GOMA, Democratic Republic of Congo — In a startling development yesterday, Congolese rebel leader Bosco Ntaganda turned up unannounced at the U.S. embassy in Kigali, Rwanda, asking to be transferred to the International Criminal Court. Wanted by the ICC since 2006, Ntaganda, who is known as “The Terminator” for his ruthless tactics, including recruitment of child soldiers, murder, and sexual slavery, has been elusive ever since international pressure mounted for his arrest in early 2012. Protecting Ntaganda and his lucrative links to eastern Congo’s illicit minerals trade is seen as a key rationale behind the M23 mutiny in April 2012.
What might explain his decision? Ntaganda, a Congolese Tutsi born in Rwanda, once served in the Rwandan army alongside now Rwandan President Paul Kagame and is implicated by the United Nations Group of Experts to have maintained links to Kagame's government through various roles commanding rebel groups in eastern Congo. But as this connection proved increasingly awkward for Kigali, Ntaganda’s decision to go underground suggests he questioned the strength of that loyalty. Ntaganda would have considered all his options before deciding to turn himself in to the U.S. embassy, so he may have felt his best chance for survival was to surrender to people he believes can ensure his safety.
Ntaganda's decision to surrender is a consequence of a profound crisis within M23. During recent weeks, the group has been consumed by infighting. Early Saturday morning, Ntaganda’s rival in the M23 and leader of its competing faction, Sultani Makenga, seized control of the town of Kibumba, 30 km north of the provincial capital of Goma, from Ntaganda’s forces. Ntaganda's political head, Jean-Marie Runiga, fled into neighboring Rwanda with over 700 combatants, where Rwandan authorities said they have been detained. Two eyewitnesses at the Congo-Rwandan border crossing in Kibumbu told the Enough Project that they had seen Ntaganda cross into Rwanda along with his affiliates Col. Muhire, Col. Seraphin Mirindi, Innocent Zimurinda (allegedly wounded and carried on a soldier’s back).
While all eyes will now be on the fate of Ntaganda, the handling of his affiliates will also have a significant impact on efforts to stabilize eastern Congo. The United States government and the United Nations Security Council have enacted sanctions on Runiga, Ngaruye, Kaïna, Zimurinda. The U.N. Framework agreement signed by regional heads of state in Addis Ababa three weeks ago should obligate Rwanda to break with its tradition of providing a safe haven for people wanted in eastern Congo, such as Col. Jules Mutebutsi and General Laurent Nkunda. Rwanda must comply with Congolese and international efforts to prosecute all Congo war criminals in refuge on its territory. Kinshasa has already requested Rwanda to extradite Runiga, who, in turn, requested for Rwandan authorities to deport him to Uganda.
Rwanda’s potential role in the surrender of Ntaganda and cooperation in holding the others accountable is still unclear. Col. Olivier Hamuli, spokesman for Congo's army in North Kivu, asked: "Is it an arrest or are they hiding him [Runiga] away?" If Runiga is extradited to Kinshasa, Congolese authorities must provide for a fair trial and not set suspects free in exchange for a temporary ‘peace’ deal with the M23.
What implications does Ntaganda’s surrender and M23 infighting have for the peace talks currently held between the government of Congo and the M23 in Kampala, Uganda? As of yesterday, the talks are suspended for a week but until they resume, uncertainty prevails.
In pursuing further peace talks with the M23—and seeing the potential end of the group suddenly close at hand—Kinshasa must not settle for a shady deal with a wanted war criminal such as Sultani Makenga or offer him amnesty.
Photo: Bosco Ntaganda (AP)