Is DRC President Joseph Kabila working with his former vice-president, Jean Pierre Bemba, to derail budding opposition unity?
That was the question on the lips of opposition supporters when Mr Bemba arrived in Kinshasa on Wednesday from Brussels to a huge welcome.
He has said that he plans to vie for the presidency in the December 23 elections.
Opposition leaders, particularly those supporting exiled businessman Moise Katumbi claim that the government fast-tracked Mr Bemba’s return after 10 years in exile and prison, while blocking the return of others who want to present their presidential papers before the August 8 deadline.
“We were surprised that President Joseph Kabila would be keen for the return of somebody who has the potential of upsetting his plans to cling to power. We suspect that Mr Bemba’s decision to contest the elections while he is still facing charges of witness tampering at the International Criminal Court was a government idea,” said Emmanuel Masirika Kabila, a close ally of Mr Katumbi.
Suspicion among the opposition arose from the government offering to issue Mr Bemba with a diplomatic passport that he had not even asked for.
The Congo Ministry of Foreign Affairs had written a letter to allow Mr Bemba to submit an application at Congo's embassy in Brussels.
Second, the opposition are asking why Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary — the secretary general of President Kabila’s ruling People's Party for Reconstruction and Democracy (PPRD) — attended the convention of Mr Bemba’s Liberation Movement of the Congo on July 12.
The (MLC) spokesperson of the ruling coalition, Alain-André Atundu, also attended the convention that endorsed Mr Bemba’s candidacy in absentia.
But despite the opposition’s concern, it is still not clear whether Mr Bemba will be in a position to contest the presidency.
The ICC quashed charges against him of rape and plunder in the Central African Republic in June, on appeal, but he still faces the charge of witness tampering at The Hague.
Stephanie Wolters, the head of the Division for Conflict Prevention and Risk Analysis at the Institute for Security Studies says that Mr Bemba’s return is significant for Congo’s politics since he still enjoys a huge following.
She also maintained that talks of his having made a deal with President Kabila probably originated from his old political rivals.
“Mr Bemba has said that he will stand for the presidency, but at the same time is willing to step aside for a single opposition unity candidate. That would be a major boost for the opposition that has been struggling to form a united front against President Kabila,” said Ms Wolters.
MLC secretary general Eve Bazaïba Masudi also dismissed talks of Mr Bemba’s link with the government. In a video posted on August 1, Ms Masudi criticised the government for teargassing Mr Bemba’s supporters who came to welcome him, and blocking him from going to his house in Gombe district. Mr Bemba was forced to stay in a hotel.
President Kabila has not publicly declared that he will stay out of the December elections, and his newly formed Common Front for Congo (FCC) alliance, which comprises 19 parties is yet to pick a candidate just four months to the elections.
Mr Katumbi — who fled to Belgium in June 2016 when he was facing charges for illegally selling property and sponsoring mercenaries — has assembled a group of nine opposition parties in an attempt to unite the opposition. He is also accused of possessing an Italian passport: the Congolese law does not allow dual citizenship.
The government is yet to respond to his request for a diplomatic passport and permission to return to the country to present his papers before the deadline.
Mt Katumbi recently visited South Africa with fellow presidential aspirant Felix Tshisekedi, to ask President Cyril Ramaphosa to put pressure on President Kabila to hold free elections.
Mialano Tangania, another presidential hopeful who lives in exile in Kenya, said that he has also been blocked from returning to Congo on the grounds that he intends to foment rebellion against the government with the support of Angola and Congo-Brazzaville.
Dr Tangania said that it appears that President Kabila wants to block both Mr Katumbi and Mr Bemba from contesting to pave the way for his chosen successor.
He said this could spark fresh fighting. “President Kabila is not serious about holding free elections. If he is not ready, he should allow a caretaker government without him to organise fresh elections after putting the necessary systems in place,” he said.