KINSHASA, Congo – Congo opposition leader Moise Katumbi was stuck at a border crossing on Friday as he attempted to return after more than two years in exile and submit his candidacy for December’s presidential election.
A large crowd of supporters gathered in Kasumbalesa at the border with Zambia to greet him, but the migration office to allow crossing into Congo was closed.
"The regime forbids my landing & barricades the border … My crime? Wanting to enter my country & submit my candidacy," Katumbi said on Twitter. The former governor of the copper-rich Katanga region was trying to reach Congo’s southeastern city of Lubumbashi, according to people in contact with him.
Katumbi fled abroad in May 2016 as prosecutors announced their intent to try him on charges of hiring mercenaries, which he denied. Until then he had been seen as a leading contender for the presidency in the 2016 election, which has been delayed to the growing frustration of the opposition and international community.
Congo’s presidential race is becoming increasingly crowded as the opposition worries that President Joseph Kabila, who by law cannot run again, will find a way to hold onto power. He has been president since 2001, when his father Laurent was killed in office.
Katumbi, who is president of one of Africa’s top soccer teams, TP Mazembe, also has been sentenced to three years in prison in absentia, with a $ 1 million fine, on allegations that he falsely acquired a building.
The legal issues emerged after he resigned from the ruling party in 2015.
Authorities had warned that if Katumbi returned he could face justice for several lawsuits against him.
The prosecutor general at one point issued a warrant for his immediate arrest once on Congolese soil, government spokesman Lambert Mende said. He did not say if a more recent warrant exists.
A spokesman for Katumbi said the charges were unfounded and his arrest would be in violation of an agreement mediated by the Catholic church between the government and opposition that gave the church the responsibility to investigate the charges against Katumbi.
Earlier in the week, Katumbi congratulated another new rival for the presidency, former Vice President Jean-Pierre Bemba, as he submitted his candidacy. Bemba returned to Congo after more than a decade following his acquittal of war crimes charges by appeals judges at the International Criminal Court in June.
Congo’s deadline for candidates to register is Aug. 8. The constitutional court then will rule on their eligibility, raising the possibility that both Bemba and Katumbi could be barred from running.
Bemba on Friday called on the government to not exclude Katumbi from participating in the election.
"Katumbi is a major political player in this country," he told reporters. "They will find a solution for him to return. It is up to the people to choose their leaders. Let everyone participate freely in the elections."
Petesch reported from Dakar, Senegal.
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