Tens of thousands of cheering supporters greeted opposition leader Jean-Pierre Bemba on Wednesday as he returned to Democratic Republic of Congo after a decade in prison to submit his candidacy for December’s presidential election.
Bemba, a former vice president and warlord whose war crimes convictions at the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague were quashed on appeal in May, is expected to pose a stiff challenge to President Joseph Kabila or his preferred successor.
After touching down aboard a private jet at Kinshasa’s N’Djili airport, Bemba, 55, dressed in a dark suit and a red tie, shook hands with family members and officials from his MLC party before getting into a white SUV to drive toward the city center.
Throngs of people — many in T-shirts, hats and scarves bearing his likeness — lined streets and peered down from pedestrian overpasses to catch a glimpse of Bemba, who waved and thrust his fist into the air from the open top of his car.
Police fired teargas near the airport and in the neighborhood of Limite as they tried to clear the road, witnesses said.
Bemba was due to attend mass later on Wednesday and file his candidacy with the electoral commission on Thursday, MLC official Jean-Jacques Mbungani told reporters. He will then fly to his family’s hometown of Gemena in northwestern Congo to pay his respects to his late father.
“The Congolese people have waited for this moment for a long time,” said Toussaint Bodongo, an MLC member. “Bemba will maybe bring the solution that we need to Congo.”
His return is expected to energize opposition to Kabila, who has been in power since his father’s assassination in 2001 and is barred by constitutional term limits from standing for a new term.
Kabila has refused to commit publicly to not contesting the election. That has kept the country in suspense over whether he will choose someone else to represent his ruling coalition, paving the way for Congo’s first democratic transition, or try to run again and risk a violent backlash.
Security forces have killed dozens of protesters since late 2016 when Kabila refused to step aside at the end of his mandate, saying elections needed more time to be organized. Militia violence in the eastern borderlands has surged since then.