Tributes have been pouring in from all corners of the Democratic Republic of Congo and beyond for Cardinal Laurent Monsengwo, a fearless human rights defender who died July 11 at age 81. A few days earlier, he had been flown from Congo to Versailles, France to receive medical care.
Known by the fatherly “Tata Cardinal,” he was nonetheless a vigorous critic of successive governments over decades, especially as the archbishop of Kinshasa. Congolese across all classes considered him a tireless champion of democracy and human rights in the country. Arguably the most-listened-to individual in Congo, Monsengwo embodied the people’s hope and courage against all forms of injustice.
Monsengwo took an active role in mediating the country’s various political crises since the early 1990’s, first under Mobutu Sese Seko and then Laurent-Desire Kabila, spearheading negotiations, dialogues, and peacemaking efforts. More recently, he was highly influential as the Catholic Church led political talks in December 2016 when then-President Joseph Kabila held onto power beyond the end of his constitutionally mandated two-term limit.
At the height of political repression, Monsengwo denounced the use of excessive force by Congo’s security forces. “The mediocre must go,” he famously said, exasperated by state abuses after police and soldiers killed at least eight people during peaceful demonstrations at Catholic churches on December 31, 2017. His phrase continues to get widely used in the country.
On February 25, 2019, two months after the disputed presidential election, Monsengwo again lashed out at the Congolese political class. Speaking in Brussels, Belgium, he questioned President Felix Tshisekedi’s election, citing a tally by Catholic Church election observers and accusing authorities of rigging the results.
Monsengwo’s legacy extends far beyond the Congolese Catholic Church that he encompassed for 30 years. Congolese human rights defenders and pro-democracy youth activists alike mourn a man who remains inspirational to many as he fought for freedom, truth, and democracy.