather than facilitating her work, instead try to silence her voice, using violent and intimidatory methods to suppress every expression of criticism of the status quo.
One of the strategies used to weaken the Church is to create division among Christians, and the other is fomenting corruption of the “religious world” through the multiplication of new Christian Churches, many of which are purely money-making schemes. In the case of DRC, during the past 30 years the state has granted juridical personality to around 17,000 so-called Christian Churches. To put it another way, an average of three new Churches have been created every two days. The same thing happens through the state’s social promotion of Islam.
What can Catholics do not to be a part of the problem but rather a part of the solution?
Only a Church that is faithful to Christ and to the Gospel, through contemplation, humility, service, exemplary behavior and commitment on the part of all its members can be equal to its spiritual mission within society. It is the one thing that Christ asks of the Church, so that she may be the temple and instrument of his love and his grace.