Jean-Pierre Bemba was welcomed home to the Congo this week by tens of thousands of cheering citizens. Mr Bemba, recently freed after a 2016 conviction for war crimes and crimes against humanity by the ICC, returned home to file his candidacy for President. The crowd was the DRC’s largest politically-related gathering since 2016 crackdowns on protests.
Bemba and the incumbent President Joseph Kabila have a history of tense political competition. Bemba served as vice-president under Kabila from 2003 as part of a peace deal to end a civil war, before standing for the presidency in 2006 as a challenger. He lost the run-off, but claimed that the results were rigged. The election was marred by political violence, including an attempt on Bemba’s life by the Presidential Guard between the primary and run-off elections. The Supreme Court of the DRC rejected the charges of electoral fraud brought by Bemba against the government, and (despite protesting the Court’s decision) Bemba ran for and won a Senate seat in the January 2007 election. However, a further attempt on Bemba’s life caused political turmoil and violence to resume, and Bemba eventually fled the country in April following accusations of treason. He was arrested near Brussels in 2008, and remained in ICC custody until his release in June.
The ICC convicted Bemba of two counts of war crimes and three counts of crimes against humanity in 2016, due to his role commanding a militia (the Movement for the Liberation of the Congo) that committed rape, torture and mass murder in the Congo and the Central African Republic between 2002 and 2003. His conviction was overturned on appeal earlier this year. A conviction for bribing witnesses in his main trial is still under review (and may potentially impede his eligibility to run for office).
Bemba’s conviction in 2016 was hailed by human rights organisations as a step forward in international justice, both as the first time a commander was convicted for actions committed by troops under their command and as the first time rape was successfully prosecuted as a war crime. Human rights organisations across the world met his acquittal following appeal with disappointment.
President Kabila has already twice postponed elections since 2016, and is constitutionally required to step down from his position. However, he has given little indication of doing so and has not ruled out running again. Kabila’s stranglehold on power has on several occasions been the subject of protests, many of which have been violently suppressed by security forces.
After being out of the country for 11 years – and spending most of this time in custody – Bemba’s return represents a significant challenge to Kabila and complicates an already fragile political situation. Kabila has dominated politics in the Congo for almost two decades and is a deeply divisive figure. However, Bemba’s recent imprisonment in The Hague and lingering questions over his trial and conviction for bribery makes him a problematic challenger, despite his continuing popularity. Considering the tensions between Kabila and Bemba (as well as the compromised nature of other candidates, some of whom also face potential criminal prosecution) and the history of political violence in the Congo, there is widespread concern that the current election process may devolve into violence.
Even if Kabila were to step aside and throw his support behind a potential successor, the election is likely to be tense and a descent into political chaos is not an unlikely outcome. Questions over Kabila’s intentions, Bemba’s eligibility and recent past, and the flaws of other potential candidates, create a political climate balanced on a knife-edge between democracy and violence. Such concerns are only amplified by the fact that the country has not had a peaceful transfer of power since it gained independence from Belgium in 1960. Due to the propensity for political violence in the Congo to spread to surrounding countries and impact the whole central African region, the international community should watch closely and act to stabilise any developing situation early to ensure the mass violence of previous years does not become a reality once again.
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