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Jean-Pierre Bemba: From convicted warlord to exonerated hero of Congo

Jean Robert N'Kengo / AFP | Jean-Pierre arrives at the Ndjili airport in Kinshasa, August 1 2018.

Former Congolese warlord Jean-Pierre Bemba’s journey from convicted war criminal to a hero with his convictions overturned mirrors the volatility in the troubled heart of Africa.


When the news of Jean-Pierre Bemba’s arrival home on Wednesday broke, the crowd outside the Democratic Republic of Congo’s main international airport erupted with joy. Wearing T-shirts and headscarves emblazoned with Bemba’s image, they broke into song as they surged toward the entrance of Kinshasa’s N’Djili airport.

Inside the airport, the scene was less chaotic -- but just as electric.

Senior members of Bemba’s MLC (Movement for the Liberation of the Congo), wearing the blue-and-yellow colours of the party, broke into huge grins as the hulking, baby-faced Congolese opposition leader entered the arrivals lounge. Bemba was returning to the DR Congo to make a presidential bid, and nothing -- not the hundreds of police at the airport and his party headquarters, nor the fear of clashes between his supporters and the security forces – was going to stop him.

Dressed in a crisp dark suit and a red tie, Bemba shook hands and chatted with members of his family and political party in the VIP suite with the poise of a respected president-in-waiting returning home.

Nothing in his steady, measured demeanor betrayed the fact that he had spent the past 10 years in the dock, facing charges for war crimes and crimes against humanity, including murder, rape and pillaging.

But from Bemba’s point of view, there was never any reason to be anything but statesmanlike. Such is the fluid, volatile nature of politics in the heart of the African continent that yesterday’s warlord, whose militia committed horrific atrocities in a neighbouring state, could return home today to a hero’s welcome.  And in the course of 55 eventful years, Bemba has survived startling ups and downs, his destiny shifting dramatically with the twists and turns of history in one of the world’s most volatile regions.

In the spotlight for rape as a war crime

Just over two years ago, the former Congolese warlord made the international headlines when the ICC (International Criminal Court), in a historic first, found him guilty of the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war.

According to the ICC ruling, Bemba knowingly permitted his MLC troops to commit horrific acts -- including rape -- against civilians in neighbouring Central African Republic (CAR), where he dispatched them in 2002 to help put down a coup against then-CAR president, Ange-Félix Patassé.

But earlier this year, on June 8, an ICC appeals chamber overturned the conviction, ruling that the trial court had “erred in its evaluation of Bemba’s motivation,” concluding that there was no evidence that the Congolese warlord could control his militia once they crossed the border into the CAR.

Changing the political game

While international human rights groups condemned the shock overturning of the conviction, Bemba continued to maintain his innocence. In media interviews from Belgium, the former warlord repeatedly declared his intention to return home to contest the 2018 presidential election.

But the Congo today is not the place it used to be.

The massive central African nation the size of Western Europe, has been convulsing with violence since 2016, when Congolese President Joseph Kabila’s term was supposed to end.

The high stakes election has been postponed twice and nobody knows if the uncommunicative Kabila plans to finally step aside or stand once again for an illegitimate re-election.

Bemba will ‘bring the solution’

Bemba’s unforeseen return just months before the country is expected to go to the polls on December 23 has changed the game and in the DR Congo, it could be a very bloody game indeed.

The last time he stood for election in 2006, it ended in deadly violence, with Bemba forced to take refuge in the South African embassy in Kinshasa before fleeing to Europe.

With his latest triumphant return to the DR Congo -- where he was greeted by tens of thousands of rapturous supporters chanting “Bemba for president” outside the MLC headquarters on Wednesday -- the former Congolese warlord-politician has reinvigorated the country’s opposition.

"The Congolese people have waited for this moment for a long time," Toussaint Bodongo, an MLC member, told reporters in Kinshasa. "Bemba will maybe bring the solution that we need to Congo."

From an internationally reviled warlord convicted of war crimes to an exonerated hero who could save his impoverished nation is an unlikely journey. But then Jean-Pierre Bemba has had an unusual life.

Opulent but difficult childhood

The son of Bemba Saolona, a successful Congolese businessman, Bemba had a luxurious but difficult childhood.

His father was a close confidant to Mobutu Sese Seko -- the former dictator of what was then Zaire – and had a knack for making money. But the young Bemba had a difficult relationship with his wealthy, overpowering father.

In his autobiography, "The Choice of Freedom," Bemba described the pain of losing his mother at a young age and being subject to the capriciousness of his stepmothers.

After a childhood divided between Belgium and the lavish family home in Gbadolite in the western Congolese province of Equateur, Bemba studied economics at the Institut Catholique des Hautes Études Commerciales before working in telecommunications.

He returned to what was then Zaire in the 1990s and was hired by Mobutu as his personal assistant.

Post-election violence and exile

Following Mobutu’s death in 1997, Bemba’s father supported the current president’s father, Laurent Kabila, who succeeded the longstanding Zairean dictator.

Bemba himself criticised his father’s support for Laurent Kabila and when war broke out after Mobutu’s death, the young Bemba sought Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni’s backing to launch his MLC rebel movement.  

Following the end of the war, Bemba – as the head of a powerful militia – was offered the post of vice president in an interim government led by Joseph Kabila.

The two were not destined to share power though. When Bemba announced his candidacy in the 2006 presidential election, his slogan, “One Hundred Percent Congolese” was widely viewed as a dig against Kabila, who is widely rumoured to be Tanzanian and spent much of his childhood outside the Congo.

The 2006 election marked a milestone in Bemba’s life, one that did not see the MLC chief – who is frequently described as imperious – behaving his best.

Following Kabila’s victory in the runoff vote, Bemba refused to disarm his MLC militia. As clashes between the MLC and Congolese security forces broke out in the capital, Bemba fled to Europe, where he was arrested after his arch foe, Kabila, referred the CAR case to the ICC.

It was widely seen as a move by Kabila to get Bemba out of the way. With his shock return home this week, the DR Congo is set for yet another chapter in the country’s history. Whether it will be brutal or peaceful will depend, as it did more than a decade ago, on how Kabila and Bemba behave.

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