Ten years ago I visited Dix-Huit in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DR Congo), a tiny village so named because it is 18 kilometres from the nearest river.
The capital, Kinshasa is more than 1,000 miles away, but that did not shelter this settlement of mud-brick homes from decades of neglect, corruption and a devastating civil war that took nearly four million lives.
Yet in 2006 I found that the people of Dix-Huit had hope. The country was about to hold the first fully democratic elections in more than 40 years: voter education programmes supported by UK aid agency CAFOD and run by the Catholic Church, to which more than half the 67 million population belong, had given them confidence that every vote would be secret, and would be counted.
“This time I am free to vote with my conscience,” Yoha Aziza told me. Her wizened face bore witness to DR Congo’s turbulent history. She hoped the election would bring roads, hospitals, schools and contact with the outside world, but ten years on her aspirations, and those of millions like her, have been betrayed. Her country, the size of western Europe, should be one of the richest in Africa – it has gold, diamonds, copper and coltan, the material used in every mobile phone. Instead it remains one of the poorest, crippled by violence, theft and poor governance.
President Laurent Kabila was elected in 2006, and won a second term five years later amid widespread fraud. With his mandate due to run out in December, the Catholic Church was involved in dialogue with the government, the electoral commission and the opposition to bring about the first peaceful transition of power since DR Congo became independent in 1960.
Elections, which should have been held by the end of this year, have been postponed to 2018, and dozens of people were killed in Kinshasa last month during protests at the delay. The Catholic church in the DR Congo has been involved in leading negotiations between the electoral commission, the opposition and the president’s political party. The church withdrew from the talks after it failed to be inclusive: many major opposition groups and civil society representatives were not around the table.
Throughout, the Catholic church’s Conference of Episcopal Bishops in Congo has stood with the Congolese people and urged politicians to renegotiate to ensure that presidential elections are held as soon as possible and that the current president does not stand for a third term.
The church’s persistence led to President Joseph Kabila, earlier this month, requesting that the Catholic bishops re-start negotiations to enable talks with opposition and civil society groups.
As the provider of nearly 50 per cent of education and roughly the same proportion of health facilities in DR Congo, the Catholic Church is in an influential position. It is calling on Britain, the second largest contributor to the UN peacekeeping mission in the country after the US, to put pressure on the government to respect the constitution and its guarantees of human rights.
Without such pressure, there is a clear danger that a conflict which was compared to the First World War for sheer slaughter will be reignited.
“If there is war, I will take up arms,” a hot-headed young student declared when I sat in on a voter education session in Dix-Huit a decade ago. The priest from the Peace and Justice Commission who was leading the discussion calmed him down, reminding him that his family and community had suffered enough bloodshed, and that violence would only breed more violence.
But when the voters are cheated, who will be able to restrain the angry youth of 2016?