The fact is that a man who wants to act virtuously in every way necessarily comes to grief among so many who are not virtuous.
GBADOLITE, CONGO, JULY 1999
When the Rwandans launched their war against Laurent Kabila in August 1998, Jean-Pierre Bemba, a six-foot-two, two-hundred-and-seventy-pound, millionaire-turned-rebel leader started his own rebellion in the north of the country, the Movement for the Liberation of the Congo (MLC). Although he received backing from the Ugandan army and from an assortment of former Mobutists, for the most part, his rebellion was about Jean-Pierre Bemba.
In July 1999 Bemba captured Mobutu’s hometown of Gbadolite. Over thirty years, Mobutu had turned the sleepy jungle town, which counted only 1,700 souls at independence in 1962, into a monument to his corruption and profligacy. He built three separate, sprawling palaces for himself and his visitors. One of the palaces was a replica of a Chinese pagoda, complete with gilded dragon figurines, jade roofs, and carp-filled ponds. Ceramic tiles were flown in from Europe, pure-bred sheep from Argentina, and birthday cakes from Paris’ best patisseries. The village—one of the most remote corners of the country, five hundred miles from Kinshasa, ensconced in thick rain forest—featured luxuries most Congolese towns could only dream of: a hydroelectric power plant; a four-mile-long airport, one of the longest in Africa, which could accommodate Concorde jets; and a nuclear bunker that could shelter five hundred people. Satellite dishes provided crisp color television and a phone network. At the height of his reign, Mobutu lavished $15 million a month on the maintenance of this dreamland. It was a surreal African Shangri-la.
By the time Jean-Pierre Bemba arrived in Gbadolite, the town had been ransacked by successions of different armed groups—first Rwandans and the AFDL, then Chadian troops flown in to help Kabila fight Bemba. The crystal chandeliers and silverware had been stolen and the walls of the palaces stripped bare of anything that could be looted. Large avant-garde paintings had been replaced by graffiti—“ Fuck Mobutu,” read one—and glass from broken windows crunched underfoot. The fleet of Mercedes had been gutted; the carp were long since belly-up, and Mobutu’s pet leopard was rumored to be stalking the overgrown palace gardens. The wardrobes in town were full of thousands of white gloves, aprons, and suits belonging to the hundreds of the dictator’s former domestic staff, now out of work.
Amid the ruins, Jean-Pierre Bemba set up his headquarters. Bemba was the son of one of Mobutu’s closest business associates and had himself been a protégé of the late president. When he had walked into Gbadolite, the streets had filled with thousands of supporters wearing Mobutu T-shirts and cheering him on. His family came from the region, and most of his top army commanders had made their career in the Zairian army. Even in style and personality, he spoke with similar bombast and condescension as the late, great Maréchal.
Bemba was a spectacle. Dressed alternately in a smart business suit or in army fatigues, he would receive his visitors in his father’s house in Gbadolite, surrounded by his equipment: several satellite phones, a high-frequency radio, and a wide-screen television. From this central command post he would stay in touch with diplomats, his commanders in the field, and friends and family in Europe. On the coffee table in front of him was a stack of society rags: Paris Match, L’Express, Vanity Fair, all rarely more than three months old. He spent hours watching CNN and French news, staying abreast of world events. For journalists who had just flown over hours of impenetrable rain forest without seeing a paved road, the rebel leader seemed lost in another world, far from the thousands of square miles of jungles that his army controlled. One reporter who visited him tells the story of watching CNN as news broke of John F. Kennedy Jr.’s death in a plane crash off Martha’s Vineyard. Bemba was apparently crestfallen, obviously identifying with the dead scion of the Kennedy family. “Why did he choose to fly at night, in those conditions? Why?” he lamented, slapping his knee and shaking his head.1 As for Congolese caricaturists, they were fond of depicting him as an overgrown, spoiled baby in diapers, crying because someone had taken his rattle away.
As always in the Congo, the myth reveals a bit of the man, but not much. Bemba is certainly endowed with a bloated ego and an overly keen business acumen. But he also managed to do something that no other rebel leader in the Congo had done: He built a rebel movement that was able to control a large part of the country while maintaining popular support, all without excessive outside interference.
“This book is the history of a struggle,” Bemba writes in the afterword of his autobiography. “Struggle against dictatorship. A struggle for freedom. A struggle of so many men and women fallen on the field of honour so that an ideal can triumph.”2 Grand words, but hardly the reality. Over the years, Bemba developed into a politician with an articulated ideology, but for most of his life he was a businessman interested, above all, in personal success.
Jean-Pierre grew up with a silver spoon in his mouth. His father, Saolona, the son of a Portuguese trader and a Congolese woman from Equateur Province, had worked his way up from a small-time coffee grower to be head of one of the largest business empires in Zaire. Based for much of his early career in the coffee growing region of Equateur, Saolona made a fortune when the coffee price peaked following the Brazilian coffee frosts of the 1970s. He grew close to Mobutu and benefited from the nationalization of foreign companies in 1973, expanding his coffee business and diversifying into manufacturing and transportation. By the 1980s, he ran a conglomerate with 40,000 employees. He was one of the richest men in Zaire, elected numerous times as head of the Congolese Business Federation.
Jean-Pierre’s mother died when he was only eight, leaving a hole in his upbringing. His father married again and had affairs with several other women, providing Jean-Pierre with over two dozen half-brothers and sisters. Not long afterwards, he was sent to boarding school in Brussels and would only see his father when he visited while on business trips or when Jean-Pierre returned home for vacation. “His mother’s death affected him deeply,” José Endundo, another affluent entrepreneur who joined his rebellion, remembered. “From then on, he always seemed to be alone.”
The distance and loneliness fueled Bemba’s desire to succeed and led him to further idolize his father. “Jean-Pierre was the first child, the oldest,” Michel Losembe, the director of Citibank in Kinshasa and a childhood friend, recalled. “He was being groomed to succeed.” During his high school vacations, he would return home to work in the coffee fields and to help manage the ever-growing network of family businesses.
Meanwhile, he led a discreet life in Brussels. “He was never his daddy’s boy, never arrogant, never throwing his wealth around,” Losembe remembered. He lived in a three-thousand-square-meter villa in a wealthy suburb of Brussels, but he almost never invited his friends to his home. He liked to socialize, but even when he went out on the town, he would always split the bill and even ask to have the wine deducted from his share if he didn’t drink. He got a reputation among the Congolese in Belgium for having maboko makasi—tight fists. Wary of Congolese who sought to ingratiate themselves, he preferred hanging out with Belgian aristocrats’ children just as wealthy as he was. They would go on hunting trips to the Ardennes during their vacations and test-drive each others’ new sports cars.
Looking at pictures of Bemba at that time, one finds it hard to believe that it’s the same man. In his high school snapshots, he is a tall, thin boy who seems to be smiling despite himself. He was obsessed with excelling in everything he did—tennis, squash, studies. When he flunked out of his first year of university in Brussels, he was so disappointed that he spent the whole summer cramming to pass a state exam so he could get into the prestigious Catholic Institute of Higher Commercial Studies (ICHEC) business school. He succeeded. “ He wasn’t super intelligent or quick,” a Belgian classmate remembered, “ but he was incredibly determined and rigorous.”
During this time, and contrary to later statements, Bemba did not show any interest in politics. Like most people at ICHEC, he focused on the world of profits and losses, economies of scale and price elasticities. He was wary of criticizing Mobutu, as his father’s business increasingly depended on his relations with the government. On his trips home, he, too, would rub shoulders with the Kinshasa elites, as his father began delegating much of his work to him. By the time he graduated from university in 1986, at the age of twenty-four, Bemba was managing most of his father’s foreign business interests and bank accounts.
With this promotion, Bemba’s character changed. He moved to Kinshasa, and his father made him the manager of one of his largest companies, Scibe Airlift. In a country the size of western Europe, where the national road network had collapsed, there was a lot of money to be made in air transport. By that time, Scibe had become the unofficial government carrier, ferrying goods and people around the country. Jean-Pierre ran the company with an iron fist, waking up every morning at 4:30 to go the airport. With his employees and business partners, he mimicked his father’s aggressive management style. He yelled at workers, insulted air traffic officials, and fired people who didn’t perform. “The difference between Jean-Pierre and his father,” one of his friends remembered, “was that with Saolona, at 7 o’clock, after work, that aggressive mask fell, and he became a nice, relaxed guy. With Jean-Pierre, the mask stuck.”
Throughout this time, Jean-Pierre had become close to Mobutu. His father brought him along on his trips to Gbadolite, where the dictator was spending more and more time, and Mobutu took a liking to the enterprising young man. Mobutu’s own children had mostly disappointed him—several had joined the military or intelligence services, where they were known for their crude brutality, womanizing, and crooked deals. The most promising one, his favorite son, Niwa, passed away in the 1980s, probably of AIDS. Over the years all of his other sons from his first marriage would die as well. Mobutu began to treat Jean-Pierre like a member of his own family. When the young entrepreneur visited Europe, he would fly back with gifts for Mobutu. On one occasion, he sent a massive birthday cake back on one of his Scibe airplanes.
Meanwhile, Jean-Pierre was longing to start his own business, to emerge from his father’s shadow. The privatization of telecommunications in the early 1990s provided the opportunity. Like the rest of the state’s infrastructure, the phone grid had collapsed, prompting investors to experiment with new cellular phone technology that was too expensive for widespread use in the developed world. A Congolese Tutsi businessman, Miko Rwayitare, convinced Mobutu in 1986 to set up Telecel, one of the first mobile phone companies in Africa. He distributed hundreds of clunky, brick-sized phones to ministers, and the service proved to be both incredibly successful and expensive. With charges as much as $16 per minute, Mobutu complained to his advisors about the millions of dollars in telephone bills, as well as Rwayitare’s ties to his political rivals. Jean-Pierre saw a business opportunity and stepped in: He told the president he would start a new company, Comcell, and offer cheaper rates. Mobutu was delighted. So was Saolona Bemba, who followed his son’s business exploits with great pride.
Comcell prompted Jean-Pierre’s first foray into politics. As the young entrepreneur set up transmission towers across Kinshasa, he met with sharp resistance from the political heavyweights surrounding Miko. They tried to undermine his nascent company and prevent customers from signing up with Comcell. In response, Jean-Pierre mounted his first military operation, using a gang of presidential guards to sabotage a Telecel antenna in Kinshasa. “To be in business back then, you had to have muscle to protect you,” recalled José Endundo, who at the time was as influential as the Bemba family. Jean-Pierre Bemba got used to driving around Kinshasa behind tinted windows, escorted by two vehicles with bodyguards. A friend of his remembers getting into the passenger seat of his car around that time, only to find a grenade at his feet.
As the Zairian economy capsized, economic opportunities became scarcer, and political patronage more important. When the poorly paid army went on a rampage in Kinshasa in 1991 and 1993, pillaging thousands of stores and houses, the Bembas lost millions of dollars. Increasingly, Jean-Pierre used his ties to Mobutu to defend his businesses. He obtained procurement deals from the army for the supply of fuel, uniforms, and boots and even carried out confidential diplomatic missions for Mobutu in the region. He made friends with top generals, who controlled much of the government’s spending, and when Mobutu fell sick with prostate cancer, Jean-Pierre visited him on his sick bed in France.
By the time the AFDL arrived in Kinshasa, Jean-Pierre had fled to Europe; by that time he owned several sumptuous villas in Portugal and Belgium. His father, however, stayed, in order to look after the family business and properties. Not surprisingly, when Laurent Kabila arrived in Kinshasa, Saolona Bemba became one of the first people he locked up. “When you talked about Mobutu’s business elite, Saolona was foremost,” Henri Mova, Kabila’s transport minister at the time, recalled. “We had to arrest him.”
When Jean-Pierre heard about his father’s arrest, he was terrified what might happen to him. He contacted several Mobutu officers who had fled across the Congo River to Brazzaville and tried to organize a prison break for his father. At the last minute, when preparations were already at an advanced stage, Saolona himself told his son to stand down. It was too risky, he said. This is just about money. He was right: After paying half a million dollars, he was released.
Jean-Pierre’s investments—a dozen planes, warehouses full of goods, coffee plantations, a mobile phone network—were all sunk costs, based in the Congo. While many other entrepreneurs had been able to make the transition between Mobutu and Kabila, Bemba’s intimacy with Mobutu was too well-known. He was also too proud to come begging Kabila to forgive him for past alliances.
Bemba was an avid pilot and liked talking in aviation jargon. When asked why he had doggedly pursued his dream of rebellion, he once responded: “ In an aircraft at take-off, you reach decision speed, after which, no matter what happens, you have to continue accelerating and take-off or else you risk crashing the plane. I had reached decision speed.”3
Some sociologists have put down insurgencies to “blocked political aspirations.”4 If this is true, many others from Mobutu’s entourage would have had better reason to start an insurgency than Jean-Pierre Bemba. Following Mobutu’s demise, the complacency of his lieutenants and strongmen was astounding: All of his ministers, the heads of his powerful security services, and his personal advisors contented themselves with comfortable exiles in Europe and South Africa. Instead, it was a political neophyte who took up the struggle against Kabila.
Once Jean-Pierre Bemba had decided on starting a rebellion, he had various choices. He had naturally been in touch with Mobutu’s former generals in exile but was skeptical about their abilities given their recent ineptitude. They were also divided into different, competing networks, the result of decades of divide-and-conquer manipulations by Mobutu. Bemba also wanted to avoid direct association with Mobutu’s regime.
Then there was the new Rwandan-backed rebellion that had begun gestating in the early months of 1998. Bemba had met Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni during one of his business trips before the war and had kept in touch since.5 Museveni was worried about the way Laurent Kabila’s regime was shaping up, and he was eager to identify new, more reliable figures in the Congolese diaspora. He recommended Bemba to General Paul Kagame, who was busy cobbling together the RCD rebellion. In Kigali, however, Bemba didn’t like the look of what he saw. “Militarily, the choice of this movement to lean exclusively on its Rwandan ally to the detriment of developing a Congolese capacity, makes me think that this method cannot lead to the creation of a credible popular movement,” he wrote after a two-hour meeting with Kagame.6 He was also worried by the phalanx of Congolese political and economic heavyweights already assembled in Kigali. It was clear that if he joined, he would not be the leader of the new movement, but milling around in mid-level bureaucracy. Back in Kampala, he explained his reservations to Museveni and pushed for a second option, “a real alternative force to Kinshasa’s dictatorial regime.”
Museveni himself was beginning to have his doubts about Rwanda’s approach, which seemed too top-down and controlling. “We had a different strategy,” Colonel Shaban Bantariza, the army spokesman, told me. “For us, the Congolese were supposed to learn how to manage and rule themselves.” The Ugandan army was inspired by its own experience as rebels, fighting for six years in the bush with little external support, relying on the local population. Bemba fit the Ugandan model. “He was convincing,” Bantariza said. “You could spend two hours with him, and he would give you a clear, structured vision of what he wanted to do with his country.”7 The Ugandans agreed to back Bemba and enrolled him in accelerated military training.
Shortly after the beginning of the second war in August 1998, they agreed with the Rwandans to split operational sectors, with the Ugandans taking the area north of Kisangani and the Rwandans staying to the south. Kisangani itself would remain under joint command.
To start their own rebellion, the Ugandans recruited 154 Congolese in Kisangani in September 1998 and began training them along with Bemba. That number would later take on mythical proportions for Bemba, who claimed that he conquered the area north of Kisangani with a mere 154 soldiers. That was, at least initially, not true. As Bemba sweated away in the training camp with his soldiers—he was made to goose-step, snake around on his considerable belly, and take apart an AK-47 in thirty seconds—RCD troops with Ugandan support were advancing to the north, fighting pitched battles with Kabila’s troops.
The key moment for Bemba came when Uganda seized the strategic town of Lisala, the birthplace of Mobutu, in Equateur Province, and the Ugandan commander, General James Kazini, assembled the RCD troops and told them to turn in their walkie-talkies “for reprogramming.” General Kazini sat down with the Congolese officers and gave them a choice—you can return to Kisangani and work with the Rwandans, or stay here with us and help us build a new rebellion. Most chose the latter.
It was in the midst of this Kigali-Kampala catfight that the Movement for the Liberation of the Congo (MLC) was born. Bemba, who had been working for several months with friends from the Congolese diaspora on drafting statutes and a political program, quickly called the BBC radio service to announce his new rebellion.
The MLC’s beginnings were shaky. Applying himself to the rebellion with the same tenacity as he did to his business empire, Bemba managed to recruit a hodge-podge of young men and women from the business and political class of Kisangani. Of the founding members of the MLC, there was a journalist for the state radio station, the local manager of Bemba’s phone company, a territorial administrator, two former Mobutu officers, and several businessmen. None of them was over forty years old. For the most part, they were political unknowns.
Slowly, Bemba began to take over control of the military wing of the MLC from the Ugandans. He leveraged his contacts among Mobutu’s former officers to rally some of the most capable around him, making sure to stay away from the most infamous and corrupt. It had not been for lack of experience and knowledge that Mobutu’s army had lost the war, and hundreds of officers, marginalized or in exile, were eager to get back into the fray. Bemba handed the military command over to Colonel Dieudonné Amuli, the former commander of Mobutu’s personal guard and a graduate of several international military academies. Other officers’ résumés included stints at Fort Bragg and Fort Benning (United States), Sandhurst (United Kingdom), Nanjing (China), Kenitra (Morocco), and academies in Egypt and Belgium. Although the Ugandans continued to provide military support, in particular through artillery, training, and logistics, by early 1999 the Congolese were largely the masters of their own rebellion, expanding their rebel force from 150 to around 10,000 troops within two years.
Slowly, on the back of the MLC ’s growing reputation, a second wave of political figures began to board flights from Europe to join up. Their pedigree was as impressive as those of the military officers. This time it was the well-heeled diaspora, the members of the Kinshasa elite, educated in Europe and the United States. There were the young and westernized, like Olivier Kamitatu, the son of a founding father of the Congo who had been Bemba’s inseparable friend in business school in Brussels. Then there were the Mobutists-turned-oppositionactivists, including former prime minister Lunda Bululu and two other former ministers, and the businessmen, such as the erstwhile heads of the Congolese business federation and the Congo-Belgian chamber of commerce. In groups of two or three, they arrived on Ugandan military planes in Gbadolite, which by mid-1999 had become command central of the rebellion. They walked around the pillaged town dumbstruck.
Then came the luck, and with it the birth of the Bemba myth. From the early days of rebellion onwards, the portly MLC leader, who had had less than a month of formal military training in his life, was present along the front lines and insisted on participating in military operations. When the Chadians and Kabila’s troops tried to attack the MLC base in Lisala, Bemba flew into town under gunfire and drove around in a pickup truck, rounding up and regrouping his scattered soldiers. “If you have to believe in miracles, that wasn’t the only one,” he later wrote.8 A day later, a rocket-propelled grenade whistled by him, missing him only by several feet. The day after that, amid a shower of gunfire, a Ugandan transport plane landed, unloaded, and took off again without major damage. “It was incredible,” a friend, who had been in touch with Bemba on a monthly basis by satellite phone, recalled. “ It was as if he was blessed with special powers.”9
The MLC leaders began constructing a myth around Bemba’s exploits, a panegyric that fit well into the Congolese tradition of praise singing. The youths called him “Baimoto,” a dazzling diamond that blinds the enemy. Radio Liberté, the MLC radio station, began transmitting programs infused with Bemba’s legend. It was supposed to provide the glue to keep the disparate elements of the MLC together: Bemba the soldier, Bemba the liberator, always on the front line, always with the troops. “It did the trick,” a former MLC commander told me and then laughed:“The problem was he began to believe it himself.”10
Bemba adopted the title of Chairman of the MLC, in part reference to his business upbringing, in part a wink to Chairman Mao’s cult of personality. Progressively, his ego became more and more bloated, even as he himself put on more weight. “Bemba was the MLC,” said José Endundo, the MLC’s former secretary for the economy. “He was an incredible egomaniac.”11 His commissioners and counselors couldn’t just go and visit him in his house in Gbadolite; they would have to wait to be called. At the entrance to his house, soldiers would frisk the MLC leaders, even the frail professor Lunda Bululu, Zaire’s former prime minister, who was in his sixties. Inside, officials sprawled on Bemba’s leather couches, but even there, they were obliged to call him Mr. President or Chairman. For some of the leaders, who had boozed and danced with Bemba in high school or had known him when he was still in diapers, this treatment grated.
Bemba’s massive ego initially had a positive impact on the organization. According to many of his former colleagues who later left the rebellion, he ruled strictly but fairly. “He respected us,” Endundo remembered. “And he was a good manager.” But for most of Bemba’s lieutenants, the goal was clear: to sit tight and wait for negotiations with Kabila’s government. If they had to endure Bemba’s narcissism until then, they would.
As opposed to most other rebel movements in the Congo, which spent much of their life spans embroiled in internecine squabbles, Bemba was the unquestioned leader of the MLC, politically as well as militarily. From command central on his couch, he micromanaged the organization, one hand on the remote control of his television, another on his satellite phone or ham radio.
While he promoted debate about internal policy and strategy, he was the only one to maintain contacts with foreign leaders. He almost never invited other MLC leaders along when he visited President Museveni, his biggest ally. The same went for other contacts. “He had a fabulous address book,” Endundo recalled. “ He would speak to [Gabonese] President Omar Bongo, [Libyan leader] Muammar Ghadaffi, [Republic of Congo] President Sassou Nguesso.” Likewise, none of the other political leaders in the MLC had much to say about military operations. Bemba sat together with the commander of the Ugandan troops and Colonel Amuli and discussed military strategy. In several cases, he went so far as to overrule his Ugandan counterparts.12
Bemba did not have a hard time being popular in Equateur Province. The MLC arrived on the heels of two years of occupation, pillage, and abuse by Rwandan, Congolese, and Chadian troops. Each group had accused the local population of supporting Mobutu and blamed them for hosting such luxurious, wasteful projects as the Chinese pagodas and the hydroelectric dams. When Bemba arrived, he was treated as a mwana mboka, a son of the soil, a hometown hero. People lined the streets when Bemba arrived in a town, waving flags of Zaire and chanting Bemba’s name.
More than one former MLC official I interviewed compared Bemba’s management style to that of a private entrepreneur: “He ran his army like a company,” or “the MLC for him was an IPO, an initial public offering.” Nonetheless, even those who fell out with him concede that it was better organized and more successful than other rebellions. Its leaders were members of the Kinshasa elite, and tribalism, which was a problem for other rebel movements, was not an issue here. There was no interference from Kampala in political matters, and the group of decision makers was small and relatively united. Most MLC leaders were not motivated by immediate financial gain—many of them were independently wealthy—but rather by a return to power in Kinshasa.
In any case, there was little profit to be gleaned from Equateur. It was a relatively poor province, especially since its coffee, rice, and palm oil plantations had fallen into disrepair. After taking all the money they had found in the coffers of the banks—UN investigators tallied around $1.5 million “liberated” from three banks at the beginning of the rebellion—there was little money to be made. According to François Mwamba, the head of their finances, they rarely got more than $50,000 a month. “Once, I had to spend ten hours on the back of a motorcycle, hanging on to a kid with an AK-47 strapped on his back, just to collect $2,000 from a bank in the jungle town of Banalia,” Mwamba told me. “Do you think I would be doing that if we were flush with cash?”13
Given their financial limitations, the MLC had little to offer the local population in terms of services. They organized communal labor to rebuild some roads and bridges, but even they admitted it was rudimentary.14 Most of their money went to buying food and medicine for the army and paying for air transport. What the rebels could provide, however, was the most sought-after commodity in the region: security. A poll carried out in 2002 in the province concluded that 70 percent of locals felt protected against crime. The same number indicated that they would vote for Bemba and the MLC if elections were held then.15 Indeed, when elections were eventually held in 2006, Equateur was the only province where the population voted massively in favor of the armed group that had ruled them during the war, casting 64 percent of their ballots for Bemba in the first round and 98 percent in the second. Almost everywhere else in the country, the population clearly rejected its rulers.16
The problems arose when the MLC began expanding its military operations outside of Equateur in 2001. The northeastern region of Ituri, which borders Uganda to the east and Sudan to the north, was quickly turning into a quagmire for the Ugandan army. There, as opposed to Equateur, there was an abundance of natural resources, ranging from gold to timber, on top of the lucrative customs offices at the Congo-Uganda border, which collected millions of dollars of revenues a month. The district shared no front line with Kabila’s forces; nonetheless, Uganda had deployed a large military contingent there, ostensibly to protect their border. In addition, Ituri had a history of ethnic rivalries, especially between the pastoralist Hema people and the Lendu farmers. Ugandan army commanders quickly became involved in semiprivate business ventures, with different commanders backing various local ethnic militias in order to corner lucrative parts of the market. In January 2001, President Yoweri Museveni, who approved of Bemba’s management of Equateur Province, asked Bemba to move eastward to take the leadership of a new coalition of rebel movements, including several Ituribased factions and the MLC. Bemba accepted, attracted by the greater status it would provide him, as well as by the substantial revenues to be garnered.
The alliance, dubbed the Front for the Liberation of the Congo, was a disaster. After some early successes in calming ethnic rancor, Bemba was quickly embroiled in a struggle with the other armed groups for control of the region’s resources. Instead of trying to find a negotiated solution, Bemba retaliated with force, launching the ominously named “Clean the Blackboard” operation intended to wipe out his rivals. The attack quickly degenerated into a messy counterinsurgency operation, as 3,000 MLC troops collaborated with a Hema militia to loot, abuse, and massacre locals they accused of collaborating with their enemies. A local witness described the brutality to human rights investigators:
The Hema and the “ Effaceurs” [MLC] came into town and started killing people. We hid in our house. I opened the window and saw what happened from there. A group of more than ten with spears, guns and machetes killed two men in Cité Suni, in the center of Mongbwalu. I saw them pull the two men from their house and kill them. They took Kasore, a Lendu man in his thirties, from his family and attacked him with knives and hammers. They killed him and his son (aged about 20) with knives. They cut his son’s throat and tore open his chest. They cut the tendons on his heels, smashed his head and took out his intestines. The father was slaughtered and burnt. 17
The shine had come off Bemba’s reputation. The rebel coalition fell apart, and Bemba retreated to Equateur Province. “ He was getting reckless,” an MLC official confided. “We were broke and had engaged in a massive recruitment drive in the expectation of joining a national army, so we needed money to feed our soldiers.”
This money was supposed to come from another military adventure, this time on foreign soil. In October 2002, following a coup attempt, the president of the Central African Republic, Ange Felix Patassé, asked Bemba to come to his aid. Bangui, the capital of the strife-torn country, was just across the river from one of Bemba’s bases. It was a purely mercenary affair, with Patassé paying Bemba cash in return for sending 1,000 troops to help ward off the attack. Once again, Bemba’s troops committed atrocities, pillaging villages and raping dozens of women. Bemba, who himself visited his troops deployed there and followed the operations closely, suffered another dent to his reputation. This time, the consequences would be more serious. Five years later, he would be arrested and forced to stand trial for his soldiers’ abuses in front of the International Criminal Court.
In the meantime, life in Gbadolite for the rest of the MLC leaders was bucolic and slow. After all, their headquarters was 1,000 kilometers from Kinshasa. You could not reach a major town without boarding an aircraft and flying over a thick expanse of forest. The leaders would wake up late in their air-conditioned houses in Gbadolite and spend the day in meetings or on the phone with friends and diplomats. At times, they worked hard, sometimes late into the night. There were letters to write to the African Union and United Nations, a draft constitution to put together, and political strategy to hatch. Other times, there was nothing to do but find new ways to ward off boredom. Some would listen to classical music, while others would walk through Mobutu’s abandoned gardens, listening to parrots, hornbills, and mousebirds or hunting for Mobutu heirlooms that previous pillagers had missed. They inspected Mobutu’s private chapel, containing the tomb to his first beloved wife, Marie-Antoinette, which in better times used to elevate once a year on her birthday via a solar-powered device. In the evenings, when there was no work to be done, some would watch satellite TV with Bemba, although “that could get a little boring after a while,” one MLC leader admitted.
For the former Mobutists, who had been living in exile in their villas in Europe, life in Gbadolite wasn’t easy. “Gone were the days of champagne drinking, parties with two hundred servants, and people flown in on Concordes,” Endundo remembered. He was particularly bitter about having to run his various businesses from the isolation of the jungle town. He ran up satellite phone bills of up to $40,000 a month. Thambwe Mwamba, a former minister of public works for Mobutu, arrived in mid-2000, asking his new colleagues whether there was somewhere to get a manicure in town. Some MLC officials took to riding bicycles, a skill that some had to relearn, as there were only a few vehicles in town, all belonging to Jean-Pierre Bemba. “ We got into a fight with him one time,” a former MLC commander remembered, “ because he didn’t want to loan us a pickup to drop us off at our house. It was a pickup we had captured from the Chadians! Not his personal vehicle!”18
When asked about how much they earned during the war, all MLC officials respond with the same guffaw. In the early days, when the MLC just controlled a handful of mid-sized towns in northern Equateur, the tax revenues weren’t enough to pay salaries. High-ranking cadres received a daily food allowance of around $4; less important officials had half as much. Their diet was a tedious repetition of fish, rice, and various manioc, pumpkin, and bean leaves stewed in palm oil. “Once, after much complaining,” said Thomas Luhaka, the MLC defense commissioner, “the commander gave me $40. I thought that was a lot!”
But boredom was perhaps the biggest challenge. The hydroelectric plant on the Ubangui River was still working and supplied the town with electricity day and night. The wives of the leaders, themselves ensconced in their houses in Europe, would send them care packages via Kampala with all the luxuries they needed: cheese, ketchup, chocolate, smoked ham, and even condoms. The latter item didn’t go to waste: There was still a coterie of beautiful women in Gbadolite, educated at the local Jesuit school, one of the best in the country under Mobutu, who had worked at the Enlightened Guide’s court. For some of his time in Gbadolite, Bemba lived with one of these women, the beautiful and tall Mayimuna, with whom he ended up having several children, much to the dismay of his wife, who had stayed in Portugal.
I met with Jean-Pierre Bemba once after he had left the rebellion, in 2005, by which time he was vice president in the transitional government. He greeted me at his desk, wearing a suit and tie. In front of him was a laptop on which “I can see all the revenues and expenditures of the government budget in real time,” he said—his portfolio included economy and finance. Just before I had arrived, he had been perusing a book that lay next to the laptop on the table: The 48 Rules of Power by Robert Greene. It was a good indication of his philosophy. He was more Machiavelli—the inspiration behind the book—than Mao or Marx. As with Machiavelli, who wrote during a time of upheaval and infighting among Italy’s various city states, idealism wouldn’t get you very far in the world of Congolese politics, and it had never been part of Bemba’s arsenal. Most of his own autobiography, The Choice of Freedom, was ghostwritten by his own ideologues: Olivier Kamitatu and Thambwe Mwamba. As an MLC friend once put it, “you can’t teach people with twenty years of experience in politics new tricks. Jean-Pierre Bemba was no Che Guevara.”19
Congolese rebel politics since the 1960s has been either an elite or an ethnic affair, or—most often—a mixture of both. There has rarely been a successful experiment in building an insurgency from the ground up without outside help. Almost every single Congolese rebel group was helped on its way by an outside patron: Rwanda, Uganda, DR Congo, Angola, and Zimbabwe. The semi-exceptions are the various ethnic self-defense forces, usually called Mai-Mai, that operate in the eastern Congo and that sprang up in response to outside aggression. Many of these groups, while initially autonomous, only became powerful when they were co-opted by Kinshasa to wage a proxy war against Rwanda and Uganda. And almost all remained confined by the limits of their ethnicity. As Che Guevara himself had concluded at the end of his sojourn in the country in 1965, the rebels were “devoid of coherent political education . . . revolutionary awareness or any forward-looking perspective beyond the traditional horizon of their tribal territory.”20
It was therefore no wonder that the MLC would break up after the war. One by one, most of the heavyweights in the party had been thrown out of the movement, which was now battered and broken. Tired of Bemba’s ego, and broke after years of unpaid labor, many gladly accepted offers from Kabila to join his party, while others struck out on their own. Even Olivier Kamitatu, the wellspoken secretary-general of the party, who had been inseparable from Bemba since their school days, had bailed on him, taking a job as minister of planning for Kabila. Rumors abounded that Olivier’s new house had been financed by Kabila, and he was often seen driving around in a new, shiny Hummer. Those who had remained in the party were consumed by incessant squabbling. The transformation from a rebel group into a political party had failed: The authoritarianism that Bemba had used to keep people in line in the jungle was now illplaced. Opportunism, once a centripetal force in the MLC, had now burst the seams of the movement, flinging members in all directions.
Nonetheless, during its heyday, the MLC was as good as it gets for a Congolese rebel movement. Although supported by Uganda, it was run by Congolese under a more or less unified command, supported by the local population, and relatively disciplined. But the MLC also shows us the limitations of rebellion in the Congo. Like most rebellions, it was run by an educated elite, while all of its foot soldiers were local peasants. There was little ideology that took hold at the grassroots level other than opposition to the enemy and tribal loyalty.