DR Congo: Victim to the Western quest for justice

The international judicial system could be helping to fuel the country’s recent surge in conflict.

Newly arrived refugee children from the DRC play outside their makeshift refugee camp at Bunagana near Kisoro town
Fighting in the Democratic Republic of Congo has caused thousands to flee since April [REUTERS]

Goma, DR Congo –
This has been a triumphant year, so far, for international justice. It began with Invisible Children’s Kony2012 campaign, which, rightly or wrongly, popularised the scourge of central African war criminals with a viral video – and appeared to provoke a US military response. In March, the International Criminal Court issued its first verdict with the trial of DRC warlord Thomas Lubanga. This month, western-backed proceedings found Charles Taylor guilty of aiding and abetting war crimes in Sierra Leone.

These resolutions have been praised as milestones, but in the north-east of the DRC, where stability has been fragile – if not absent – since the ethnic and political ruptures of the Rwandan genocide, the quest to deliver justice to ICC-indicted Bosco “The Terminator” Ntaganda is toppling the hard-won former peace. 

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Ntaganda was one of the most powerful generals in eastern Congo – but now is a man on the run, leaving an area the size of Greece destabilising in his wake. His original 2006 indictment accused him of recruiting children younger than 15 into active combat, and the ICC has now added new charges relating to alleged crimes, including murder, ethnic persecution, rape and sexual slavery, pillaging and deliberate civilian attacks.

An ethnic Tutsi warlord believed to be of Rwandan origin, Ntaganda began his career fighting against the 1994 genocide alongside Rwandan president Paul Kagame. In 2002, he became second-in-command of Thomas Lubanga’s clan-based militia in Ituri district, north-east Congo. It was here that he earned his Hollywood sobriquet “The Terminator”, which is referred to by the ICC. In 2002 and 2003, he allegedly commanded men to murder at least 800 civilians in and around Mongbwalu, a strategic mining town which holds some 2.5 million ounces of gold.

After that war ebbed, Ntaganda joined the National Congress for the Defence of the People (CNDP) under the leadership of another zealot, Laurent Nkunda, with whom he fought against the perpetrators of the Rwandan genocide. In 2008, he is believed to have led CNDP troops in a frenzied 24-hour massacre of 150 people at Kiwanja village in North Kivu. More recently, he is understood by UN experts to be taking some $15,000 a week in taxes from smuggling operations between DRC and Rwanda.

Michael Deibert, author of Democratic Republic of Congo: Between Hope and Despair, describes Ntaganda as the “king-maker” in mineral-rich North Kivu, since his 2009 betrayal of Nkunda, which led to a secret peace deal and the integration of the CNDP into the state army. “[Ntaganda] is the lynchpin of what they have called peace in eastern Congo – peace linked with impunity because that’s been the nature of the peace,” he said. 

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President Kabila has chosen, until this year, not to act on the 2006 warrant for Ntaganda’s arrest. But the Lubanga verdict added more calls for his capture, and at the end of March, it seems that “The Terminator” had little choice but to defect.

A number of former CNDP officers and soldiers followed him, and, within weeks, around 600 men had joined him in Masisi, the traditional CNDP heartland. According to Human Rights Watch, he has since recruited at least 149 boys and young men aged between 12 and 20 years old – the very crime for which he was originally indicted.

At the beginning of May, a rift emerged, as a memo was emailed (on CNDP notepaper) by the defectors, citing unpaid salaries and poor living conditions as evidence of the government’s failure to uphold the terms of the 2009 peace accord and as the reason for their defection. Commentators said the men were protecting Ntaganda, but the defectors denied this, calling themselves “M23” – a reference to March 23, the date of the peace deal signed three years ago.

The memo named Colonel Makenga – an ethnic Tutsi who, after fighting alongside Ntaganda in Rwanda,fell out with “The Terminator” over Nkunda’s overthrow – as leader of the M23 movement. Colonel Innocent Kaina, leading a batallion of M23 rebels in Masisi, also claimed that the group did not know Ntaganda’s location.

With “The Terminator” in hiding (rumoured to be in the “gorilla sector” of the region’s national park), it is Makenga’s M23 rebels – believed to number between 500-600 – who are fighting government troops close to the borders of Congo, Rwanda, and Uganda.

And now the Kony effect has set in. Advocacy and human rights organisations have launched “Terminator” campaigns, fuelling another virtual manhunt and internet crusade.

If justice cannot be achieved without indiscriminate blood loss, is impunity – or at least consideration of it – too great a price to pay?”

Yet, despite his brutal history, for some Congolese Tutsis, Ntaganda symbolises the prospect of peace in their homelands, where there is still widespread persecution by Hutus. Bucamwa Munyakabuga, a refugee who has lived on a hilltop farm in northern Rwanda for 13 years, is mourning a close friend, killed this month fighting for Ntaganda.

“They’re fighting so that the refugees may return to their country,” he said. “I was not born in Rwanda – I am a Congo man. But now I am a refugee.” 

In a region such as this, where ethnic and political lines dissect official borders, few conflicts are strictly domestic. On May 14, the Congolese defence minister was sent to Rwanda, Uganda and Burundi to investigate claims that foreign influence was fuelling the clashes – reasoning that M23 arms must come from somewhere

Defending the rights of Rwandan Tutsis, stabilising the refugee situation, and maintaining control of an illicit trade in metals and minerals are among the reasons why it could be in Rwanda’s interest to support the rebels. 

Rwanda does not want Ntganda tried at the Hague, and some believe President Kagame will use Makenga and M23 as his proxy power, allowing him to find his own solution to Ntaganda’s sub-poena – just as Nkunda now lives in Rwanda, despite his international arrest warrant.

Anneke Van Woudenberg, senior researcher for Human Rights Watch in Goma, says that the ICC arrest warrant issued this week against Sylvestre Mudacumura, the head of the FDLR, the pro-Hutu Rwandan militia operating in eastern Congo that has killed 50 civilians already this month, is also highly significant. “Until now, all the heat has been on Bosco,” she said.

In Depth


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In presenting Ntaganda as the sole cause of the conflict, attaching the few personal descriptions of him that exist (how “he kills easily” and “enjoys playing tennis”) to doltish images of him in a leather cowboy hat, we distill the complex clashes into a handy dichotomy: the rules of international justice versus the image of impunity for African warlords.

Since April, more than 40,000 people have fled their homes, trudging through mud and rains to a point of safety – either in Congo or across the border into Rwanda or Uganda, or indeed, anywhere. While the ICC has become the cornerstone for international justice, dignity is at the core of human rights – and one must question whether it is being upheld here.  

Tutsi refugees arriving in Rwanda have reported widespread physical and verbal assault, often carried out by soldiers. One man said troops took everything from him, even his baby’s milk, leaving him with nothing but his underwear. Another said he watched as they looted his farm. 

As the CNDP army defectors left their positions in April, militia moved in. Across the region, armed groups have been exploiting the security vacuum to feather their nests, attacking civilians and peacekeepers alike. The FDLR is fighting raia mutomboki [“angry villagers”] and killing civilians. Last week, 11 Pakistani peacekeepers were seriously injured, some shot, when around 1,000 people surrounded their South Kivu base, according to MONUSCO, the UN’s peacekeeping behemoth in DRC. With Congolese troops overstretched by a number of problems, there is now a desperate need to protect civilians.

If the international community persists in a blinkered pursuit of justice manifested in the arrest of Bosco “The Terminator” Ntaganda – that is, if he survives the current fighting – it does so at the risk of taking its eye off the broader crisis unfolding in eastern Congo.

“African solutions to Africa’s problems” is one of the guiding principles of the African Union that emerged from, among other things, the failure of the international community to deal with the Rwandan genocide. President Kabila justified Ntaganda’s former impunity by claiming that he was crucial to the peace. Kabila is now saying that, should Ntaganda be captured, he will stand trial in DRC before being delivered to The Hague – something commentators do not believe could happen due to the country’s poor judicial track record.

Observers of the current situation could conclude that President Kabila was right in granting impunity on the grounds that he was “a lynchpin of the peace process”. But this is something human rights organisations have rubbished – leadership by a perpetrator of massacres could never equate to peace, they argue.

If justice cannot be achieved without massive and indiscriminate blood loss, is some degree of impunity for one man – or at least consideration of it – too great a price to pay?

Jessica Hatcher is a journalist based in Nairobi, Kenya.

Follow her on Twitter: @jessiehatcher