WATERLOO, Belgium – Fresh from acquittal of war crimes at the International Criminal Court, former Congolese Vice President Jean-Pierre Bemba is returning to his country on Wednesday to take part in a long-delayed, long-divisive presidential election.
In an interview with The Associated Press on Saturday, Bemba said "it will be a disaster for Congo" if President Joseph Kabila stays on past the election that is now set for December. Kabila's mandate ran out in late 2016 but his government has repeatedly put off the vote, blaming complications in organizing it.
While the international community's patience frays — the United States on Thursday warned Kabila that "the time for posturing is over" — Congo's president has remained quiet on his role in the upcoming election and declared that his country is rejecting foreign meddling and funding the vote itself.
Bemba's return will shake up Congo's political landscape as the opposition tries to settle on a challenger who can win the presidency of one of Africa's most turbulent nations. Demonstrations over the election delay have turned deadly, and Pope Francis and others appealed for calm after police in January used tear gas to disperse ambassadors and others at a mass at Kinshasa's Catholic cathedral to honor protesters killed.
Just weeks ago, few had suspected Bemba would be in a position to compete with Kabila.
In a surprising ruling in June, appeals judges with the ICC overturned Bemba's convictions for murder, rape and pillaging committed by his forces, known as the Movement for the Liberation of Congo, in neighboring Central African Republic in 2002 and 2003.
It was a serious setback to ICC prosecutors in the global court's first trial to focus largely on sexual violence and on command responsibility — the legal principle that a commanding officer can be held responsible for crimes committed by his or her troops.
Bemba, who was sentenced in 2016 to 18 years in prison, has maintained his innocence. He still awaits a final sentencing at the ICC in another case in which he was convicted of interfering with witnesses.
When asked by the AP whether he felt he should dive into Congo's politics while still involved in the case, Bemba replied: "Why not? There are no restrictions." He said he could not discuss the pending case.
He said Congo's government has issued him a diplomatic passport as he remains a senator, and upon arrival in Kinshasa he will register as a candidate. "There will be no provocation," he said, expecting a quiet reception.
Bemba said he wants Congo's opposition to rally around a single challenger to Kabila and will "give all my support" if that challenger isn't him.
He used the language of a candidate, however, as he spoke passionately of his vision for a country that is blessed with trillions of dollars of mineral wealth but ravaged by dozens of armed groups fighting over control of it.
"People deserve to have part of this wealth," Bemba said, adding that he soon would present a 200-page program proposing a badly needed upgrade to the vast nation's infrastructure including roads, hospitals, airports and schools.
He warned that security must come first to enable such investment, saying the situation is worse than it was a decade ago: "I really regret what's happening. ... We cannot abandon the country."
Despite rumblings from Congo's ruling party about his abrupt plunge into domestic politics after years entangled in a war crimes case, Bemba projected optimism for his return: "We will live in peace tomorrow if I am there."
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