Former Rebel Leader Is Named Congo’s New Defense Minister

Former militia leader Jean Pierre Bemba waves at supporters as he arrives at a polling station to cast his ballot in the presidential elections in Kinshasa, Congo, Oct. 29, 2006. Bemba was appointed as Congo’s defense minister Thursday March 23, 2023, amid a cabinet reshuffle. (AP Photo/Jerome Delay, file)(JEROME DELAY / Associated Press)

Congo’s former rebel leader jailed by the International Criminal Court, Jean-Pierre Bemba, has been appointed Congo’s Defense Minister and Deputy Prime Minister in a Cabinet reshuffle.

Bemba’s appointment to the key positions was announced Thursday evening on state television by President Felix Tshisekedi’s spokeswoman. Bemba’s promotion and other Cabinet appointments come less than a year ahead of Congo’s presidential elections.

Congo’s former vice president between 2003 and 2006, Bemba was later imprisoned by the ICC for more than a decade, accused of murders, rapes and pillaging committed by his Movement for the Liberation of Congo forces in the neighboring country of Central African Republic. In a surprising ruling, he was acquitted by the ICC in 2018. Bemba has always maintained his innocence.

Bemba’s return to prominent government positions comes nine months ahead of Congo’s presidential elections scheduled for December. Bemba’s political comeback was likely decided to help Tshisekedi win votes in Congo’s war-torn northeast, where Bemba’s rebel group was popular in the 1990s and 2000s, say analysts.

Former militia leader Jean Pierre Bemba holds a press conference in the Congoleses capital Kinshasa Oct. 26, 2006. Bemba was appointed as Congo’s defense minister Thursday March 23, 2023, amid a cabinet reshuffle. (AP Photo/Jerome Delay, file)

“This is clearly a pre-election reshuffle and Jean-Pierre Bemba has been appointed to bring his supporters in line to rally behind the president ahead of the race,” said Benjamin Hunter, Africa analyst for Verisk Maplecroft, a risk assessment firm.

“Despite Bemba’s previous imprisonment by the ICC, he is a political heavyweight with the patronage networks and contact book to help Tshisekedi’s election campaign,” he said.

Conflict in eastern Congo has been simmering for decades with more than 120 armed groups fighting for power, land, resources and some to defend their communities. Tshisekedi came to office in 2019 promising to stem Congo’s instability and violence, but it’s only increased.

Other new government postings in the Cabinet reshuffle include Tshisekedi’s former chief of staff, Vital Kamerhe, who was named the minister of the economy. Kamerhe was sentenced to 20 years in prison but acquitted last year. Antipas Mbusa Nyamwisi, a former warlord in Ituri province was appointed minister of state for national integration.

– Jean-Yves kamale, AP News

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