PARIS – A top Congo opposition leader who fled abroad last year vowed Friday to return home soon to seek the presidency in long-delayed elections, while a group of former African leaders warned of an "acute political crisis" in the troubled country.
Moise Katumbi's lawyer said they would seek United Nations protection for the opposition leader when he returns to Congo. Katumbi fled the Central African nation amid legal troubles that he said were trumped-up to stop him from challenging longtime President Joseph Kabila.
"I cannot wait," Katumbi told reporters in Paris. "I am returning to prepare my campaign because I am a candidate. ... They don't have the right to block me." He did not give a date for his return.
With little sign that presidential elections will be held this year as agreed to under a political deal reached in December, former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and several former African leaders are warning of an "acute political crisis" in Congo.
The statement by Annan and nine former presidents says the political deal calling for elections this year — and without Kabila as a candidate — is not being respected.
The statement says Congo's future "is in grave danger" and that the crisis threatens both the vast, mineral-rich Central African country and the continent at large.
Deadly protests broke out in December as Kabila reached the end of his mandate. The opposition has accused the government of delaying elections to keep him in power. The government has said vote preparations need more time.
"Today Congo is the poorest country of the planet and the richest at the same time. I want to transform our country and stop the chaos that President Kabila is causing in our country," Katumbi said.
His French lawyer Eric Dupond-Moretti said Congolese authorities have been asked to assure Katumbi's security, "to not arrest him and to allow him to participate in presidential elections." He added he would ask U.N. peacekeepers in Congo for protection as well "so that nothing unfortunate happens to him, if you know what I mean."
Katumbi was sentenced to three years in prison in absentia, along with a $1 million fine, on allegations he falsely acquired a building. He fled abroad as prosecutors announced their intent to try him on charges of hiring mercenaries, which he denied.
Kabila insists that Katumbi has to face justice. The president has shrugged off the possibility that the Western-backed Katumbi could rally millions of people to protest against him.
"And then, what next? If you think that somebody is above the law because he has 1 or 2 million people following him, we would not have a lawful country," Kabila was quoted this month as saying to Germany's Der Spiegel. "There is no challenge and I don't need a strategy. The Congolese people will decide about the future of this country."