Jean-Pierre Bemba: Set to shake up DRC politics
The recently acquitted former DRC vice president discusses 10 years in captivity, upcoming elections and Congo’s future.
The landmark conviction of Jean-Pierre Bemba for war crimes and crimes against humanity was overturned by panels of judges at the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague last month. A majority ruling saw Bemba acquitted of all charges against him.
The former rebel leader and vice president of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) has spent nearly a decade in custody in The Hague.
I have nothing to fear ... my conscience's clean and the truth has been said. Justice has been served.
He was sentenced to 18 years in prison after sending his militia to the Central African Republic (CAR) to help put down a coup attempt, where they conducted a reign of terror. A rampage of looting and killing of civilians followed, including the mass rape of hundreds of women.
But a majority of judges ruled on his appeal that he could not be held responsible for the actions of his fighters. His lawyers argued successfully his fighters were no longer under his command after they crossed the international border – an argument Bemba has maintained throughout his trials and incarceration.
“I have a lot of sympathy for all the victims … I have a lot of sympathy for people in Central Africa … I’m very sad and I support them in their pain,” Bemba tells Al Jazeera. “But I have been acquitted by a professional judge, an experienced judge, an honest judge and that is all. Justice has been served.”
His militia, known as the Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC), has now been transformed into a political party opposing the rule of President Joseph Kabila.
will not come back … I never hear any action from the government today just to find a solution to bring the refugees back to the Congo … it’s a problem of political will. “]
The electoral commission (CENI) has announced that a delayed election is due to take place in December.
The election was due at the end of 2016, Joseph Kabila’s end of term. In spite of this, Kabila has maintained his position and refuses, to date, to announce the presidential majority candidate who would run for his party. This has stoked concern that Kabila is seeking to change the constitution in order to run again or further delay the elections.
“I never heard from himself [Kabila] that he will hold elections, but I have also never heard that he will not hold elections … I hope that he will respect the constitution,” says Bemba.
Further to this, the current government has attempted to delegitimise Bemba’s registration as a presidential candidate. However, the former vice president seems non-plussed by the actions being taken against him back home.
“You shouldn’t be surprised that the government in place has said that I am not able [to register as a candidate],” responds Bemba to the claims. “Those people in the majority of the government are not the right people, [they are not] able to talk about this.”
Asked about his time in captivity, Bemba says, “these 10 years [in prison] helped me to think deeply about not just myself but about my country. You are not the same person after 10 years. Congo has changed, Africa has changed … the world has changed. I wrote a vision for Congo that I will soon give to the public.”
Talking about Kabila and whether there should be any charges against him, Bemba says “he has immunity as the former president. He is protected by the constitution.”
“President Kabila is an adversary in politics. The most important to me is what the people of Congo want. If I am doing politics, it’s to solve the problems for the people of Congo … Of course, I understand that some people maybe worry about it but they should not. I am just someone trying to find solutions for his country and for the people of his country.”
Jean-Pierre Bemba talks to Al Jazeera in Belgium, the country which was the former colonial ruler in the DRC. Since it gained independence in 1960 there has never been a peaceful transfer of power. It’s from here Bemba will leave this week to return to his homeland and register as a candidate in the presidential elections.
Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.