Jean- Pierre Bemba- Gombo is one of the richest men in all of Africa let alone the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) the country in which he was born. This is hard to believe at first, seeing that the DRC had been classified by the United Nation’s Human Development Index for 2013 as one of the poorest nations in the entire world. How is it he came to accumulate such a vast fortune estimated at millions of dollars US during such an unstable period in the DRC’s history- as the country struggled through two consecutive, devastating wars? How did he manage to create and maintain personal businesses in the eastern and north –western sections of the country while over 5,000,000 million people died- most as result of war- related illnesses such as Malaria, Pneumonia, Diarrhea, and, Malnutrition? Ironically it was because of these wars that Bemba prospered, expanding both his legal and illegal businesses in the north and east while so many others lost everything: their land, their homes, their families.
By the end of the Second War in the Congo Bemba attempted to change his image by serving as a Vice President in the transitional government, a Presidential candidate in the 2006 election, and as a Member of Parliament. But his reputation could not be improved so easily no matter how hard he tried to explain away his past transgressions after moving to Kinshasa. When asked, most villagers in North Kivu Province recalled a very different Jean- Pierre Bemba. The one they remembered was a brutal warlord who used his personal army to: take their tribal lands away by force; kill and rape innocent men, women, and children; seize others’ businesses especially coffee and timber; establish lucrative diamond and hardwood smuggling operations with the countries of Uganda and the Central African Republic; and plunder his country’s natural resources at a time when his service as a patriot was desperately needed.
Ironically, Mr. Bemba was arrested in Brussels by the International Criminal Court (ICC) on May, 2008 charged with two counts of crimes against humanity and three counts of war crimes. But these five counts had nothing at all to do with his horrendous deeds in the DRC rather they were issued as a result of offenses allegedly committed by the Mouvement de Liberation du Congo (MLC) in the Central African Republic from 2002 to 2003 after having been invited there by President Ange- Felix Patasse to quell an attempted coup against him. As the recognized leader of this militia the court held Bemba personally responsible for their actions.
Bemba’s trial at The Hague began on November 22, 2010 and continues on. But the end is in sight as the court recently declared all submission of evidence suspended and ordered both the prosecution and defense teams to file their closing briefs by June 2, 2014. Meanwhile Mr. Bemba had friends and members of his defense team working on an alternate plan -an illegal one that would ensure all of charges against him would be dropped. Eventually the ICC was made aware of this plot and arrested four men suspected of perpetrating crimes against the court. Aime- Kilolo Musamba, lawyer-lead defense council, Jean-Jacques Mangenda- Kabongo, lawyer-case manager, Fidele Babala- Wandu, Member of DRC Parliament and Deputy Secretary of the MLC, Bemba’s militia turned political party, as well as Narcisse Arido, defense witness. Each man including Bemba was charged with presenting false/forged evidence and tampering with witnesses for the prosecution. On April 2, 2014 the trial judges determined that the additional charges of presenting false or forged evidence and tampering with witnesses would be treated as a different case and tried separately.
But who is Jean- Pierre Bemba anyways? Born into a wealthy, political family in Bokata, Nord- Ubangi District, Equateur Province on November 4th, 1962 young Bemba grew up in the palatial estate of the dictator Mobutu Sese Seko mingling with Belgian aristocrats. Bemba’s father, a successful businessman himself, traveled in the same social circles as Mobutu acting as his advisor when needed. It was a small, elite group of wealthy Congolese families who along with Mobutu divided their time between the Congo and Brussels so much so that Bemba’s older sister eventually married Mobutu’s son and Jean- Pierre became quite close to the former dictator as he neared the end of his tenure even serving as his personal assistant in the early 1990’s. After Mobutu had been exiled Bemba‘s father went on to serve Laurent Kabila as his Minister of the Economy and Industry in the newly- formed government of the Democratic Republic of the Congo and then as a senator representing Equateur Province situated in the north-western part of the country while his son did not fare as well. The First War in the Congo would last one year (1996-1997) and as a result Laurent Kabila would capture the capital city of Kinshasa and declare himself President. One year later the Second War in the Congo would erupt when Rwanda and Uganda along with Burundi would invade the DRC after Lauren Kabila refused to keep his promises to them -lucrative mining deals in exchange for their military and monetary support during the First War. Plus Rwanda discovered that Kabila had a much closer relationship with the Hutu Interhamwe then he’d admitted.
During the First War in the Congo Jean- Pierre Bemba lost his businesses plus experienced open mistrust and discrimination by Laurent Kabila and the rest of his new cabinet because of his close connection to Mobutu. But during the Second War he rebounded and by the end of the war controlled most of Northeastern Congo as well as the major smuggling route between the DRC and Central African Republic ( CAR). This was due in no small part to Uganda’s help. Bemba gradually created his own militia, the Mouvement de Liberation du Congo (MLC) a local militia composed of Congolese males from the northeastern region. He soon worked out a deal with the Ugandan army: he would help Uganda gather the hardwood from Kisangani and transport it back to Kampala while in return the Ugandan army would supply, arm, and train his men. Under this transaction Bemba’s militia prospered making his force a feared name throughout North Kivu Province while at the same time Bemba began cashing in on local products from diamonds to coffee beans. According to expert witness testimony presented to UN’s National Security Council the Second War in the Congo centered on “trade and money”. The militia that controlled the wealthiest caches of natural resources triumphed over the rest so much so that battles were no longer fought to protect the people but to control the most lucrative diamond, gold, and mineral deposits as well as secure the rights to smuggling routes across the eastern border. Eventually Uganda and Rwanda formally withdrew and the Second War in the Congo came to an end but Bemba and his militia continued their smuggling operations as usual. According to Global Witness (2003-2004) Bemba maintained a lucrative diamond and coffee smuggling ring into the Central African Republic (CAR) using its capital city of Bangui as his base. He smuggled timber into the CAR cut from the Ituri Forest and was paid large operation fees by European timber outfits still operating in the area.
During the Second War Bemba began a deliberate campaign of terror against the local Mbuti Pygmies living in the Congo’s Ituri Forest. In 2003 Sinafore Makelo, an Mbuti pygmy, told the United Nations Indigenous Peoples Forum that during the war Mbuti pygmies were “hunted down and eaten like game animals” by the militias and that none was more deadly than the group known as the “Effaceurs” (erasers). According to Minority Rights Group International “ Les Effaceurs” were soldiers in none other than the Mouvement de Liberation du Congo (MLC), Bemba’s men who used “mass killings, cannibalism, rape, and the threat of violence” to clear the Mbuti from the forests of North Kivu Province. According to testimony provided by certain Bantu farmers in the area Bemba wanted the pygmies to leave the local forests where they had lived for generations so he could expand his illegal mining and logging operations without witnesses.
Once he returned from the CAR and before leaving for Kinshasa Bemba swore he’d disbanded his MLC turning it into a political party instead but he purposely kept many of his soldiers with him claiming they now served as his personal guards. It was common knowledge around North Kivu Province that the MLC continued to oversee his smuggling operations while Bemba started newer, legal business endeavors such as his airline company and television station. By 2003 he had been named Vice President of Finance and served as one of four VP’s in the new transitional government of Joseph Kabila. He challenged Joseph Kabila by running for President in the 2006 election where he came in second then after a final face-off between the two candidates lost the election.
And then things became dangerously unclear. Mr. Bemba claimed that Joseph Kabila had used fraud to win the election but then said he would “bow out gracefully for the good of the country.” At the same time he did not attend the swearing–in ceremony nor did he give Kabila his official endorsement as President of the DRC. Yet in 2007 he succeeded in winning a seat in Parliament as a Senator representing the capital city, Kinshasa.
It was common knowledge that Bemba housed many MLC members at his residence in Kinshasa who served as security guards. On March 22, 2007 a fight broke out between these guards and soldiers in the Congolese Army. It seems Bemba’s guards had been ordered by the government to register at a local military base where they would be eventually absorbed into the Congolese army but Bemba claimed these men were his personal guard and for reasons of security would remain with him. Soldiers in the Congolese army showed up at Bemba’s house then tried to take his “body guards” into custody. The guards refused and started shooting at the soldiers. Although government reports were deliberately vague on the matter, eye- witnesses around Kinshasa maintained that hundreds of Bemba’s soldiers flooded the streets resulting in open fire fights between them and the Congolese troops. Many witnesses became convinced that Bemba was staging a coup in order to seize control of the government buildings. Eventually government forces brought the city under control as Bemba’s men suddenly began withdrawing from the streets. Although the government made no public announcement about the battle between the two sides and at no time referred to the fighting as a coup reports of over six hundred wounded or dead were filed by local hospitals around the city. Meanwhile Bemba and his family fled to the South African embassy where he asked for and was granted asylum. One day later, on March 23, 2007 an arrest warrant was issued by the government charging Bemba with high treason. Bemba responded by blaming Kabila saying that the government soldiers had been sent to his home to kill him and that his body guards had only been defending him.
On March 26, 2007 the President of the DRC, Joseph Kabila charged Bemba with using his militia to seize control of the capital city of Kinshasa. Bemba denied these charges claiming that his only goal was to leave the country safely in spite of the thwarted assassination attempt on his life. But before he left the country Bemba ordered the members of his militia to comply with the government’s orders and hundreds of his men registered then were integrated into the Congolese army without incurring any punitive charges.
During April, 2007 Bemba and his family lived in Portugal. While there he continued to talk openly about his fear of reprisal from Kabila’s government and the fact that he planned to return to the DRC to take up his senate seat in Parliament. But by June, 2007 he was still traveling throughout Europe claiming that he feared for his life if he returned to Kinshasa.
One year later on May 24, 2008, Bemba was arrested near Brussels and surrendered to the International Criminal Court (ICC) on July 3. 2008 where he was immediately held in its detention center at The Hague. Before leaving he informed local reporters that these were false charges engineered by Joseph Kabila in order to discredit his good name and prevent him from serving as a politician in the DRC ever again.
Jean- Pierre Bemba Gombo is a highly dangerous man and not just because of his crimes. It is his ambition that worries me most due to the fact that he has an unlimited supply of money at his disposal with which to buy his way in and out of any situation. My hope is that the ICC will sentence him to prison for a very long time and take his money away in the process. There is more than enough evidence on record to prove that the bulk of his wealth was amassed through illegal means and really belongs to the people of the DRC. And like I have warned many times in the past until the natural resources of the Congo are protected and regulated by an outside, impartial enforcement group such as the United Nations the lives of rural villagers in the east will never improve. Unfortunately, for every warlord and militia group arrested another man and his minions will come forward to take their place. There’s just too much money to be made not to take the chance.
Kat Nickerson Kingston, Rhode Island, USA