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-opposition-activists, 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 [“Versailles of the Jungle”], 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. 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.”
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.”
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.” 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.
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.
10 June 2011
Yet Another Personality-cult Liberation Movement
From Dancing in the Glory of Monsters: The Collapse of the Congo and the Great War of Africa, by Jason Stearns (Public Affairs, 2011), Kindle Loc. 3896-3936, 4050-4054 (pp. 225-226, 233):