M23 Movement: Will Ntaganda Elude Punishment Again?

24 Jun

Two very different stories have been pitched to the international press corps lately: The first tale was told to local news stations by representatives from the Communication Ministry of the DR Congo located in the capital city of Kinshasa. While the second was emailed by M23 to members of the foreign news agencies as press releases (thirteen in all as of 27/05/2012). These documents were composed by former CNDP rebels, now soldiers in the Congolese army, who had deserted their posts around the same time as Ex-General Bosco Ntaganda left with his own men sometime in early April 2012. This first group of soldiers call themselves the March 23rd Movement or M23 and all they want is a reconciliation with the government in Kinshasa – the same reconciliation promised to them in the March 23, 2009 Amani Leo Peace Agreement  

Both groups have provided vastly different versions of the role Bosco Ntaganda has played in the present conflict in the north-eastern part of the DR Congo. Although the Kabila government informed the international press that M23 fights for Bosco Ntaganda people in the district know differently. According to M23 they do not fight for Bosco Ntaganda, never have. They fight to restore rights awarded to them in the Amani Leo Peace Accord which was signed at the end of the Second War in the Congo in 2003. Bosco Ntaganda is not their leader. Colonel Sultani Makenga leads them and Colonel Vianney Kazarama directs them through their battles with government troops. They have relocated to the Virunga National Forest located directly across from Queen Elizabeth National Park in Uganda which is also where Ntaganda settled with his troops. This section of tropical forest is home to the Mountain Gorilla (for more information see Blog 6) which is considered an endangered species by the World Wildlife Federation – a total population of 800 gorillas remain.

But in order to make sense of the present situation it is best to look at Ntaganda’s past actions. During the Second War in the Congo, members of the Tutsi ethnic group living in the Congo created the National Congress for the Defense of the People (CNDP) to defend themselves against attack by marauding Hutu who had taken part in the Rwandan Genocide. These Hutu soldiers had been expelled from Rwanda by the Rwandan Army once the Tutsi government had taken control of the country sometime in 1995. Laurent Nkunda was the acknowledged leader of the CNDP and he brought Bosco Ntaganda on board to serve as his second in command. Both Nkunda and Ntaganda were Tutsis and former citizens of Rwanda who had fought in the Rwandan War for Independence in 1994. Bosco Ntaganda eventually betrayed General Laurent Nkunda and took over command of the CNDP forces. Rumor has it that Ntaganda was paid a large sum of money by the Rwandan government to remove Nkunda from his position because he would no longer follow orders issued by the Rwandan government. General Nkunda was subsequently turned over to Rwandan military personnel who escorted him to Rwanda where he remains under house arrest to this day.

Ntaganda must have become concerned when President Joseph Kabila openly talked about arresting him in a speech Kabila made this spring after having defended Ntaganda for so long. Kabila’s change of heart was unexpected and contrary to the conditions laid out in the Amani Leo Peace Accord. Under the terms of this agreement, Ntaganda’s crimes should have been forgiven when he accepted his commission as a general in the Congolese army. At the end of the second war in the Congo all of Ntaganda’s CNDP troops were also conscripted into the Congolese Army by President Laurent Kabila in order to ensure a peaceful transition throughout the country especially in the eastern districts that had been plagued by outbreaks of militia warfare.

So in April 2012 Ntaganda gathered around 200 of his former CNDP troops together and defected after hearing the news that his former commander, Thomas Lubanga, had been found guilty by the International Criminal Court of war crimes against humanity and would be sentenced sometime in the summer. Ntaganda had also been indicted by the same international court in 2006 for numerous “crimes against humanity” but had never been arrested even though he lived in the city of Goma where the UN Peace- Keeping Mission was stationed. On May 14th 2012, Louis Ocampo, chief prosecutor for the ICC added the charges of murder, persecution, and sexual slavery to the previous warrant he had issued against Ntaganda. Bosco Ntaganda continued to command his group of men for a time and had positioned them within Virunga Forest as well. But by April 2012 he had begun conscripting young boys into his army again. He sent them into skirmishes with FARC troops and several of the boys died as a result of wounds received in combat.

The appointment of Ntaganda as a General in the Congolese army happened around the time that the peace accord was signed by the Congolese government and the leaders of the CNDP. The M23 troops swear that the government also promised to give them status as a political party. The conditions stipulated in the Amani Leo Accord never materialized beyond the signing of the document. Over time members of the CNDP militia, now soldiers in the Congolese army, split into two separate organizations; those who remained loyal to the ideals of their former leader Nkunda and those who followed Ntaganda. According to M23 leaders this lies at the heart of their issues with the DRC government.

Then something transpired between Ntaganda and his own troops. Did he sell them out to the Congolese Government after making a deal for himself? Or did he just up and disappear one evening? Did his own troops cut him loose because they believed in something more than monetary profit? Or did they discover that Ntaganda had made a deal for himself with the government and was nothing more than an opportunist- a classic narcissist with sociopathic tendencies? Whatever happened, Bosco Ntaganda left his own men and abruptly disappeared from the district.

On May 7, 2012 the Congolese Army claimed that it had retaken the Masisi area in eastern Congo from the M23 rebels. The government claimed that it was still looking for Bosco Ntaganda and had no idea where he had gone. Yet according to an M23 statement in the thirteenth press release the government knew exactly where Ntaganda could be found because they had put him there. It was common knowledge among the villagers in the district that Ntaganda had made a deal with President Joseph Kabila then deserted his troops for his Bunyoli farm in Masisi where he remains awaiting additional orders. And they know this because they have seen him there walking about on his farm.

The suspension of Amani Leo was the impetus for the M23 soldiers to renounce both Ntaganda and the corrupt elements of the Congolese Army (FARDC). And although the M23 leaders have announced that their goal is to reconcile with the Kabila government after the conditions identified in the March 23, 2009 Amani Leo Peace Agreement have been awarded to them, the government says that it is not interested in restoring their rights or in making peace. President Kabila has made it clear that he will not negotiate with the rebels and intends to fight it out until M23 surrenders or has been defeated.

The M23 troops swear that their April 2012 defection from their army posts took place to call attention to the crimes being perpetrated on Tutsi civilians by members the Hutu FDLR and the mistreatment of Tutsi residents by soldiers in the Congolese Army. They wanted to ensure that the government took specific measures to remove these renegade Hutu from the region in order prevent them from committing anymore acts of violence against the Congolese civilian population especially Tutsis. They also sought to pressure the DRC government into implementing the conditions of the Amani Leo Peace Agreement. They want to make it clear that they never meant to wage war against President Joseph Kabila’s troops but were only defending themselves against attack. They say they never wanted to fight; their goal was to return to the conditions set forth in the Amani Leo Peace Accord, be paid a fair salary, and eat. And they want to make it very clear that they have never had any affiliation at any time with General Bosco Ntaganda. They find it extremely unfair that the government of the DRC has “decided to fight them instead of listen to them or help make things better for them.” They want this conflict to end so that they can return to their posts and resume their normal responsibilities as soldiers in the Congolese army.

Unfortunately the leaders in Kinshasa have seriously underestimated the collective talent of the M23 troops who are all seasoned fighters with years of combat experience behind them. They have fought well in the skirmishes so far and have managed to hold off a much larger Congolese Army (FARDC). They took and held the territory along the Congo-Rwanda border, as well as the towns of Mbuzi, Runyoni, and Bunagana. M23 reported this week that it had seized a considerable cache of weapons from the Congolese army after one very heated exchange of gunfire and ground missiles.

Once again, as in the past it has been the civilians in the region who have had their lives disrupted by the impromptu battles and constant exchange of bullets. Most have had to relocate in order to survive. MONUSCO confirmed that around 200,000 refugees have already fled their homes as a result of the latest battles in the area between the M23 rebels, Congolese army, and the Mai-Mai militias. And another 10,000 refugees crossed the border in early May headed for displacement camps in Rwanda and Uganda. About 55,000 Congolese refugees, most of them Congolese Tutsis, have registered for shelter in the Rwandan camps.

Then there are the rumors leaked by the Congolese government and supported by the UN that Rwanda began supporting M23 troops in early May. The government further claimed that up to 300 young Tutsi had been recruited and trained in Rwanda then sent on to serve as M23 troops. The Rwandan government has continued to deny both of these allegations. And then there is the blatant lie that M23 is connected in some way to the Hutu “genocidaires” in Kivu District. The truth of the matter is that during the Second War in the Congo all of the M23 soldiers were once members of the Tutsi militia, CDNP and that the Hutu soldiers hiding in Kivu District were responsible for the deaths of millions of Tutsis. There is no way that M23 troops would align themselves to members of the FDLR after the Tutsi Genocide perpetrated by the Hutus in 1994. This was one of the major reasons they defected in the first place- to make sure that the FDLR Hutu rebels were stopped from attacking and murdering Congolese civilians especially Tutsi in Kivu District. 

The United Nations Organization Mission, DR Congo (MONUSCO) has publically condemned the actions of the M23 soldiers but UN mediators did offer to arbitrate an agreement between M23 and the Kabila government if asked. The UN Security Council has officially petitioned Rwanda and Uganda to help prevent the “flow of supplies” to the M23 troops and to assist in “demobilizing” all armed militias operating in the Eastern Kivu region.

But wasn’t that the reason for the second war in the Congo in the first place? Uganda and Rwanda have no right to enter any section of the Congo without being formally invited by President Kabila first. But it is the Congolese government that has taken an inflexible position in this matter, not M23, and it has already admitted that it will show “no mercy.” By all accounts Kabila plans to exterminate these mutinous troops but why? So why doesn’t he disclose his plans for Ntaganda as well?

Rumors abound as the violence and fear generated by excessive battles in Kivu District rekindle old feuds and rivalries among ethnic groups in the area. Former Mai-Mai militias have regrouped and reports that over 120 people have been killed by Mai-Mai in tribal fighting during the past month have reached Kinshasa. Two Mai-Mai militias, the Raia Mutomboki and the Kifuafua have been credited with the murders in Masisi. Mai-Mai militias were originally formed as tribal defense organizations in the Second War in the Congo and both fought against the Hutu FDLR who were hiding out in the forests near their villages.The Mai-Mai militias took over the Masisi region after the M23 soldiers left the area at the beginning of May. It has been reported that both of these militias killed Tutsi civilians which is highly doubtful because both of these militias fought against the Hutu in the past and defended the Congolese Tutsi populations. It was the Mai-Mai militias who took on the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) forces.

On May 14th, eleven Pakistani UN soldiers were seriously injured in an attack on their base camp by over a thousand people in the town of Bunvakiri, South Kivu. Bystanders at the scene reported that the crowd was led by members of the Mai-Mai militia, Raia Mutomboki. The soldiers were part of a peacekeeping detail with the United Nations Organization Mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo (MONUSCO).

Is the Congolese government getting ready to blame this entire incident on M23 and excuse the actions of Bosco Ntaganda like it has so often done in the past? If so, remember that this time the world is not only watching, President Kabila, but it will demand that justice be done.  If these soldiers have to pay for their defection then Bosco Ntaganda must be punished too! There is nothing that these soldiers have done that in anyway compares to the crimes against humanity perpetrated by Ntaganda. Arrest him and send him to the Hague where he belongs along with the rest of the madmen who will eventually stand trial there. Let him be tried by the ICC as the war criminal he was and still is. Because if you protect him one more time, President Kabila, the next warrant issued by the ICC should be for you.

Kat Nickerson   Kampala,  Uganda

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