Jean-Pierre Bemba: from statesman to war crimes suspect

20th November 2010, Comments 0 comments

One-time businessman and rebel turned vice-president of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Jean-Pierre Bemba, 48, has seen his fortunes reversed since losing presidential elections in 2006.

Due to appear before the International Court of Justice Monday on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity, Bemba will be tried for atrocities allegedly committed by his Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC) in the Central African Republic (CAR) from October 2002 to March 2003.

Born on November 4, 1962 in Bogada, in the north-west Equateur region of what is now DR Congo, Bemba was the son of a rich businessman close to the country's former dictator Mobutu Sese Seko.

He was educated in Belgium and when he took over the family businesses he expanded into different areas including mobile telephones, air freight and television.

But he quit Kinshasa in 1997 when rebel Laurent Desire Kabila, the father of the current president Joseph Kabila, overthrew Mobutu, subsequently changing the name of the country from Zaire to the Democratic Republic of Congo.

During the 1998-2003 war in DR Congo, Bemba led the MLC, a rebel force backed by Uganda whose stated aim was to overthrow Kabila.

Bemba subsequently spoke with pride of his years in the bush, where his forces controlled the Equateur region and therefore the border with the CAR.

CAR President Ange-Felix Patasse asked Bemba to bring his forces into the country to put down a coup attempt by General Francois Bozize, resulting in the charges now before the ICC.

After his intervention in CAR, and with the end of the war in DR Congo, Bemba won one of the four vice-presidential posts at the heart of the country's transitional government.

In 2006, he seemed by far the most serious adversary to Joseph Kabila, who in 2001 had taken power after the assassination of his father.

But after an election campaign scarred by political violence, Kabila defeated him in the second round of the 2006 presidential elections.

Bemba had vowed to lead the opposition against Kabila -- and with a seat in the senate, he was well placed to do so.

But he refused to see his own men integrated into the ranks of the army, insisting that he needed them to ensure his own safety.

In March 2007, the resulting stand-off erupted into violence in Kinshasa. At least 300 people were killed, the UN estimated.

The government accused him of maintaining a private militia and the courts began to move against him. Bemba judged it best to quit the country, saying he was seeking medical treatment in Portugal.

He left Kinshasa under the escort of UN armoured cars on the night of April 11, 2007, just weeks after his forces had come off worst in the clashes with government troops.

Until his arrest in Brussels in May, 2008, under an ICC international arrest warrant, Bemba lived between Portugal and Belgium in what he called "forced exile", while insisting that he intended to return home to to take up an opposition role.

For the moment at least, the ICC trial has put paid to that plan.

Bemba's followers have denounced the ICC's move as politically motivated.

© 2010 AFP

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