For the 22 years Brigadier-General Sultani Makenga fought in Congo and Rwanda, he spent most of this time in North and South Kivu, obtaining connections within and outside the region as well as knowledge on financing rebellion.
Having joined the army at the age of 17 as a Rwanda Patriotic Army (RPA) fighter in Uganda, Makenga who, until February 2012, was a colonel in the Congolese army, earned experience as a guerilla fighter in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.
His rebellion, he said, was inspired by historical injustices committed against his people, the Banyamulenge, who had suffered from the politics of exclusion from the colonial times through the Mobutu and Kabila regimes.
“My fight is against injustice brought about by the Kinshasa regime,” Makenga told The EastAfrican. “I have been fighting all these years because we want peace and stability for our people and our country.”
The Makenga generation believe that they are victims of a political conspiracy against the Banyamulenge in Congo, which was first initiated by the Belgian colonialists.
Presidents Mobutu Sese Seko and Laurent Desire Kabila continued to perpetrate the historical injustices against the Banyamulenge, Makenga said.
After fighting for eight years under Laurent Nkunda, a Seventh Day Adventist evangelist who abandoned the Bible for the gun, in 2009, the Banyamulenge secured a peace deal with President Joseph Kabila.
Gen Nkunda was captured by Rwandan troops in January 2009 as he tried to escape a Congolese-Rwandan offensive against several rebel groups in eastern Congo. Gen Nkunda had seemed “untouchable,” commanding a toughened rebel force that frequently humiliated Congolese troops. Some Congolese soldiers believed he had magic powers. He had a white lamb he named Betty, which was believed to “power” his rebellion.
A Rwandan journalist living in Canada told The EastAfrican in Nairobi how Gen Nkunda postponed an interview with him because Betty was seriously ill. “We waited for two days in the bush for the interview because his lamb was sick,” the journalist said.
Reporting about the arrest of Gen Nkunda, The New York Times’ Jeffrey Gettleman wrote: “The surprise arrest could be a major turning point for Congo, which has been mired in rebellion and bloodshed for much of the past decade. It instantly strengthens the hand of the Congolese government, militarily and politically, right when the government seemed about to implode… But it could also empower other, even more brutal rebel figures like Jean Bosco Ntaganda, Gen Nkunda’s former chief of staff who is wanted by the International Criminal Court in The Hague for war crimes.”
As Gettleman put it, the end of Nkunda’s era paved the way for the emergence of two “dangerous faces”: Ntaganda and Makenga, the men whose rebellion came to haunt Congo as well as the international community nearly three years after their commander’s arrest.
When the Nairobi Peace Accord was signed on March 23, 2009, Makenga and his former boss, Jean Bosco Ntaganda, agreed to be integrated in the Congolese army on one major condition: They would remain serving the Congolese national army in Kivu. But Makenga was suspicious and unco-operative following the arrest of Laurent Nkunda.
“We knew President Kabila very well… He was desperate to win, so he needed a peace deal with the CNDP (National Congress for the Defence of the People) before the General Election. After the election he had hidden motives,” Makenga told The EastAfrican.
According to the UN Group of Experts, senior commanders in the Congolese national army FARDC believed Makenga was given control over mineral-rich areas so as to co-operate with Kinshasa in the integration programme.
But he attributed this to his negotiation skills.
“I wasn’t bribed. I just negotiated for a better deal because I knew President Kabila and his people very well,” he told The EastAfrican.
When we asked one of President Kabila’s top security officials why the president agreed to give ex-CNDP rebels the lucrative mining areas just to court them into signing the Nairobi accord, he said: “The President and the people of Congo were committed to peace, and that is why we sacrificed our minerals to bring about lasting peace.”
The official who sought anonymity added: “We were desperate to secure peace, but remember desperate times call for desperate measures … it was a great gamble, but we had no choice.”
Part of the deal — apart from control of minerals — was to make Makenga a colonel in charge of Operation Amani Leo, which was aimed at fighting and disarming all militias in the Kivu region, including the Hutu rebels, FDLR.
To control the minerals business, Makenga had his man, Colonel Claude Mucho.
“FARDC officers interviewed by the Group maintained that Mucho had explicit control and direct financial interests in the gold mine at Matili and the cassiterite mines at Nkunwa, Nyambembe, Nduma, Luntukulu and Lukoma,” the UN Group’s 2010 report says.
But allowing Makenga and Ntaganda in the area in which they had been warlords for years was a grave mistake, because their power and support could not be neutralised during the integration process.
“They were integrated theoretically, but practically they remained active rebels, who used the opportunity to study the strength of the Congolese national army,” the Rwandan military officer told The EastAfrican in Kigali. “Neither side trusted the other but, for the sake of peace, they had no choice.”
Following the Nairobi peace deal in April 2009, ex-CNDP fighters underwent accelerated integration into FARDC and the national police, but the process lacked transparency.
While the CNDP leadership said it had 5,276 soldiers, the actual figure was 11,080, according to the UN group.
The ex-CNDP fighters in FARDC were an army inside an army that received orders from ex-rebel commanders instead of the FARDC top brass.
But there was no regional or international neutral body supervising the implementation of the peace accord.
“This was a failure for all of us who participated in the peace process,” said a UN diplomat.
Ntaganda and Makenga decided to go back to rebellion.
But there was mistrust between the two: Makenga viewed Ntaganda as a liability because of his ICC case and therefore having him in the newly proposed organisation would tarnish its image.
After Gen Nkunda was arrested and detained in Rwanda, a sharp division emerged within CNDP. Although Ntaganda was senior, Makenga viewed him as an outsider.
Colonels Boudoni Ngaruye, Innocent Zimurinda and Innocent Kiaina supported Gen Ntaganda, while Col Makenga, who was the deputy Amani Leo commander for South Kivu, retained the support of CNDP and FARDC officers loyal to Nkunda.
To weaken the Makenga-led faction, Ntaganda, a man referred to as “The Terminator” for his brutality, launched a series of assaults targeting prominent local leaders and top soldiers loyal to Nkunda.
“On June 20, 2011, the most respected leader of the Congolese Tutsi community, Denis Ntare Semadwinga, was murdered at his home in Gisenyi... According to human-rights investigators, a group of men, including a bodyguard of Ntaganda, entered Ntare’s home and stabbed him to death,” said the UN Group of Experts in their report. The killing provoked outrage among the Makenga faction of CNDP.
Then Lt-Col Antoine Balibuno was allegedly assassinated in Goma by former CNDP officers close to Ntaganda on his way to the general’s home. He was a close member of Nkunda’s inner circle during the CNDP rebellion. At the time of his death, he was in charge of civil-military affairs in the Amani Leo operation.
Makenga said he recruited all loyal soldiers and by February 2012, he had about 850 fighters. He then gained the support of the Republican Forces (FRF), a rebel faction in Kivu under Colonel Michel Makanika, a warlord.
Makenga’s next move was to find political backup for his mission.
“My business was to manage the army, but to succeed we needed more educated and respected leaders to manage our political affairs,” Makenga told The EastAfrican.
“We had enough dollars to pay salaries. This money came from our supporters inside and outside Congo, but we had plans to raise more money to finance our operations.”
The plan was to introduce a toll on all trucks that entered their territory and on business people who traded there. By October 2012, Makenga and his troops were earning an estimated $10,000 a day.
But that was not all: Makenga had a network of mineral dealers using Kampala and Kigali cities to transact their business. But he would not disclose to The EastAfrican how much this network contributed to the organisation.
But with earnings from illegal mineral and charcoal trade estimated at $57 million annually, financing the M23 rebellion was easy.
“Congolese army units are competing among themselves for control of the mineral-rich areas,” the UN group’s report said.
There was also another network: Arms smugglers within the Congolese national army.
After Makenga mutinied and walked away with enough weapons to stage the war, he continued getting supplies from the smuggling network.
“I have been receiving strong support from the Congolese national army, and also from some government officials in Kinshasa, who are not satisfied with the way things have turned out under President Kabila,” he told The EastAfrican in 2012.
“When the Kinshasa government buys new weapons, I also get a share through my contacts within the army. The Congolese army is the most corrupt, weak, divided military in the world.”
The UN experts claimed in 2011 that top Congolese army officers were behind the trade in “conflict minerals.” The UN report specifically named Gen Gabriel Hamis Nkumba, the then second in command of the army, as the man at the centre of the illegal trade in the east of the country.
The report quoted President Kabila as publicly stating that “the involvement of criminal networks within his forces, the FARDC, in illegal exploitation of minerals has caused conflict of interest in the army’s constitutional mandate.”
When pressure mounted over the trade in “blood” minerals, the rebels turned to the charcoal trade. During our brief stay at an M23 stronghold at Rumangabo, a few kilometres outside Goma town, we came across dozens of trucks carrying charcoal and timber from the rebel-controlled areas.
The M23 had a battalion monitoring the charcoal and timber business and collected money from the traders.
In 2010, the UN Group of Experts estimated that charcoal trade in Goma town was valued at $28 million annually. In Goma, a sack of charcoal weighing some 90kg was going for $25.
The biggest casualty in this man-made environmental disaster inside the Congo was Virunga National Park, where rebels and the national army soldiers were competing for the $28 million trade.
ALSO READ: Africa losing $17bn to logging annually
So, with a network of arms smugglers, control of lucrative mineral areas, illegal trade in charcoal and timber, a web of businessmen interested in illegal deals in the Congo, introduction of levies and knowledge of the Kivu region, Makenga launched a rebellion against the Kinshasa government for what he termed as “failure by President Kabila to fully honour the Nairobi peace deal.”
By July 2012, when the UN group released its interim report on Congo, Makenga’s army had more than 2,500 soldiers. The M23 had effectively become the centre of the Congo crisis, especially when the rebels captured Goma town in November 2012.
Read Part I of the Congo crisis series:UN mission in Congo guzzles $1.4b annually as violence spreads