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DRC: Ntaganda’s Virtual Fiefdom Becomes a Theatre of War Once More

Politically-motivated decisions, foreign influence, and internal divisions make the DRC's current conflict difficult to unravel.
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Refugees fleeing conflict between Congolese forces and defectors in North Kivu. Photograph by the Enough Project.

Gisenyi, Rwanda:

"Havoc as Congolese flee the 'Terminator'”, read the BBC headline on May 11. The image of the 20,000 Congolese citizens running from an indicted war criminal dubbed the 'Terminator' is certainly more dramatic and straightforward than the story of clashes between government soldiers and a few hundred national army defectors complaining of pay disputes and poor living conditions.

Indeed, the reality on the ground in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is deeply complex and uncertain with experts even disagreeing on whether Bosco “The Terminator” Ntaganda, a warlord-turned-general, is in fact directing the new rebel group of defectors currently fighting the national army.

Ntaganda was the second-in-command of the Tutsi rebel group CNDP until 2009 when he brokered an undisclosed deal with Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame and the DRC's President Joseph Kabila to integrate his troops into the national army and take over the command of the North Kivu region. Despite being officially integrated into the national army, however, CNDP soldiers maintained a parallel leadership structure that ultimately took orders from Ntaganda.

During his time as a rebel leader, Ntaganda allegedly recruited soldiers under the age of 15 and committed crimes against humanity. In 2006, he was indicted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for recruiting child soldiers and on Tuesday the ICC requested to add new charges, including murder, ethnic persecution, rape and sexual slavery, and intentional attacks on civilians, to his subpoena.

Chain of events

In March, Thomas Lubanga, under whom Ntaganda fought, became the first man to be convicted by the ICC. This verdict likely increased the pressure on President Kabila to arrest Ntaganda, a move Kabila had previously avoided taking on the grounds of maintaining regional stability.

Until recently, Ntaganda has been living the life of a free man despite the ICC subpoena that has been gathering dust on his mantelpiece for six years. He owns a farm that makes cheese, is allegedly involved with the illegal merchandising of minerals, gold and arms, and until recently was a regular in Le Chalet, a top restaurant in Goma also popular with UN staff.

But at the end of March, as calls for Ntaganda’s arrest grew, a number of former CNDP members expressed their concern and Ntaganda himself published a memorandum that effectively announced his desertion. And on April 11, Kabila officially made Ntaganda a wanted man.

Around this time, former CNDP rebels were also beginning to defect, citing unpaid salaries, poor living conditions, and indications the government were not upholding the terms of the 2009 peace accord. Some claimed the defectors were protecting Ntaganda, but they denied this and the group called itself M23 in a nod to the date of the reneged agreement, signed 3 years ago on March 23.

Currently, Ntaganda is in hiding while mutineers from the national army, reportedly numbering between 500 and 800 troops, have left their former stronghold of Masisi in North Kivu district and collected on the triangular border between Rwanda, Uganda and the DRC, where they attempted a strategic takeover of Bunagana town last week.

But there continues to be a great deal of uncertainty surrounding the defectors, their intentions and their organisational structure. Anneke van Woudenberg, Senior Researcher for Human Rights Watch in Goma, for example, believes that the rebels are split into two camps – M23, led by Sultani Makenga, Ntaganda’s former deputy, and Ntaganda’s personal guard. According to van Woudenberg, Ntaganda and Makenga do not get on and only worked together in the past out of necessity.

Thierry Viercoulon of the International Crisis Group by contrast refers to the conflict more simply as a “mutiny in DR Congo led by General Bosco Ntaganda” in a report from April 13. “In order to protect their leader,” Viercoulon says, “some CNDP units began to defect and flock to areas traditionally under their control in North Kivu”.

Why now?

Many have been wondering why Kabila decided to give in to pressure to call for Ntaganda’s arrest now. The Lubanga verdict might have had some effect but was presumably not the only factor in the president’s decision.

Some researchers, such as the Institute for Security Studies, have suggested that Kabila might have used Ntaganda's arrest as a means of diverting attention from his controversial December re-election, which a coalition of international observers deemed "deeply flawed". Other observers wonder whether the international community, having decided to legitimate Kabila's presidency, is getting the opportunity to usher in reforms such as Ntaganda's arrest in return.

Rwandan sanctuary?

Despite a travel ban, Ntaganda allegedly crossed over to Rwanda at least twice during 2011, and some say he could try to take up residence in the country. Ntaganda fought alongside Rwandan president Paul Kagame in the rebel army which put a stop to the 1994 genocide and is thought to have personal and ideological ties with the president. This might not be enough for Ntaganda though, as Kagame has very little to gain but much to lose by granting asylum to the dissident ICC-indicted general.

On the other hand, however, there are indications Rwanda might be supporting the M23 rebels and fuelling conflict in the region. In 2008, the UN found evidence that Rwandan authorities were complicit in the recruitment of soldiers (including children), the supply of equipment, and provision of troops in support of the CNDP. And on May 14, the Congolese government dispatched its Defence Minister to Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi to investigate claims that foreign influence is fuelling the current conflict. Rwanda has a history of defending Rwandan Tutsis in the DRC and maintaining an illicit trade in metals and minerals.

Indeed, Ntaganda is not a villain in the eyes of all people in the region. He has been implicated in numerous atrocities against Hutus but is well-liked by many Congolese Tutsis. A refugee from Bihambwe, a village close to Ntanganda’s farm, said, “He’s a good man, he works for the people”. “This is not Ntaganda’s war”, said another.

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The west has protected Paul Kagame and promoted impunity to Tutsis who committed atrocities against Rwandan Hutu refugees, Congolese Hutus, and other innocent Conglose. If the CND and the Rwandan Defense Forces know that they will kill, and loot and they can get away with impunity they will continue to do so. Democraticizing Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo will end violence in the Great Lakes Region of Africa. People will continue to die and suffer as long as the imperial powers continue to protect Paul Kagame and his killing machine.