He spent eleven years in exile, ten of them behind bars at the International Criminal Court. Today Jean-Pierre Bemba, former rebel leader, vice-president and opposition leader in the DRC, finally returned to his country as a free man and politian of stature. His private jet from Brussels landed at Ndjili international airport in Kinshasa at around 9.25 am. After an hour of talks with the police at the airport on what should happen next, it took many hours before „Igwe“ – as his admirers call him, using a Nigerian term for a great leader – finally reached the headquarters of his party MLC (Mouvement de Libération du Congo) situated in Limete opposite the main stadium.
Tens of thousands of Congolese hailed Bemba’s return on the Boulevard Lumumba, the main road from the airport into the centre of Kinshasa with its 12 million inhabitants. They chanted songs against President Joseph Kabila, inviting Bemba to „shave“ the president (who has grown a beard) and calling Kabila „mad“. The police, having tried and failed to get Bemba’s convoy to speed past the onlookers at an impossible pace, occasionally fired tear gas. Several people were reported injured.
For Bemba, returning home was clearly a very emotional moment. „On the way into the land of my ancestors, my fatherland“, the 55-year-old politician wrote before his nocturnal departure from Brussels on his newly created Twitter account which bears his old election slogan from the 2006 campaign, „Avec Dieu nous vaincrons“ (With God we shall prevail). In 2006, Bemba won 42% of the vote in the run-off against President Joseph Kabila. It was his greatest moment, and he doesn’t want it to be his last.
Perfectly timed arrival
Bemba, whom the Ugandan army placed at the head of the newly created MLC rebel movement in 1998 in order to conquer the northern third of the country until they were held up outside Mbandaka, threatening to descend on Kinshasa, has had a chequered career. The son of the richest entrepreneur of the Mobutu era was not a natural born rebel, but in Mobutu’s jungle capital Gbadolite he ran a more or less functioning armed movement. After the 2002/03 peace agreement, he became the most powerful of four DRC vice-presidents under Kabila, in charge of finance, and the only serious challenger to Kabila at the historic 2006 polls.
He performed well, lost and had to flee in 2007 after government troops stormed hi residence and killed hundreds of his guards in a battle ranging across Kinshasa. Thinking he had found safety in Europe, he was arrested in Belgium in 2008 on a secret ICC indictment bearing on crimes his MLC fighters had committed when seconded to the Central African Republic 2002-03. He stood trial, was convicted – and acquitted on appeal this year. Notwithstanding a second charge of witness tampering for which he has been convicted but with proceedings remaining incomplete, he was freed and now allowed to go home.
His arrival is perfectly timed for the registration period for presidential candidates in the 23 December elections, which runs until 8 August. Within the next few days Bemba is planning to proffer his candidacy at the Electoral Commission CENI in Kinshasa and then at the weekend travel to Gemena, his home town in the northwest and capital of Sud-Ubangi province, where his father is buried and where his supporters are already waiting for him; originally he had wanted to fly to Gemena before coming to Kinshasa, but this was refused by the authorities.
Thus Bemba’s return to DRC is practically the opening shot of the election campaign. The poll, originally slated for November 2016 but endlessly postponed since, is finally springing to life very suddenly, while many critics are still doubtful it can take place at all. It is completely unclear what this means. On the one hand Bemba is a dangerous challenger for Kabila, as he proved in 2006 – on the other hand he splits the opposition vote. Most opposition politicians agree that their only hope of winning lies in presenting a single candidate; there is no run-off vote in DRC presidential elections.
Another opposition flag bearer has also announced his intention to run for president: Moise Katumbi, former governor of Katanga province who broke with Kabila 2015 and went into exile 2016 after a conviction in a sham trial over an ancient property deal. Katumbi is widely admired in DRC for having built up the country’s best football team (TP Mazembe) and having efficiently governed the country’s richest province for years. On Friday he is planning to return the the former Katanga capital Lubumbashi, his former fiefdom, by private jet from South Africa and then continue to Kinshasa.
But he is clearly being favoured
Unless Katumbi is arrested on arrival, which is a possibility, two opposition hopefuls will thus be touring the country at the same time as presidential campaigning gets under way. For years the DRC has waited for serious challengers to the president to emerge from a confusing political landscape – now they all come at once. And other important opposition leaders like the UDPS‘ Felix Tshisekedi are around, still waiting to decide what to do.
Bemba clearly benefits from a degree of government support. Katumbi was denied a new passport; Bemba got a diplomatic passport immediately. Important figures from the Kabila camp visited him in Brussels before he left. His arrival in Kinshasa was secured by the police. The Kinshasa police chief accompanied him on foot from his car to the MLC headquarters. Of course this is also a way of keeping an eye on him, and the government is refusing him a return to his former residence in the central reidential district of Gombe on the grounds that this is now „presidential“ terrain. But he is clearly being favoured.
Bemba as well as Katumbi could yet be excluded from the presidential election because of their past judicial problems. Decisions on this will only come after 8 August, when the registration period ends. By that time, it should also be evident what President Kabila himself, who is famously non-committal on his political future, is planning.
If a proper election goes ahead with Bemba, Katumbi and others, even with Kabila or someone else from his family, and if the campaign and the poll is fair, 1 August 2018 could go down in history as the start of an open and pluralistic election camapaign, with the DRC’s first peaceful and democratic transfer of power at the end. If not, Bemba’s heroic return could herald something else: the opening shot of a new round of conflict. Right now, the „ifs“ surrounding a clean election are rather too large to be confident that the country is finally on the right track.