A historical background to the Jean-Pierre Bemba arrest (Part 1)

On May, 25, 2008, the New York Times reported that Jean-Pierre Bemba, the rebel leader of the Movement for Liberation of Congo (MLC) and the former vice president of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), was arrested near Brussels at the request of the International Criminal Court. The paper explains that in 2002, the MLC was ‘asked’ by Ange-Felix Patasse, former President of the Central African Republic (CAR), to come into his country and put down a coup attempt. While there, the group was accused of widespread human rights violations.

Francois Bozize who led the coup, defeated Patasse, and immediately after pressed charges of rape and murder against Bemba and the MLC and referred the case to the International Criminal Court in The Hague. This is how the arrest of the Bemba is reported in the media – from the New York Times to the Sunday Independent in South Africa. The Sunday Independent goes as far as to argue that Bemba’s arrest is a warning to suspected tyrants the world over.

What Bemba and the MLC did in CAR in 2002 had been first tried and tested by the MLC on the Congolese people since 1998. The MLC was one of the major protagonists in the DRC war that is estimated to have killed more than 3 million people. However, Bemba was not arrested for his role in that war, a war that gave him access to blood diamonds and which in return brought him a lot of wealth. He was arrested for having the audacity to attempt to help his business associate (i.e. President Patasse) to fight off a coup led by Francois Bozize who was financially and military supported by the French government.

In reality, Bemba was arrested for challenging and threatening French authority. For over 40 years, the French government involved itself in the CAR’s political affairs; the French army has helped install dictator after dictator in that country since CAR’s independence from France in 1960 (Hari, 2007). CAR has strong ties with its former coloniser, France and for many years it was reported that France had a 1 200-strong garrison based in CAR. It is that same garrison that engineered changes of government over the years or that supported the government of the day to quell dissent, given that the governments of the day kow-towed to France’s agenda.

For a long time, Patasse was also supported by the French government. However, around 2000, Patasse began to show signs that he was no longer interested in being a puppet for the French government; he was showing signs of disobedience and furthermore was cultivating business relations with people such as Muammar al-Gaddafi, leader of Libya. In 2001, Patasse accused the French government of arming the rebels that had launched a failed coup against him in May of that year.  It was around the same period (2001 – 2002) that Patasse expressed a desire to renegotiate "accords signed at the time of independence, which give France extensive mineral rights in the CAR."  For the French government, Patasse had crossed the rubicon for expressing such thoughts. And so, in March 2003, they assisted Bozize in carrying out a successful coup against President Patasse. The latter asked for help from his business associate, Jean-Pierre Bemba.

It is not only Bemba who deserves to be jailed for the atrocities committed against the people of CAR. For over 40 years, the French government has helped destabilise that country, been involved in the oppression and the killing of civilians in the CAR. Describing the first time he heard of the connection between France and the CAR, Johann Hari, journalist for The Independent writes that: 

"I first heard whispers of this war in March [2007], when newspapers reported in passing that the French military was bombing the remote city of Birao, in the far north-east of the CAR. Why were French soldiers fighting there, thousands of miles from home? Why had they been intervening in Central Africa this way for so many decades? I could find no answers here – so I decided to travel there, into the belly of France’s forgotten war." 

Indeed, what was the French army doing killing people in the CAR?  In its defence, the French government says it was in the CAR because it signed a military agreement back in the 1970s to protect the country from external aggression. And so when a rebellion against Bozize erupted in mid-2005, according to the Africa Research Bulletin (2007), France provided the CAR army with military assistance after a request by Bozize for help to quell the uprising. The French sent in 300 soldiers, six jet fighters and four helicopters to chase the rebels away from the towns they controlled.

Consequently, Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported that since mid-2005, more than 10 000 homes were burned down and nearly 300 000 people fled their homes owing  to the violence in the CAR. In addition, the conflict between the rebels and the government has contributed to the escalating human rights violations in the country. According to the HRW, the atrocities committed by Bozize government have affected the lives of over one million people of a total population of four million. Furthermore, the vast majority of summary executions and unlawful killings and almost all village burnings have been carried out by government forces. The HRW explains that although the rebels have also committed atrocities against civilians; their abuses  ‘pale in comparison’ to those of the CAR armed forces and the elite Presidential Guard (GP). 

The rebels claim to have resorted to arms to challenge and resist the ‘exclusionist policy’ of the Bozize government. According to the Africa Research Bulletin (2007), the rebels argue that the Bozize’s government operates on an ethnic basis. 

The French government see the rebels as a threat to their interests. France regards the CAR as a key strategic base from which they can access resources from all over Africa. Also, CAR has a lot of uranium, which the French need because they are dependent on nuclear power, argues Hari (2007). 

The French government never forgave Bemba for questioning and challenging their authority in the CAR. This is why Bemba is the only war-thug being sent to jail for sending his goons to kill innocent civilians in a foreign country. Bemba did exactly what the French army has been doing to the CAR since that country’s independence. Uganda and Rwanda did the same thing in the DRC, when they invaded that country in 1998, triggering a civil war that killed more than 3 million people.

In fact, Bemba was not arrested for his role in that war; and for his contribution to the ongoing violence in the DRC. 

Part two of this essay investigates the causes of the civil war in the DRC, the role of the MLC and other rebel groups in the DRC war.



Economist Intelligence Unit. (3 January 2003). Central African Republic: International relations and defence. Economist Intelligence Unit Website. Retrieved on 19 June, 2008, from: http://www.eiu.com/index.asp?layout=VWArticleVW3&article_id=595757659&region_id=&country_id=500000050&channel_id=210004021&category_id=240004024&refm=vwCat&page_title=Article&rf=0

Hari, J. (October, 2007). Inside France’s secret war. The Independent. Retrieved on 19 June, 2008, from: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/africa/inside-frances-secret-war-396062.html

Human Rights Watch. (2007): State of anarchy and abuse: Rebellion and abuses against civilians. Human Rights Watch Website. Retrieved on 20 June, 2008, from:  http://hrw.org/reports/2007/car0907/car0907web.pdf

Laurence, P. (June 2008). Time for the tyrants to watch their backs. The Sunday Independent, p. 5. 

New York Times. (25 May 2008). Congo ex-official is held in Belgium on war crimes. New York Times Website. Retrieved on 20 June, 2008, from: http://www.nytimes.com/2008/05/25/world/africa/25congo.html?_r=1&ref=africa&oref=slogin

No author. (2007). Last town recaptured. Africa Research Bulletin: Political, Social and Cultural Series, 43, 16898A-16899C.

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