Former Democratic Republic of the Congo warlord Jean-Pierre Bemba on Tuesday denounced a long-delayed December presidential election as a “parody” after he was banned from contesting and accused President Joseph Kabila of trying to hand pick a successor by eliminating serious rivals.
Bemba was one of six presidential hopefuls who was excluded by the election commission from the December 23 vote.
He appealed the decision but the Constitutional Court late on Monday upheld the ban due to his conviction by the International Criminal Court for bribing witnesses at his war crimes trial.
“The fact that one is choosing opponents… is very worrying,” Bemba told France 24 television, adding that the restive nation would witness “a parody of an election”.
“The Constitutional Court follows the government’s orders … all this is to ensure that the government’s candidate does not have a serious challenger,” he said.
The former Belgian colony has not seen a peaceful transition of power since 1960.
Kabila, who has held office since 2001, has finally said he will not run again after keeping silent on the issue for months, fuelling tension and deadly unrest in the volatile nation. Kabila’s second and final term ended two years ago and he has named his former interior minister Ramazani Shadary as his chosen successor.
Bemba had declared his candidacy after making a triumphant return home from Belgium, with tens of thousands of supporters turning out to greet him after the International Criminal Court based in The Hague acquitted him of war crimes charges.
In June, a sharply divided five-judge International Criminal Court bench overturned Bemba’s 2016 conviction and 18-year jail term for war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by his troops in the neighbouring Central African Republic in 2003.
However, Bemba and five co-accused were convicted on appeal of bribery, corruption and coaching 14 defence witnesses in his main trial.
Later this month, the international court will sentence the former vice president for bribing witnesses. Kabila who took over in 2001 after his father, Laurent-Desire Kabila, was assassinated by a bodyguard, is an arch-foe of Bemba. His tenure over the vast mineral-rich country has been marked by allegations of corruption, inequality and unrest.
Bemba lost presidential elections to Kabila in 2006 and was later accused of treason when his bodyguards clashed with the army in Kinshasa.
In 2007, he fled to Belgium, where he had spent part of his youth.
He was then arrested in Europe on an International Criminal Court warrant for war crimes committed by his private army in the Central African Republic from 2002-3, when its then-president Ange-Felix Patasse sought his help to repel a coup attempt.
Bemba, who became vice president of an interim government from 2003 to 2006, was born on November 4, 1962 at Bogada in the northwest Equateur province.
His father was a rich businessman close to dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, who ruled from 1965 until he was ousted in 1997.
He left the country in 1997 after Laurent-Desire ousted Mobutu. A war followed a year later and lasted till 2003 and drew foreign support on rival sides.
Bemba became leader of the Congolese Liberation Movement (MLC) rebels, a 1 500-strong force backed by neighbouring Uganda and opposed to the Kabila regime.
The MLC, now a political party, on Tuesday urged the International Criminal Court to be more “precise” on its ruling, saying Bemba had been unfairly banned by the Constitutional Court. It also called an emergency meeting to review the situation.
“The final word does not rest with the Constitutional Court but with the Congolese people,” said Jean-Jacques Ntula, a resident of Mbandaka, the main city in Equateur province, a Bemba stronghold.
After the Congolese war ended, Bemba laid down his arms and was awarded one of four vice-presidential posts shared out among war-time rivals in a transitional government. — AP