The Democratic Republic of Congo on Tuesday prepared for a two-week period for candidates to register their bids for key elections as former vice president and ex-warlord Jean-Pierre Bemba took centre-stage.
As the clock ticked toward the midnight start of registration, Bemba declared he would return home next week to file his bid for the presidency — the first opposition candidate abroad to do so.
Bemba, 55, a former warlord and businessman, was jailed at the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague before an 18-year war crimes conviction was overturned on appeal in June.
He has been formally named as his party’s candidate in the vote on December 23, while the Kinshasa government has authorised him to apply for a diplomatic passport.
“I intend to arrive in Kinshasa on the morning of August 1,” Bemba said in Brussels on Tuesday after his party, the Movement for the Liberation of the Congo (MLC), made the announcement the previous evening.
“I am returning for family reasons, to see where my father is buried and to file my candidacy candidacy for the presidential elections,” Bemba told a press conference.
He said would be arriving aboard a private plane, and that the Congolese authorities and the United Nations, which has a mission in the DRC, had been informed of his plans.
“My party has written to… the interior ministry to take measures to ensure there is no trouble,” he said, adding that “there is no meeting scheduled for the moment” with party activists.
Bemba, a former rival to President Joseph Kabila, left the country in 2007 after a violent armed standoff between his militia and the security forces.
He was then arrested in Europe on an ICC warrant for war crimes committed by his men in Central African Republic.
But he insisted that his intentions were peaceful.
“My return is not an act of vengeance, there is no idea of bitterness (or) vengeance,” he said.
Bemba’s declared return adds a new and potent factor of uncertainty into what is already a tense election in one of the most volatile countries in Africa.
Candidates must submit their applications to stand by August 8.
The DRC has never known a peaceful transition of power since it gained independence from Belgium in 1960 — and some experts fear that the December 23 elections may provide the trigger for a bloody conflict.
Kabila, 47, has has been at the helm since 2001, presiding over a vast mineral-rich country with a reputation for corruption, inequality and unrest.
He was scheduled to stand down at the end of 2016 after his second elected term, technically the last permitted under the constitution.
But he has stayed in office, invoking a constitutional clause enabling him to stay in power until a successor is elected.
He has kept everyone guessing about whether he will run again, step down or take some other path that could enable him to stay in the political forefront.
Dozens have died in anti-Kabila protests. The influential Roman Catholic Church has called for three days of popular mobilisation on August 12-14 should Kabila stand again.
The five main opposition parties on Monday issued a statement to call for “free, democratic and transparent” elections.
But they insisted that Kabila should not take part and the elections should take place without electronic voting machines, which they consider a tool for rigging the results.
“Kabila can no longer stand again, the constitution is there — if it is not respected, it’s a disaster for the country,” Bemba said in Brussels.
“I am campaigning for a single opposition candidacy,” he said, adding, this would “not necessarily be me.”
The opposition forces include the Union for Democracy and Social Progress (UPDS), which last year lost its veteran leader and onetime Prime Minister Etienne Tshisekedi, who died at the age of 84. His son Felix now heads the party.
Another figure with the presidency in his sights is Moise Katumbi, the ex-governor of the southeastern Katanga province, who went into self-imposed exile in 2016 after falling out with his buddy Kabila.
He “will return in the next few days to file his candidacy,” his lawyer in Paris, Olivier Kamitatu, said on Tuesday.
Bemba faces a ruling in a separate ICC case about bribing witnesses. Legal experts, however, believe he would be freed definitively in light of the decade he has already spent behind bars.