Wamba dia Wamba was born in Sundi-Lutete, Bas-Congo Province. He was raised in Swedish mission schools and grew into adulthood in the period when the prophetism of Simon Kimbangu and the political agitation for independence by the Association des Bakongo (ABAKO) was reaching its peak. When ABAKO split, he favored the faction of Daniel Kanza.
Upon graduation from secondary school, he was one of three students awarded scholarships by the African-American Institute to study in the United States. He went to Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, where Wamba wrote his honors dissertation on the philosophers Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Jean-Paul Sartre. He later went on to graduate studies at Claremont before teaching at Brandeis University, where he was associated with Peter F. Drucker. He went on to teach at Harvard University in Cambridge, MA.
During his period in the U.S., Wamba dia Wamba married an African-American woman and was involved in the Civil Rights Movement through the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Once the period of decolonization began in Africa, he joined the supporting committees of various US-based pan-Africanist movements.
In 1980, he accepted a position as Professor of History at the University of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania. While visiting his parents' village in 1981, he was arrested by the government of Mobutu Sese-Seko for possessing a paper he had authored that was deemed 'subversive', and was detained for one year. He continued his role as a prominent figure in both academia and political circles in Africa. He is the former President of the Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa (CODESRIA) as well as the founder and president of the Philosophy Club at the University of Dar es Salaam. He is an expert in the Palaver (politics) and other indigenous forms of African democracy. He participated in the Sovereign National Conference, held from 1990 through 1992 in Zaire. In 1997 he co-authored with Jacques Depelchin, the African Declaration Against Genocide.
In December 1997, Prof. Wamba was named a recipient of the Prince Claus Award for Culture and Development. The announcement of the award cited his "scholarly contribution to the development of African philosophy and for sparking off the philosophical debate on social and political themes in Africa." At this time he also worked closely with Tanzanian President Julius Nyerere to end the Burundi Civil War.
At the beginning of the Second Congo War against the government of Laurent-Désiré Kabila, he was unanimously elected head of the rebel Rally for Congolese Democracy, which was backed by Uganda and Rwanda and based in the town of Goma. However, the RCD gradually tore in two from November 1998 until 16 May 1999, as it became clear that Rwanda and its supporters goals were limited to replacement of Kabila. Several attempts were made on Wamba's life during this period, coinciding with attempts to destroy his political power in the RCD.
On 16 May 1999, Émile Ilunga was named the new head of the RCD after maneuvering by Rwanda, and Wamba fled to the Ugandan-controlled town of Kisangani. The faction of the RCD he maintained control of was variously known as the Movement for Liberation (RCD-ML), RCD-Kisangani, or RCD-Wamba. The main faction is sometimes referred to as RCD-Goma. The two factions shortly engaged in fierce battles in Kisangani, following which Wamba retreated to Bunia in the Ituri region of the northeastern DRC.
Wamba was faced with an internal revolt by Mbusa Nyamwisi, leading to another split that left Wamba. His organization remained known as the RCD-Kisangani (RCD-K), but the Nyamwisi-led group was known as the RCD-ML. In 2001, Wamba denounced a Ugandan proposal to unite the RCD-K, RCD-ML and Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC) as an unwelcome foreign imposition. The further disintegration of the RCD-K to the point it was without any significant military force may have been the result of Ugandan withdrawal of its support. This action, which took place as the Ituri conflict continued escalating, was seen by some members of the Lendu ethnic group as a support against what they saw as the pro-Hema bias of Uganda.
Following the Inter-Congolese Dialogue that ended the war, Wamba became a prominent member of the new government. He has spoken extensively on what is needed for the DRC to make a successful transition to a functioning democracy.
He continues to be politically involved and to write and is a noted political theorist widely respected for, in particular, his innovative use of the work of the African born Parisian philosopher Alain Badiou who he has introduced into contemporary African political thought. African scholars like Jacques Depelchin, Michael Neocosmos and Raj Patel have taken up Wamba's use of Badiou's work.
A May 2008 article authored by Jacques Depelchin warned that there were new threats to assassinate Wamba.Wamba Dia Wamba, Ernest (2005) DRC: Globalisation, War and the Struggle for Freedom in Manji, F and Burnett, P (eds) African Voices on Development and Social Justice Editorials from Pambazuka News, Oxford: Pambazuka News 
Wamba Dia Wamba, Ernest (1995) Zaire: From the National Conference to the Federal Republic of the Congo? in Development Dialogue No.2
Wamba Dia Wamba, E. and M. Mamdani, eds, (1995) African Studies in Social Movements and Democracy, CODESRIA, ISBN 2-86978-052-4.
Wamba Dia Wamba, Ernest (1994) In Search of a New Mode of Politics in Africa in Development in an African Perspective, James Curry, London
Interview with Ernest Wamba dia Wamba (2009) Published in Ota Benga Alliance 
'Balkanisation and crisis in eastern Congo Ernest Wamba dia Wamba speaks to Pambazuka News' (2008) Published in Pambazuka News 
'Democracy Today: The case of the Democratic Republic of Congo' (2007) Published in Pambazuka News 
'Congo' (2004) Published in Zmag