The admission of Burundi and South Sudan to the East African Community served to prove one thing: Political stability, no matter how loosely defined, is not a criterion for membership of an economic bloc that harbours ambitions of becoming a political federation.
Even if it were, the Democratic Republic of Congo held watershed elections last year ushering in Felix Tshisekedi as president in the first democratic transfer of power in 60 years. The elections also ended Joseph Kabila’s desire to prolong his rule, including by proxy, at least until 2023.
Under a Constitution revised in 2016, term limits will not apply in future DRC elections, meaning Kabila, 47, can vie again, setting the stage for a tumultuous period for the country’s democracy, with four heavyweight candidates, a couple of them confirmed warlords, eyeing the top seat.
A sign of things to come happened when tens of thousands of supporters lined the streets of Lubumbashi on May 20 to welcome back Moise Katumbi, described in some quarters as DR Congo's "most popular man."
A similar turnout is expected on June 23 when Jean Pierre Bemba returns to the country after he was barred from contesting in the recent elections, being found to have bribed witnesses to influence the outcome of crimes against humanity charges at the International Criminal Court.
He was acquitted June last year after 11 years in custody and has sued the ICC for $77 million.
According to papers filed at the ICC, Bemba’s assets, including seven aeroplanes, three villas in Portugal, three parcels of land in DRC and two boats, were allowed to rot as the case was going on.
He has pledged to commit a third of the ICC award, about $25 million, to reparations in CAR where his militia the Banyamulenge committed crimes while fighting alongside president Ange-Felix Patasse during the 2002-2003 conflict.
While the ostentation is meant to back the compensation claim, it points to the vast wealth of the Movement of the Liberation of Congo (MLC) party leader.
Mr Bemba, 55, fits the description of warlord democrats — former military and leaders of armed groups running for election — that East Africa is quite familiar with in the likes of Paul Kagame in Rwanda, Yoweri Museveni in Uganda, Pierre Nkurunziza in Burundi and Salva Kiir and Riek Machar in South Sudan.
Across the continent, Prince Johnson and Sekou Conneh in Liberia; Julius Maada Bio, Idred Collins and Samuel Hinga Norman in Sierra Leone; Joao Bernardo Vieira in Guinea-Bissau, Afonso Dhlakama in Mozambique and Antipas Mbusa in DRC fall in this category, while Libya and Sudan could soon have their own warlord democrats.
In a policy note released on Tuesday, the Nordic Africa Institute said warlord democrats were well placed to shape post-war order even without them riding on political parties and state institutions.
“The political influence of war democrats is a function of their power as Big Men thanks to the economic resources, (ex)-military networks and the political capital they amassed during the earlier hostilities,” the note says.
It concludes that in optimal circumstances, warlords can act as ‘‘peace lords’’ for as long as they are not marginalised by other political elites and peacemakers. It adds that democratic institutions should be evolved even amid political uncertainties to avoid successful warlord democrats becoming autocrats as has been seen in Egypt and Algeria.
While this holds hope for the long term stability of the DRC, former president Kabila’s efforts to sideline Bemba and Katumbi — the latter not a warlord — has created uncertainties that have complicated President Tshisekedi’s efforts at demobilising rebel groups.
For disarmament to succeed, President Tshisekedi will have to court the support of the likes of Bemba, who was one of four vice presidents in the transitional government between 2003 and 2006.
Also in the air are reforms to make the National Electoral Commission (Ceni) more representative in the face of US sanctions after its officials diverted money for the December elections to personal use.
The commission’s vice president, Norbert Basengezi, who denies the US accusations, resigned on Monday. An independent commission is expected to clean up the voter register ahead of the 2023 election after opposition parties contested more than 10 million entries in the current voters’ register.
The return of Katumbi and Bemba complicates matters for both President Tshisekedi and Kabila — the latter believed to be the power behind the throne. For the December 2018 election, Kabila picked the unheralded Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary, 57, as his successor ahead of more perceptibly qualified politicians with one eye on retaining his grip on power.
When he saw the odds stacked against his anointed candidate, Kabila sent feelers to Tshisekedi, who was declared winner amid rigging allegations expressed in street protests. Popular opinion is that that 62-year old Martin Fayulu, the candidate backed by Bemba and Katumbi under the Lumuka coalition, won.
"We see that the result of the presidential election as published by Ceni does not correspond with the data collected by our observer mission from polling stations and counting centres," said Father Donatien Nshole, spokesman for the National Episcopal Conference of Congo.
Katumbi has said he will not join the opposition or back President Tshisekedi, meaning he is laying the ground for a stab at the presidency. He has also said that he wants to prevent the pro-Kabila parliament from changing the country’s constitution.
Katumbi, from the southeast region of DRC, is a former governor of Katanga Province, where he is hailed for a legacy of development. Kabila’s maternal family hails from the same region, the two politicians will face off for the support of the political base.
"It could get complicated for Kabila in the long run," said Nelleke van de Walle, deputy project director for, Central Africa at the International Crisis Group.
The Kabilas also enjoy massive support in the region courtesy of Laurent Kabila’s rebel war that ended the war there and toppled Mobutu Sese Seko in 1997. However, the Kabilas disenfranchised the Luba people of Katanga by appearing to favour their neighbours, the Maniema in government appointments.
Tshisekedi, who recently named former national railway company head Sylvestre Ilunga Ilukamba prime minister following months of wrangling with Kabila, will also try to be his own man once the dust settles.