Jean-Pierre Bemba

Democratic Republic of Congo’s President Felix Tshisekedi has appointed the country’s former vice president Jean-Pierre Bemba, who was detained for over 10 years for war crimes, as the country’s defence minister in a sweeping government reshuffle.

His appointment was part of an overhaul of the 57 members of government, which the president’s spokesperson said was “urgent and necessary”, in an announcement on Congo’s national television late on Thursday. No further details were given.

The reshuffle, which was more extensive than observers had predicted, came ahead of an expected presidential election on Dec. 20, in which Tshisekedi is likely to seek a second term.

“This a deeply political shuffle,” said Jason Stearns, Director of the Congo Research Group and Professor at Canada’s Simon Fraser University.

Tshisekedi appointed Vital Kamerhe, his former chief of staff who was released from prison in Dec. 2021 following as embezzlement conviction, as economy minister.

Nicolas Kazadi was maintained as finance minister.

The appointments bring political heavyweights into the government, strengthening Tshisekedi’s coalition ahead of elections, Stearns said.

“Key positions are given to senior politicians who have large constituencies to please but little expertise in their new ministries. Kamerhe is not an economist. Bemba was a rebel but has little formal military training,” he said.

Bemba, a former rebel leader was arrested in 2008 by the International Criminal Court for war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by his troops in the Central African Republic between 2002 and 2003.

He was acquitted and released 10 years later after his conviction was reversed on appeal. He was however accused and convicted on lesser charges of witness tampering during the trial.

Kamerhe, an influential Congolese power broker, was sentenced to 20 years in prison in 2020 for embezzling nearly $50 million from a presidential economic programme. He denied the charges.

His sentence was reduced to 13 years on appeal the following year, however in June 2022, a higher court overturned the judgment.

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