He’s a Real Contender to Lead Congo, if Only He Could Get In

The bishops brokered a deal in December to prod Mr. Kabila to step down after he refused to hold constitutionally mandated elections last year. His refusal set off a new political crisis in the country, which has been long blighted by popular uprisings and clashes between government forces and local militias opposed to his rule.

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The Congolese president, Joseph Kabila, center, regards Mr. Katumbi as his greatest threat.

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Junior D. Kannah/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Mr. Katumbi welcomed the bishops’ letter. “I plan to return soon,” he said in a telephone interview on Thursday.

“I have nothing to fear,” he insisted, but he refused to specify a timetable for his long-awaited homecoming. He said he intended to speak first to other opposition members of the umbrella group Rassemblement. “The suffering, the corruption — the people can’t take it anymore.”

Congo is extraordinarily rich in minerals and for that reason has long been pillaged by foreign powers, successive leaders and an alphabet soup of rebel groups. Given its size — by some measures it is as large as Western Europe — the country has an enormous impact on the rest of the continent, with a long history of conflicts that have drawn in its armies and fighters from many African nations in recent decades.

Now, the question of Mr. Katumbi’s return is gaining urgency. Mr. Kabila has succeeded in keeping his opponents not only out of the way, but out of the country. In addition to Mr. Katumbi, there was Étienne Tshisekedi, a charismatic opposition leader for four decades who died in February. The body of Mr. Tshisekedi, who was 84, is in a morgue in Brussels and has not been allowed back home for a proper burial.

In a nation rattled by flare-ups of…

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