Could Jean-Pierre Bemba walk free? What would the consequences be for Congolese politics? The answers to these questions are unpredictable, but could dramatically impact Kabila’s succession battle, which is becoming increasingly tense.
Jean-Pierre Bemba was arrested in May 2008 under a warrant from the International Criminal Court for crimes committed by his troops in the Central African Republic in 2002. The trial has been percolating through the ICC system now for over four years (it didn’t begin until November 2010), and closing arguments took place in November of last year. Court watchers now expect a verdict by June, although its been pushed back numerous times.
It is difficult to predict the verdict, but based on the quality of the evidence that they have seen or heard of, some close to the court feel that Bemba stands a good chance of being released. But even then, there are several different scenarios: he could be found guilty and released after time served––he has already been in jail for seven years––or be found innocent. While in the mind of many in the west of the country, Bemba’s charges were trumped up regardless, there are far-reaching implications of a guilty verdict. Congo’s constitution does not allow individuals guilty of war crimes to run for office.
Even if Bemba is released, many questions would remain:
A second, far minor charge has been brought against him, his lawyer, and other MLC members (Fidèle Babala, Aimé Kilolo, Jean-Jacques Mangenda, and Narcisse Arido) for interfering with witnesses. That trial could prolong Bemba’s dealings with the ICC, although all the other accused in that case have seen set free pending trial.
Would Kabila allow Bemba to return? After all, Bemba had already fled into a sort of exile in Portugal when he was arrested, following deadly battles between his troops and the national army in downtown Kinshasa in March 2007. Given Bemba’s popularity, Kabila might try to prevent his return.
How popular is Bemba? There has not been any national polling in the Congo in recent years. In 2006, Bemba won 42% of the vote in the second round of polling, winning big in the center and the west of the country. Given the recent collapse of the UDPS opposition party, the illness of its leader Etienne Tshisekedi, and the lack of another leader who can galvanize national opinion, Bemba would stand a good chance of scoring high in the polls again, even though his MLC party has disintegrated over the years.
Even if Bemba cannot run, he could throw his weight behind another candidate. Sources close to Moise Katumbi, the governor of Katanga, say that the two have been in touch. Katumbi, who is still in Kabila’s coalition but has clearly expressed his presidential ambitions, is a Swahili speaker from Katanga. Given that the country has been ruled by a Katangan president for the past eighteen years, the support of a westerner like Bemba could be a significant boost to Katumbi.