Bemba: former warlord with eyes on presidency

Jean-Pierre Bemba, greeted on Wednesday by tens of thousands of people on his return to Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), is a former businessman and warlord who intends to return to politics after being convicted then acquitted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for war crimes.

Bemba, who became vice president of an interim government from 2003 to 2006, was born on November 4, 1962 in Bogada in the northwest Equateur province of what is now DRC.

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Bemba's father was a rich businessman close to dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, who ruled from 1965 until he was ousted in 1997, a period during which he named Zaire.

Young Bemba was schooled in Belgium, the former colonial power, and went on to take over family businesses, using his popularity in the capital Kinshasa to build on his wealth and expand into sectors such as mobile phones, air freight and television.

Miniature Mobutu

Bemba has been nicknamed "Chairman" and "Miniature Mobutu" for his headstrong character. Long-time associate Delly Sesanga described him as an intelligent leader albeit with an impulsive trait which "can lead to mistakes."

The heavy-set Bemba, an imposing 1.90m tall, left Kinshasa in 1997 when the late rebel leader Laurent Desire Kabila, father of current President Joseph Kabila, overthrew Mobutu and gave the country its current name.

A 1998-2003 war drew foreign armies on rival sides into the vast central African nation which has fabulous mineral wealth.

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.

Pride in bush years

Bemba has spoken with pride of his years in the bush, where his men controlled Equateur province and the border region with the Central African Republic.

Bemba sent his fighters into Central African Republic in October 2002 to help put down an attempted coup against then president Ange-Felix Patasse, sparking a months-long campaign of horrific abuses by MLC troops against the civilian population.

After the Congolese war ended in 2003, Bemba laid down his arms and was awarded one of four vice-presidential posts shared out among wartime rivals in a transitional government.

In 2006 he lost a presidential run-off against the young Kabila, who had been rushed to power by politicians after the 2001 assassination of his father.

Bemba vowed to lead the opposition and was elected to the national Senate.

However, he refused to let his militia be integrated into the ranks of the regular army, insisting he needed the MLC to ensure his own safety.

In March 2007 an armed stand-off erupted into violence in Kinshasa, claiming at least 300 lives, according to the UN.

As the government brought charges and the courts began to move against Bemba, he left the country, ostensibly to seek medical treatment in Portugal, driving out of Kinshasa escorted by UN armoured vehicles on April 11, 2007.

Facing the court

Until his arrest in Brussels in 2008 on an ICC warrant over the MLC's abuses, Bemba lived between Portugal and Belgium in what he called "forced exile", insisting he would yet return home to take up an opposition role.

Bemba denied guilt throughout his ICC trial which began in 2010.

He was sentenced in 2016 to 18 years in prison for crimes against humanity and war crimes.

The tribunal said Bemba had failed to deter rapes, killings and looting by his private army in 2002 and 2003 in Central African Republic.

But on June 8 this year the ICC acquitted Bemba on appeal, reversing the conviction saying he could not be held criminally liable for crimes that had been committed by his troops and releasing him four days later.

Now back in Kinshasa after 11 years in exile, Bemba has the presidential election on December 23 in his sights.

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