By Olive Mukahirwa
Pope Francis is expected to visit the Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan from January 31 to February 5 in order to pray for peace. The papal visit was originally planned for the summer of 2022 but was postponed due to illness.
Radio Okapi in DR Congo said that while in Kinshasa, Pope Francis will meet with victims of the war in eastern Congo. The pope’s arrival in Kinshasa is anticipated on January 31. In addition to meeting representatives of families displaced by the war between government forces and armed groups such as M23 in North Kivu, the pope will also meet and hold talks with the leaders of various institutions, civil society representatives, and diplomatic corps members.
At a January 9 press conference, Archbishop Ettore Balestrero, the apostolic nuncio (ecclesiastic diplomat) to DR Congo, asked the Congolese people – particularly those living in Kinshasa – to welcome the pope at Ndjili International Airport. The day after his arrival, Pope Francis will lead a mass at Ndolo Airport, and on February 2 he is scheduled to meet with youth at the Stade des Martyrs in Kinshasa.
The 85-year-old pontiff will visit South Sudan from February 3-5, where he is scheduled to meet local church representatives and civil war victims living in a refugee camp, and lead a large, open-air prayer vigil for peace
Pope Francis will be in DRC while the country is on high alert, particularly in the eastern provinces of North and South Kivu due to war between government forces and armed groups, among which M23 is currently most active.
The United Nations’ investigative agency has released a report alleging that M23 has not fully complied with the ceasefire agreement they signed to withdraw from the occupied areas of Kibumba, Rumangabo, Kisigari, and Rugari no later than January 5. While some fighters have apparently been removed from these areas – possibly to other areas of DR Congo that border Uganda – others remain.
Ugandan officials have warned citizens to be cautious. Gad Ahimbisibwe Rugaju, Deputy Commissioner of Kanungu District in Uganda, has urged the people of Kanungu not to invite refugees from the eastern part of the DRC into their homes.
M23 has denied the UN’s allegations and insists that withdrawal began on December 23, in compliance with the agreement reached by the leaders of the East Africa Region in November 2022.
In an interview with the BBC, M23 Spokesperson Major Willy Ngoma said, “They are talking about what they do not know; we are no longer there.” Ngoma said they had surrendered on January 5 and will continue to withdraw troops.
“Our retreat is gradual, that’s what people don’t understand. Do they know that we will immediately return to the volcanoes of Sabyinyo and Mikeno where we were? We will not go back as soon as they think. We will do it slowly,” he said.
Experts in both the UN and the government of DR Congo President Félix Antoine Tshisekedi Tshilombo accuse Rwanda of supporting M23 – allegations that the Rwandan government vigorously denies. The U.S. Department of State has issued a demand that M23 and all armed groups fighting in DR Congo stop hostilities, put down their weapons, and participate in peace talks. Tshisekedi has vowed to continue his plan to end the war in eastern Congo even though M23 has not yet withdrawn all its fighters from the areas they have occupied.
Frédéric Amani, researcher in international relations at the University of Lubumbashi, told Radio Okapi that the regional forces of the East African Community (EAC) have failed in their mission to push M23 out of DR Congo.“The non-compliance (by M23) with the call for the EAC force to withdraw from occupied localities demonstrates this organization’s admission of failure and its inability to contribute genuinely to peacemaking efforts and security in this part scarred by endless conflicts,” he said.
At least 450,000 people have been displaced by the war.