Bosco Ntaganda: A New Twist to an Old Story

16 Apr

Bosco Ntaganda 2013

New York Times Pool photo by Peter Dejong, March, 2013

On the third Tuesday of March, 2013 former Congolese general Bosco Ntaganda 39, calmly introduced himself to the military personal guarding the gates of the American Embassy located in the capital city of Kigali, Rwanda then asked to be escorted to the office of the highest ranking U. S. official on duty that day where he surrendered himself over to the United States government to face the charges that had been leveled against him by the lead prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC). Although neither the United States of America nor the country of Rwanda are participating members in the ICC, both countries assumed responsibility for his safety then arranged to have him flown to The Hague, Netherlands where he was immediately transferred over to a special security detail sent by the ICC as soon as he landed.

The question of the hour is why? Why would Bosco Ntaganda freely relinquish his freedom after years of flagrantly ignoring the indictments that had been leveled against him by the ICC during 2006 and again in 2012? The ICC had charged Ntaganda with crimes against humanity during his tenure as a commander in different Tutsi militias, specifically for his actions during the Second War in the Congo ( 2002-2003). The 2012 indictment charged him with murder, rape, pillaging, sexual slavery, and the conscription of child soldiers. Although to be fair, Ntaganda was not the first Congolese rebel leader to use children as soldiers.  Laurent Desire Kabila, father of the current president of the DR Congo, Joseph Kabila was the first to conscript child soldiers to fight in his revolution to overthrow the Congolese dictator Mobuto  and his “kadogos” played a crucial role in the battles that brought Kabila to Kinsasha finally placing him in the Presidential palace. These child troops led by the dynamic young leader, Anselme Masau helped make it possible for Kabila to declare himself President of the newly named  Democratic Republic of the Congo which had been previously called Zaire.

Ntaganda first distinguished himself as a master of terror while in the Patriotic Forces for the Liberation of the Congo (FPLC) and again while in the Union of Congolese Patriots (UPC) where as Chief of Military Operations he became famous for his methods used to recruit and keep child soldiers in these militias. He demonstrated a real talent for terrorizing villagers and making non-combatants submissive. His use of force in the form of rape, torture, and murder of innocent civilians was legendary during the Second War in the Congo and he was not above stealing their meager possessions in order to personally profit from their suffering. Ntaganda’s fellow militia commander Thomas Lubanga had already been found guilty by the ICC during his summer 2012 trial of conscripting child soldiers into his rebel army ( 2002-2003) and is currently serving an eight year prison sentence for this crime.

Rumors and speculation abound, some more plausible than others. Ntaganda had openly lived in Goma, a large Congolese city near the border between the DR Congo and Rwanda or on his farm in Maisisi, North Kivu since the Second War in the Congo had ended. There he enjoyed a life of leisure while cultivating an image as a warlord and demonstrated time and again that he was exceptionally good at making money. He owned shares in several illegal mining operations throughout  Ituri District and made vast sums of money  engaging in various, sorted extortion and illegal taxation schemes which eventually made him a very wealthy man- some say a millionaire in his own right. So why wouldn’t he have fled to cosmopolitan Johannesburg, South Africa where money can  purchase a great deal of anonymity or to Dubai where total exclusivity can be had for the right price? He seemed to have squirreled away enough money to ensure himself a life of luxury as an expatriate, so why didn’t he take the far easier route and run?

Well some say that the United States had placed a huge international bounty on his head making his chances of survival slim to none, thus giving him no choice but to turn himself in. Others say that the United States had put tremendous pressure on Paul Kagame, President of Rwanda and great friend to the United States Government, to cut all ties with Ntaganda even though he unofficially remained a soldier in the Rwandan army and never stopped carrying out Kagame’s orders. Others state that Joseph Kabila, President of the DR Congo after sheltering Ntaganda for years possibly because he did not want to alienate Rwanda announced in April of 2012 that he was considering arresting Ntaganda on the ICC’s charges but had considered trying him in the DR Congo instead of the Netherlands. And then there is M23, a Rwandan- supported rebel group operating in the Congo, who some say ousted Ntaganda from their ranks and swore to kill him if he returned with any of the 700 men still loyal to him.

This rebel movement composed of Congolese soldiers of the Tutsi ethnic group deserted their posts in April of 2012 and began fighting against the current president, Joseph Kabila and his government.  They have managed take over a good portion of Maisisi region from Goma to Sake from the Congolese Army and claim that their mission is to improve conditions for the citizens of the DR Congo by forcing Kabila to give into their demands but they seem to be doing this mainly for the people of the northeast region of the country namely the Tutsi who continue to face discrimination in North and South Kivu.

But this is an old story with basically the same cast of characters and some say that the present rebellion is no more than a continuation of the Second War in the Congo when the neighboring countries of Uganda and Rwanda entered the DR Congo illegally and refused to leave. There is irrefutable evidence that neither government ever departed the northeastern region of the Congo and that both continue to profit from illegally operated mines and the sale of conflict minerals. But for Rwanda, there is a much greater objective and that is the annihilation of the Hutu “Interahamwe”. Many claim that Laurent Kabila gave many of these Hutu extremists asylum in northeastern Congo after an estimated two million of them fled to surrounding countries once the Tutsi freedom fighters (RFP) had taken back the government of Rwanda in 1994. Rumors also attested to the fact that Kabila owed these Hutu militias for helping him oust Mobutu and assume the Presidency of the DR Congo. Rwanda who had also helped Kabila secure his position as president requested permission to enter the DR Congo to hunt down the Hutu rebels but although Rwandan soldiers did so for a time, they were subsequently denied permission to “cleanse the area of all “Interahamwe”. The descendants of these “Interahamwe” still exist in North and South Kivu and Paul Kagame will not rest until every last one of them has been killed. And so M23’s agenda is also the Rwandan agenda and even the United Nations has irrefutable evidence that Rwanda with Uganda’s help has been supporting the M23 Movement.

One only has to reread the history of Laurent Nkunda to understand how Rwanda has had and still has only two goals: it will not leave the Congo alone until the “Interahamwe” are destroyed for good and until the Tutsi have been properly accepted into Congolese society.

Nkunda began his career as a soldier by joining the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) helping to overthrown the Hutu government responsible for the Rwandan Genocide. Then he returned to the Congo and joined Laurent Kabila during the First War in the Congo (1996-1998)  helping him become President of the DR Congo.

By the Second War (200-2003) Nkunda had been promoted to major in the Rally for Congolese Democracy (RCD) a Tutsi militia supported by Rwanda. By 2004 once the wars had ended, Nkunda had risen to the rank of general in the Congolese Army but soon resented his treatment and those of his fellow Tutsi serving in the ranks so he and his men deserted their posts in North Kivu District and fled into the rural areas of Masisi. This became known as the Kivu Conflict and Nkunda claimed that he had no choice but to defend the Tutsi residing in the region who were being murdered by the Hutu rebels living there as well

By August 2007, Nkunda controlled most of the territory in Masisi and Rutshuru and had formed his own Tutsi militia he called the National Congress for the Defense of the People (CNDP). Word on the street was that his militia was being financed by Paul Kagame, President of Rwanda.

By 2008, Nkunda advanced on Goma, a large city near the Rwandan- Congo border where he led his fighters against the Congolese army and United Nations troops. The recent fighting displaced around 200,000 civilians, bringing the total number of civilians uprooted by the Kivu Conflict to around 2 million diseased and starving residents of the northeast region of the Congo. Nkunda swore that he would not stop until President, Joseph Kabila accepted his commands.

Although Nkunda had been accused of crimes against humanity especially in his recruitment of child soldiers he firmly denied this allegation stating that he did not advocate the use of child soldiers and had sent them home when he had been given the opportunity to do so. And them something happened – it Joseph Kabila did not reach an agreement with Nkunda but had been negotiating with Paul Kagame instead. Kabila’s demand: If Nkunda was removed from the leadership of the CNDP then Rwandan soldiers would be allowed into the DRC to destroy the Hutu “Interahamwe”  once again”. Now a lot of people believed that Nkunda had only been following Kagame’s directives in the first place and after M23’s similar demands this seems very likely.

And then who took over the leadership of the CNDP but Bosco Ntaganda! Some accounts maintain that he usurped leadership of the militia but that was totally untrue.  The CNDP was a Rwandan militia through and though -supported and operated by the country of Rwanda. Both Nkunda and Ntaganda remained soldiers in the Rwandan Army and did only what Kagame  ordered.

Laurent Nkunda was arrested four years ago by the Rwandan Army in 2009 after he had crossed into Rwanda but he has yet to be charged with any crime by a Rwandan military court. He had been under secret house arrest since that day but many feel that he is free man in Rwanda and even acts as a military advisor to the President of Rwanda concerning DR Congo affairs. The Rwandan government has continually refused to hand over Nkunda to the Congolese courts even though the DR Congo had issued an international warrant for his arrest. The Rwandan government had substantiated the fact that Nkunda remained a Rwandan soldier by ruling in 2010 that Nkunda could only be tried by a military court. They gave the reason that this was because the military had been responsible for his apprehension but that claim would only be accepted by the court if he was considered to be a legitimate soldier in the Rwandan army in the first place.

But the plot continues to thicken. Who was it who also fought alongside Laurent Nkunda and Bosco Ntaganda during the North Kivu Conflict? Why it was Colonel Sultani Makenga also accused of having committed crimes against humanity by massacring 67civilians in Kiwandja, North Kivu during the Kivu Conflict. This is the same Colonel Sultani Makenga who  now leads of the M23 troops. And predictably he professes the  same concerns as Nkunda for the safety of the Tutsi in the Congo and is waging the same war against the  Hutu “Interahamwe” as Nkunda did. Now from where did he receive his marching orders and his money?

One thing is certain, at some point Ntaganda became an unavoidable embarrassment to Paul Kagame but has Rwanda deserted him for good? This remains to be seen but based on Rwanda’s treatment of Nkunda- maybe not? Is M23 against Ntaganda or is this all just an act in order to distance themselves from his despicable reputation- maybe so? Ntaganda entered the courtroom a humble man on the first day of his trial, the decorated officer now wore the reserved, black suit of a European gentleman- far from the boisterous warlord and brutal militia commander responsible for carrying out the heinous charges that had been leveled against him.

He was not asked to enter a plea on the first day of his trial but stated for the record anyways, “I was informed of the crimes but I am not guilty.”

When Judge Trendafileva asked him to state his profession, he answered, “I was a soldier in the Congo.” Maybe had he replied, “I was a Rwandan soldier operating under orders in the DR Congo .”- he might have come somewhat closer to the truth of the matter.

Kat Nickerson                       Kingston         R.I.                  USA

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