Bosco Ntaganda, the Congolese rebel M23 leader awaiting trial at the International Criminal Court (ICC) for war crimes, was a feared commander who ran a vast extortion empire in the mineral-rich east of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), according to UN investigators.
The Congolese government says Ntaganda fled to neighbouring Rwanda in March 2013, along with hundreds of other rebels. He was later to seek sanctuary at the US embassy in the Rwandan capital, Kigali, before his extradition to the ICC.
Ntaganda has been nicknamed “The Terminator” for his penchant for frontline action. He along with Jean-Marie Runiga, political leader of M23, had been fighting rivals loyal to the group’s military chief, Sultani Makenga.
‘Chain of command’
A former general in the Congolese army, Rwandan-born Ntaganda belongs to the minority Tutsi ethnic group, which is found both in Rwanda and in eastern DRC. The two countries share borders.
Ntaganda is widely believed to have instigated a mutiny by former rebels of the National Congress for the Defence of People (CNDP) who had been integrated in the Congolese army after the March 2009 peace deal but defected in April last year, forming the M23 movement.
A UN report released in November 2012 said the M23’s “de facto chain of command” includes Ntaganda and was being backed by Rwanda. Rwanda rejected the report, saying it was based on hearsay.
The report piled further charges against Ntaganda, including recruiting child soldiers, sex slavery, murder and pillaging.
The ICC issued arrest warrants against Ntaganda in 2006 over crimes said to have been committed in the northeastern Ituri region in 2002-2003.
Ntaganda was again accused of having used underage fighters in the province of North Kivu in 2012.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in May 2013 that Ntaganda had forcibly recruited at least 149 boys and young men into his group.
HRW quoted one woman from Birambizo in North Kivu as saying Ntaganda himself visited her village to recruit.
“He asked us to give our children, our students, to him to fight. He came to our village himself,” the woman said.
A child soldier who testified against Ntaganda in The Hague, the ICC’s headquarters, said he “kills people easily”.
“Ntaganda has boldly walked around the restaurants and tennis courts of Goma flaunting his impunity like a medal of honour while engaging in ruthless human rights abuses,” HRW senior Africa researcher Anneke Van Woudenberg Van Woudenberg said.
Born in 1973 in Rwanda, but brought up in the DRC, the more than six-foot tall Ntaganda – who has a penchant for pencil moustaches and leather cowboy-style hats – has lived an opulent lifestyle.
A keen tennis player, Ntaganda loves jogging and surfing the internet, according to his lawyer Antoine Mahamba Kasiwa.
UN investigators say Ntaganda managed to amass considerable wealth by running a large extortion empire in North Kivu, manning rogue checkpoints and taxing the area’s many mines.
One report said he once earned $15,000 a week from a single border crossing.
Ntaganda fled Rwanda to eastern DR Congo as an adolescent following attacks on his fellow Tutsis.
In 1990, during his late teens, he joined the Rwandan Patriotic Front, founded by Rwandan refugees who had served in the Ugandan army and fought their way back to Rwanda led by Paul Kagame, the current Rwandan president.
Since then Ntaganda has alternated between fighting in the national army and rebellions, including in the five-year long DR Congo war that claimed at least two million lives and ended in 2003.
In May 2013, a 25-tonne arms cache was found on Ntaganda’s farm in Masisi, North Kivu, that included mortars, rifles and small arms.