Why the DRC’s election hopes currently pin on a former ‘warlord’

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The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has been impatiently waiting for an election since President Joseph Kabila’s second term ended in December 2016. Despite the country’s constitution limiting leaders to a maximum of two terms in charge, Kabila has refused to step down until a new leader is elected. The problem is the electoral commission has repeatedly pushed back elections citing security, logistical and financial concerns at various stages over the past two years.

Now, the DRC is scheduled to hold elections in December 2018, almost exactly two years after Kabila was supposed to step aside.

However, the UN mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has warned the country still isn’t ready to hold credible elections. Doubt is everpresent among the country’s political opposition who suspect Kabila still intends to run for a third term – concern which is only amplified by the president’s unwillingness to clarify his intentions ahead of the polls scheduled for December.

More importantly, there’s a distinct lack of viable alternatives to Kabila ready to campaign in the upcoming election run, assuming it even goes ahead. At least, this was until former vice president and rebel leader Jean-Pierre Bemba returned to the DRC this week, welcomed by tens of thousands of supporters desperate for political change.

With the DRC’s fractured opposition failing to provide a single credible candidate, the country’s election hopes are currently pinned on a man who has spent 10 years in Hague prison while being convicted of war crimes and crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court (ICC).

Jean-Pierre Bemba returns to the DRC

Jean-Pierre Bemba returns to the DRC as an unlikely hero after his convictions under the ICC were successfully overturned. Welcomed by tens of thousands lining the streets upon his arrival, Bemba’s status as an icon of hope for the country is clear. The crowds didn’t gather to celebrate the return of a man wrongly accused and convicted of war crimes; they were there to cheer for the only viable alternative to the president they desperately want to replace.

While Bemba has his political supporters, much of the passion surrounding his return highlights the desire of Kabila’s opponents. For many in the DRC, it doesn’t matter who replaces him as long as someone does. Much of the country is desperate for change and any outcome that doesn’t see Kabila hold onto power will be a breakthrough for DRC politics.

They don’t need a white knight with a flawless reputation; they simply need someone strong enough to put up a political fight.

How do people in the DRC feel about Jean-Pierre Bemba?

Jean-Pierre Bemba was arrested in Belgium in 2008 after being forced out of the DRC, following an unsuccessful campaign against Kabila in 2006. He was convicted by the ICC on five counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by his troops during a five-month campaign in the Central African Republic (CAR) in 2002.

It was the first time the ICC convicted someone for using sexual violence as a weapon and his 18 year sentence was the longest in the court’s history.

However, his convictions were overturned in May after a long legal battle against the initial rulings. His defence was based around the fact that he shouldn’t be punished for acts committed by his troops while the prosecution maintained that the responsibility should fall upon him as their leader.

Back in the DRC, the moral debate over Bemba’s conduct has been muted in comparison to the political debate over the credibility of his conviction – particularly the fact he was the only person prosecuted while CAR President Patassé, who invited the Congolese militia to help squash a revolt, was left untouched.

Generally speaking, the popular opinion in the DRC over Bemba seems to be that, if he was guilty of any wrongdoing, he’s already served his time. On a more political basis, the common opinion is that his country needs him and his credibility is no worse than any of the other opposition leaders who have failed to position themselves as genuine candidates.

The question of eligibility remains

Bemba has until August 8 to file for candidacy in this year’s election but his eligibility remains a doubt. While his convictions of war crimes have all been overturned he was also convicted of witness tampering during his trial and his appeal to have this conviction overturned is ongoing.

The DRC’s ruling coalition argues this disqualifies him from running in the election and his ongoing court battle could prevent him from being in the DRC during crucial parts of the election campaign.

Disqualifying Bemba from running could be a risky move, though. He still has strong support in the West where armed violence followed his 2006 loss to Kabila. Instability is one of the biggest threats to the country’s election prospects and the ruling coalition can’t ignore the risk of conflict if Bemba is preventing from running.

In a country where he’s the only alternative to an unpopular Kabila, a lot of hope is riding on Bemba and desperation is a dangerous thing in the DRC.

Featured image: Public domain.

About Aaron Brooks

Aaron Brooks is a UK journalist who wants to cut out the international agendas in news. Spending his early years in both England and Northern Ireland he saw the difference between reality and media coverage at an early age. After graduating from the University of Chester with a BA in journalism, his travels revealed just how large the gap between news and the real world can be. As Editor-in-Chief at East Africa Monitor, it’s his job to provide a balanced view of what’s going on in the region for English-speaking audiences.