05:46, August 01 234 0 theguardian.com

2018-08-01 05:46:09
Former DR Congo warlord returns home from prison for presidential bid

Jean-Pierre Bemba, the Congolese opposition leader whose war crimes convictions at the international criminal court (ICC) were quashed in June, arrived in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) on Wednesday, triggering an intense new phase of political manoeuvring and instability in the vast and impoverished central African state.

The country faces presidential elections in December and candidates must physically be in the country to lodge their applications before a deadline in a week.

Bemba, 55, left the DRC in 2007 and spent the last 10 years in prison in The Hague before his surprise acquittal on appeal in June. The former warlord is expected to run in presidential elections set for December and his return will mobilise opposition to President Joseph Kabila, who has been in power since his father’s assassination in 2001.

“En route to the land of my ancestors, my homeland,” Bemba said on Twitter during the night. A photo of the 55-year-old Bemba boarding a private jet in Belgium accompanied the tweet.

Supporters of the former rebel leader and vice-president gathered in the streets of the capital Kinshasa.

“The Congolese people have waited for this moment for a long time,” said Toussaint Bodongo, one of about 300 members of Bemba’s MLC party waiting for him at Kinshasa’s N’djili airport. “Bemba will maybe bring the solution that we need to Congo.”

Kabila, whose second term expired in 2016, has repeatedly postponed elections. He is barred from a third term by the constitution and his close associates have repeatedly denied that he hopes to find a way to stand again.

But the president was recently nominated as a candidate by his party’s youth league, and no one else appears to have been promoted as a possible replacement within the ruling coalition.

Bemba has a powerful support base in the DRC and experts describe his return as “a huge wildcard”.

“On his own, as an opposition leader, he could do extremely well,” Stephanie Wolters, an analyst based in South Africa told the Guardian when news of his acquittal at the ICC was announced. “He is seen as a victim of Joseph Kabila’s politics and of international politics. If the opposition unite it would be very hard to see a Kabila victory that was anything but stolen.”

The opposition in the DRC is fragmented, with neither of the two other main leaders – Félix Tshisekedi and Moïse Katumbi – committing to a formal coalition backing a single candidate.

Katumbi has applied for permission to return to DRC too, possibly flying into Lumumbashi, in his stronghold in the southeastern Katanga province in coming days.

The multi-millionaire businessman faces court cases in DRC that he says are trumped up and has been in self-imposed exile in Europe.

A poll conducted by the Congo Research Group at New York University shows roughly equal support – between 17 and 19 percent – for all Bemba, Katumbi and Tshishekedi.

It put support for Kabila in an election at around nine percent though support from coalition allies could boost his score considerably.

Bemba unsuccessfully opposed Kabila in elections in 2006. After his militia clashed violently with government forces in 2007, he was forced out of the DRC and arrested in Belgium.

Judges at the ICC initially found Bemba guilty on five counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by his private army during a five-month rampage in the neighbouring Central African Republic in 2002.

Bemba had sent his militia, the MLC – a rebel force that he later transformed into a political organisation – into the Congo’s northern neighbour to quash a coup against the then president, Ange-Félix Patassé.

The 18-year sentence was the longest ever to be handed down by the court.

“Many people in the DRC have always seen his indictment for crimes in the CAR as politicised. He is the only politician of national stature to be sent to The Hague and is a lot more credible as an opposition leader than Katumbi or Tshisekedi,” said Wolters.

The attitude of regional powers will be key in coming months, with western powers seemingly without significant influence on Kabila, who succeeded his assassinated father, Laurent, in 2001.

Kabila has remained in power under a constitutional clause that enables a president to stay in office until his or her successor is elected.

The DRC, a mineral-rich country but one of Africa’s most volatile countries, has never known a peaceful transition of power since it gained independence from Belgium in 1960 - and some experts fear that the December election may trigger a bloody conflict.