/ 24 June 2016

Jean-Pierre Bemba: From DRC vice-president to war criminal

Supporters of Jean-Pierre Bemba shout slogans in front of a line of riot police
Supporters of Jean-Pierre Bemba shout slogans in front of a line of riot police

Once a towering figure in business and politics, Jean-Pierre Bemba, a former vice-president of the Democratic Republic of Congo, was jailed for 18 years this week for “cruel” rapes and murders in neighbouring Central African Republic.

Bemba, a once-feared warlord now aged 55, was sentenced after being found guilty in March by the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague.

Bemba’s case was the first before the ICC to focus on sexual violence as a weapon of war and the first to underline a military commander’s responsibility for the conduct of troops under his control.

Young Bemba was schooled in Belgium, the former colonial power in the Congo, and went on to take over family businesses, using his popularity in the capital Kinshasa to build on his wealth and expand into sectors such as mobile phones, air freight and television. A former business associate described the heavy-set Bemba, an imposing 1.9m-tall, as “too impulsive, too authoritarian as a boss. The social side was not his strong suit.”

Even so, nine years after going into exile Bemba continues to enjoy support in Kinshasa, especially among members of his former Congolese Liberation Movement (MLC) militia, now a political party. “I feel bitter towards the ICC,” MLC member Daddy Kondo said after the verdict, accusing the court of “neocolonialism”. Another MLC member, Jean Faustin Isenge, dubbed the verdict and sentence “shameful” and added: “I no longer believe in this court.”

MLC official and lawmaker Delly Sesanga, who ran Bemba’s office while he was vice-president, labelled the man “chairman” as well as a “miniature Mobutu” – an intelligent leader, albeit with an impulsive side, which “can lead to mistakes”.

Bemba left Kinshasa in 1997 when the late rebel leader Laurent-Désiré Kabila, father of current President Joseph Kabila, overthrew Mobutu Sese Seko and gave the country its current name. A 1998-2003 war drew foreign armies on rival sides into the vast central African nation, which has extensive reserves of mineral wealth, including cobalt and titanium.

Bemba became leader of the MLC rebels, a 1 500-strong force backed by neighbouring Uganda that was opposed to the Kabila regime. Bemba has spoken with pride of his years in the bush, where his men controlled Equateur province and the border region with the Central African Republic.

Bemba sent his fighters into the CAR in October 2002 to help put down an attempted coup against then-president Ange-Félix Patassé, sparking a months-long campaign of horrific abuses by MLC troops against the civilian population.

After the Congolese war ended in 2003, Bemba laid down his arms and was awarded one of four vice-presidential posts shared among wartime rivals in a transitional government. In 2006, he lost a presidential run-off against young soldier Joseph Kabila, who had been rushed to power by politicians after the 2001 assassination of his father.

After the poll defeat, Bemba vowed to lead the opposition and was elected to the Senate. He refused, however, to let his militia be integrated into the ranks of the regular army, insisting he needed the MLC to ensure his own safety. In March 2007 an armed stand-off erupted into violence in Kinshasa, claiming at least 300 lives, according to the United Nations.

Bemba left Kinshasa escorted by UN armoured vehicles on April 11 2007. Until his arrest in Brussels in May 2008 on an ICC warrant, Bemba lived between Portugal and Belgium in what he called “forced exile”, insisting he would return home to take up an opposition role.

Bemba denied guilt throughout a trial that began in 2010 and his lawyers said this week that he would appeal the verdict. – AFP