In the DRC, ex-warlord Jean-Pierre Bemba becomes defense minister

Eight months before the scheduled date of the presidential election in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the head of state, Félix Tshisekedi, candidate for his succession, is getting ready for battle

In the DRC, ex-warlord Jean-Pierre Bemba becomes defense minister

Eight months before the scheduled date of the presidential election in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the head of state, Félix Tshisekedi, candidate for his succession, is getting ready for battle. The ministerial reshuffle announced on the night of March 23 to 24 can be read through this electoral prism. Admittedly, Jean-Michel Sama Lukonde remains Prime Minister. But the new team is enriched by the return to the front of the stage of several heavyweights of Congolese politics with tumultuous careers.

So it is with the new Minister of Defence, known to everyone in the DRC but whose appointment surprised many people. Because Jean-Pierre Bemba was dying not so long ago. “Can we say that the page of a politician is definitely turned? I know something about it…”, he explained allusively in an interview granted, in 2022, to French television France 24. Four years earlier, he was still going around in circles in a cell of the International Criminal Court (ICC) of the Hague where he will have spent ten years (2008-2018) of his life. Until international judges acquit him on appeal.

This son of Jeannot Bemba Saolona, ​​a powerful Congolese businessman who was the boss of DRC bosses, had been sentenced at first instance by the ICC to eighteen years' imprisonment for "war crimes" and " crimes against humanity" committed by his troops in the Central African Republic in 2002. At the time, Jean-Pierre Bemba was at the head of a politico-military organization, the Mouvement de liberation du Congo (MLC), supported and armed by Uganda. He was then fighting Congolese President Laurent-Désiré Kabila (1997-2001), controlling part of the north of the country and encroaching on the east.

"I learned to be more patient"

When Joseph Kabila took over from his father in 2001, Jean-Pierre Bemba swapped his warlord cap for a costume of vice-president of the Republic in favor of power-sharing negotiations. But Kabila and Bemba hate each other. In 2006, their rivalry at the ballot box turns in favor of Joseph Kabila, in the crackle of weapons. Jean-Pierre Bemba goes into exile. Indicted by the ICC, he was arrested.

When he returned home in 2018, this political animal tried to make up for lost time. In the process, he thus announced his presidential candidacy scheduled for a few months later. The huge crowd that came to welcome him at N'djili airport confirmed his ambition, but his candidacy was ultimately rejected. "I learned to be more patient, time compels you to it", he said on his release from prison, while recalling his "experience in the management and securing of territories".

First in the opposition, he rallied the majority of Félix Tshisekedi at the end of 2020. A strong ally, this imposing and charismatic man has constantly avoided the light in recent years. Quick to advise the Congolese president, he remains in the shadows but does not hesitate to criticize behind the scenes some of the president's choices, including the management of the crisis in the east.

Here is now Jean-Pierre Bemba facing his responsibilities. For a time, he left doubt about his ambition to compete for the supreme magistracy scheduled for December 20, 2023, but he finally agreed to take on the most difficult file in the country. An "electoral campaign is expensive and the former warlord must replenish a treasure", slips an observer in Kinshasa.

A political risk

Since the new March 23 Movement (M23) offensive in November 2021, the crisis in eastern DRC has been at the heart of national and regional tensions. To try to calm the situation, Bemba can count on his influence on part of the troops and on his reputation as a fine tactician. He also has regional networks, from Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni to Uhuru Kenyatta, the former Kenyan president, mediator in the DRC. But by returning to the front line, Jean-Pierre Bemba is taking a political risk given the magnitude of the task. “His popularity, including in his stronghold of the Equateur region, is not what it used to be,” continues the observer.

This appointment is much less risky for Félix Tshisekedi, who ensures the loyalty of this ally nine months before a presidential election. A vote that will be played in part on the crisis in the east of the country. “Can we say that the page of a politician is definitely turned? Mr. Bemba finds the opportunity to demonstrate that the answer is no.