The Ntaganda factor in DR Congo conflict

Saturday November 17 2012

In the Democratic Republic of Congo, General Bosco Ntaganda, the so-called Terminator has become such a toxic commodity that nobody wants to associate with him. Until the beginning of this year, Ntaganda ranked among the mighty warlords of the country.

An affable man with a radiant smile — as those who have met him describe him — Ntaganda has lived 22 of his 39 years soldiering, earning his nickname from the ruthlessness with which he terminated the lives of those considered enemies of his employer. Today, though, the mention of his name touches a raw nerve.

Not even the leadership of the M23 rebel group in the DR Congo, with which Ntaganda has been closely associated, wants anything to do with him.

(Read: Why they rebelled in DRC)
“We have nothing to do with Gen Bosco Ntaganda. He has been working with the government; at the time and until now, we don’t know where he is because when M23 set foot in Runyoni, Ntaganda was on his farm in Masisi working with the government,” Col Sultani Makenga, M23’s head of the Military High Command told The EastAfrican in Rumangabo, a sprawling military garrison about 40 kilometres north of Goma that the rebels captured from government forces towards the end of July.

Makenga knows Ntaganda only too well. Ntaganda, was his National pour la Défense du People, or the National Congress for the Defence of the People. CNDP accepted integration into government in 2009 only for Makenga & Co. to walk out in April this year, citing Kinshasa’s refusal to fully implement the March 23, 2009 agreement that occasioned the integration.

In spite of their differences, they came together because of their common interests within the government. The two would go on to work closely in both North and South Kivu, the epicentre of conflict in the DR Congo, as frontline men in the re-election campaigns of President Joseph Kabila.


Yet, Makenga insists: “We don’t know where he [Ntaganda] is and we cannot support impunity. He is wanted by International Criminal Court. He is dealing with the government. He has nothing to do with M23 and we don’t know where he is.”

He added how, according to the information they had, “Ntaganda is in Masisi and that the government knows very well where he is because even before, the rebellion, he was in regular touch with high ranking authorities in the army.”

In fact, Makenga says, if M23 were to lay their hands on Ntaganda, they would arrest him if for nothing else because they don’t support impunity in the area under their control.

But then what would M23 do with him afterwards? Try him; hand him to the DR Congo; or better yet directly to the ICC?

If Rwanda’s experience with Gen Laurent Nkunda, the founder of CNDP, is anything to go by, M23 could find itself stuck with the Terminator, who allegedly engineered a bloodless coup d’état against Nkunda.

Although Nkunda had formed CNDP around 2003, he formalised it on July 26, 2006, according to a new report from the US-based Rift Valley Institute (RVI), which attempts to trace the evolution of the CNDP into M23.

Its purpose was to eradicate the Forces Démocratiques pour la Libération de Rwanda or the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda, which is accused of carrying out the 1994 Rwanda genocide. It was also to ensure the return of up to 55,000 Congolese Tutsi that still lived in refugee camps in neighbouring Rwanda and elsewhere in the region.

By 2009, however, Nkunda had grown his political and military stature to levels that threatened the very existence of the government in Kinshasa, whose forces Nkunda had repeatedly routed every time they moved against him.

To secure his survival, President Kabila entered into a deal with his Rwanda counterpart, Paul Kagame, in which the latter would take Nkunda out of action and in return Kinshasa would not only integrate CNDP in government, it would also cooperate with the Rwandan army to deal the FDLR a decisive blow.

“Both parts of the deal were swiftly implemented. Congolese and Rwandan troops launched Operation Umoja Wetu (Our Unity) against the FDLR in January 2009 — while Kinshasa and the CNDP signed the March 23 Agreement, integrating the rebels into the army,” notes another report from RVI, which attempts to provide a historical context to the recurrent conflict in eastern DR Congo.

According to the report, the successes of the deal were astounding by all accounts: Rwanda surprised nearly everyone when they lured Nkunda, who they had allegedly backed, into a trap and arrested him; FDLR was decimated and some 4,500 of its combatants returned to Rwanda.

(Read: UN report links Rwanda to Congolese violence)
What’s more, the CNDP was integrated into the government and allowed to maintain parallel chains of command to cultivate confidence and secure stability in eastern Congo. It was even handed senior command positions when Umoja Wetu evolved into Operation Kimia 2 (Peace 2) in March 2009, and later into Operation Amani Leo (Peace Today) in January 2010.

For instance, Ntaganda himself, whom President Kabila had promoted to a general, was the operation’s overall deputy commander.

Comparatively, the report observes, the Kabila-Kagame deal held longer than any one before them. It only started unravelling after the 2011 elections, which were marred with large-scale rigging and gross irregularities.

Western governments, according to both President Kagame and the RVI reports, asked President Kabila to turn in Ntaganda, whom he had promised not to prosecute because of its peace dividends in eastern Congo, if his election were to be accepted in spite of its many flaws.

“At the beginning of 2012, the authorities in Kinshasa assessed the post-electoral period and the growing international pressure for the arrest of Gen Ntaganda as an opportunity to weaken parallel chains of command maintained in FARDC by ex-CNDP soldiers and other former armed groups,” notes the report of the UN Group of Experts on the DR Congo, which accused Rwanda of instigating and backing M23, claims Kigali has repeatedly denied.

In order to isolate Ntaganda and deliver him to the ICC, Kinshasa announced military reforms where troop deployment was solely under the discretion of the Commander-in-Chief. The intention of these reforms was really to dismantle ex-NCDP parallel chains of command that the Kabila government had allowed to exist in the national army as building blocks for the pacification of eastern Congo.

But there was a problem: Earlier attempts by the government to shuffle ex-CNDP soldiers had alienated in their commanders. Amani Babu, M23’s spokesperson, says 46 of their soldiers whom the government had asked to be deployed to quell skirmishes in Kisangani, 1,045km from the Bunagana border crossing with Uganda, had been killed by their commander, according to the lone soldier who managed to escape.

In another decisive incident, seemingly targeted at Ntaganda, President Kabila out of nowhere ended Operation Amani Leo without any contingency plans for dealing with the problem of FDLR, which the operation had significantly crippled but not dealt with decisively.

According to Francois Tuyihimbaze Rucogoza, M23’s executive secretary, when senior military officials formerly from CNDP queried the wisdom of abruptly calling off the operation in which they were playing a key role, Kinshasa responded by ambushing and jailing some 12 of them.

Others were kidnapped and forcibly taken to places like Kananga, Kinshasa and Bacongo. This went against what had been agreed in 2009 that ex-CNDP soldiers were not to be deployed beyond the Kivus for their own safety.

These incidents fuelled growing frustrations among ex-CNDP ranks about the government’s commitment to the agreement. At that point, both Rucogoza and Amani say the ex-CNDP structure began viewing Kinshasa with suspicion.

They started to think of how to protect their backs, which meant distancing themselves from Kinshasa. That, essentially, is how the current conflict began.

Unsurprisingly, the UN’s Group of Experts notes that “some ex-CNDP commanders who felt that their interests were threatened withdrew from the integration process to force new concessions from the government.”

It adds that officers and troops under the shared command of Gen Ntaganda and Col Sultani Makenga began deserting FARDC in April 2012, leading to a resurgence of violent clashes pitting government units against the mutineers.

Although the experts’ report pays a lot of attention to Ntaganda, Makenga and company, it says little, if anything, about M23’s discontent with Kinshasa or the wide-ranging weaknesses of the Kabila government that have turned the eastern part of the country into a breeding ground of rebellions.

As such, what it has achieved to date in so far as finding a lasting solution to the eastern Congo crisis is concerned has been to inspire international condemnation of Rwanda and, according to Rwanda’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Louise Mushikiwabo, to add more confusion to an already complicated situation with far reaching national and regional consequences.

For if, for example, if it is true that Ntaganda is holed up at his Masisi farm, in a territory North of Kivu that the government controls, why hasn’t Kinshasa hunted him down?

As it is, bringing in Ntaganda might, after all, not solve but exacerbate the situation of eastern Congo, if it is possible at all to catch him under prevailing circumstances.

The stateless nature of the region means that he can easily found a militia of his own and carve out a territory for his own self-preservation.

Alternatively, with the myriad rebel groups and local militia who have their own axes to grind with Kinshasa, it isn’t unlikely that he can forge deals with one or more of them. He has done this before.

As many people have noted now, Jason Stearns, the author of both RVI reports on M23 and Congo, says Kinshasa bears the primary responsibility to solve the crisis in eastern Congo and that it must “play a definitive role in shaping a meaningful political process.”

By Michael WakabI and Gaaki Kigambo