History repeats with East Congo mutiny

While Thomas Lubanga, above, was convicted at the ICC in March, his co-accused, Bosco Ntaganda, continues to create havoc in Congo

By Hanna Ucko Neill, Global Conflicts Analyst

This past weekend the United States announced that it was cutting military aid to Rwanda over concerns that Kigali was backing rebel movements in neighbouring Congo. The $200,000 involved is not that significant, but Washington’s move is. Despite Rwanda’s vehement denials, and a delay in publication, its staunchest ally and international defender is acknowledging  a controversial UN report linking Kigali to the new M23 rebel movement.

After the fierce inter-ethnic wars of the 1990s and years of instability, the last thing the citizens of strife-torn Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) needed was increased violence. But that is exactly what they have faced since April this year, when Congolese soldiers led by General Bosco Ntaganda – ‘the Terminator’ – deserted. The hundreds of soldiers who exited the army during the mutiny were former members of the rebel CNDP (Congrès National Pour la Défense du Peuple) who had only joined the force three years earlier, as part of a peace deal in 2009. Like the government in Rwanda, they are mainly ethnic Tutsis.

Clashes between the mutineers and the army in the eastern provinces of North and South Kivu have caused some 260,000 civilians to flee. The rebels have reportedly taken control of towns such as Bunagana in Rutshuru territory, and the ensuing chaos has left other villages more vulnerable to attacks from the DRC’s alphabet soup of other rebel groups, especially the Rwandan Hutu FDLR (Forces Démocratiques de Libération du Rwanda).

The army defectors have styled themselves the March 23 Movement (M23) after the date of the failed 2009 peace accord. Many say they are dissatisfied with conditions in the Congolese army (the Forces Armées de la République Démocratique du Congo, or FARDC), but there is some confusion and disagreement about their reasons for their taking to the bush.

The move was first seen as a means of protecting Ntaganda, who is wanted by the International Criminal Court for human-rights abuses during Congo’s second civil war in 1998–2003. For six years after the ICC issued a warrant for him in 2006, Ntaganda moved around the town of Goma and elsewhere openly. Granted impunity mainly through his perceived centrality to the peace process, he enjoyed a life of luxury that the BBC has described as including ‘fine wine and dining and games of tennis’, all under the nose of the Congolese government and the nearly 20,000-strong UN stabilisation mission in DRC (MONUSCO).

However, shortly before the rebellion, in the wake of fellow Congolese Thomas Lubanga’s conviction, Kinshasa was coming under renewed international pressure to arrest him. (Shortly after the mutiny, President Kabila announced for the first time his intention to do so.)

In fact, many former CNDP rebels may have been willing to let Ntaganda fight his own battles with the ICC, and there are suggestions that the original mutiny was something of a failure. It appears to have been President Joseph Kabila’s subsequent attempt to redeploy CNDP army units out of the Kivus that galvanised them into more sustained action and inspired more soliders to desert.

The ex-CNDP rebels were granted significant privileges when they were integrated into the FARDC in 2009, where they have operated under a parallel command structure. Until a few months ago, most FARDC soldiers in North Kivu came from the CNDP. They treated the region as their own fiefdom and cashed in on its illegal mineral trade.

With the former marriage of convenience that existed between President Kabila and the CNDP, the Enough project has accused CNDP military units in North Kivu of ‘coaxing people to vote for Kabila’ in the country’s much-criticised elections in November 2011.

Rwanda has also long been accused of continuing involvement in DRC, where more than one million ethnic Hutus took refuge after the 1994 Rwandan genocide, during which some 800,000, mostly Tutsis, were killed. Rwanda has invaded DRC twice in pursuit of Hutu rebels involved in the 1994 genocide.

Now, a UN report has also accused the Rwandan government of providing weapons and other assistance to the ex-CNDP rebels. Washington withdrew military aid to Kigali shortly afterwards.

Fatou Bensouda, the new ICC Chief Prosecutor, has put Ntaganda and Lord’s Resistance Army chief Joseph Kony top of her ‘wanted’ list. Meanwhile, Rwanda has promised to refute the UN evidence of its complicity ‘line by line’ next week.

So this is an all-too-familiar story that is also far from over. Indeed, for the displaced civilians who have taken refuge in neighbouring Rwanda and Uganda, for villagers facing attack from a variety of rebel groups and for the child soldiers forcibly recruited by M23, the final chapter may seem quite distant.


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