Supporters of Congolese opposition leader Jean-Pierre Bemba gather along the highway to welcome him in Kinshasa, DRC, August 1 2018. Picture: REUTERS
Supporters of Congolese opposition leader Jean-Pierre Bemba gather along the highway to welcome him in Kinshasa, DRC, August 1 2018. Picture: REUTERS

Kinshasa — 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 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 shook hands with family members and officials from his MLC party.

Throngs of people — many in T-shirts, hats and scarves bearing his likeness — lined the streets and peered down from pedestrian overpasses to catch a glimpse of him.

Police fired teargas near the airport and in the area of Limite as they tried to clear the road, witnesses said.

Congolese opposition leader Jean-Pierre Bemba waves to supporters in Kinshasa, DRC, August 1 2018. Picture: REUTERS
Congolese opposition leader Jean-Pierre Bemba waves to supporters in Kinshasa, DRC, August 1 2018. Picture: REUTERS

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 home town of Gemena in northwestern DRC 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 energise 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, keeping the country in suspense over whether he will choose someone else to represent his coalition, paving the way for the DRC’s first democratic transition, or try to run again, risking 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.

Reuters