Bosco Ntaganda’s days of freedom in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) may be numbered – but only if President Joseph Kabila responds to international pressure for the militia leader to be arrested.
That pressure is steadily increasing as the testimony of former child soldiers continues to point to Ntaganda’s key role in the militia of Thomas Lubanga, who is currently being tried by the International Criminal Court in The Hague.
Lubanga has been on trial since late January, accused of conscripting and using child soldiers in his militia in 2002 and 2003.
Ntaganda, who was indicted by the ICC in August 2008 for similar crimes, has repeatedly been named by child soldiers testifying in the Lubanga trial. Yet Ntaganda remains free in the eastern DRC.
The Congolese government is currently in the process of incorporating Ntaganda’s militia into the national army and appears reluctant to hand him over to the ICC, despite his arrest warrant and testimony implicating him in war crimes.
At least three witnesses in the Lubanga trial have described Ntaganda as playing a pivotal role in Lubanga’s Patriotic Forces for the Liberation of Congo (FPLC) militia. Witnesses in The Hague have said that Ntaganda arranged weapons for fighters, gave orders for attacks on Lendu villages, and used child soldiers as bodyguards.
These testimonies come as calls are growing locally and internationally for Ntaganda’s arrest and hand-over to the ICC.
Last week a group of Congolese human rights organizations opposed plans to integrate Ntaganda and his fighters into the national army. They said there could be no peace in the country unless justice was done regarding Ntaganda his troops.
At The Hague, one former child testified that it was Ntaganda who gave orders to the soldiers who kidnapped him and several other children, and that Ntaganda regularly inspected their training camp.
And when the soldiers fought at a village called Lipri in which their junior commander was killed, Ntaganda sent them more arms.
Also last week, a witness who told court she was conscripted at the age of 13 said that when she and others finished training, Ntaganda appeared at their camp and took them to attack Lipi, which she described as a Lendu community where the villagers were only armed with bows and arrows.
The witness also said Ntaganda commanded the battle of Mongbwalu, a gold mining town where she described the fighting as fierce.
According to the witness, her unit stayed in Mongbwalu for some time after capturing it. “There was lots of money and gold mining, so we had to stay in Mongbwalu for a long time,” she said.
Another witness whose role in the militia was not given, but who seemed to have been senior because he testified that he visited Lubanga’s residence an average of three times a week, also implicated Ntaganda.
Ntaganda had direct access to Lubanga’s quarters, the witness said, and was escorted by bodyguards, some of whom were 13 and 15 years old.
Although Ntaganda broke from his former commander, militia leader Laurent Nkunda, who is currently in custody in Rwanda, Ntaganda’s role as one of the two top commanders of Nkunda’s militia should also not be forgotten.
Nkunda’s militia has been accused of using sexual violence as a weapon of war, as well as kidnapping pupils from schools and conscripting them into its ranks.
In addition, in November 2008, Nkunda’s fighters were accused killing more than 100 civilians in the village of Kiwanja. The militia has denied the charge, saying the dead were Mai-Mai militia fighters.
Failure to capture Ntaganda and deliver him to The Hague would be a travesty of international justice.
It could bolster opposition to the ICC that already exists in Uganda and Sudan, regarding the arrest warrants for leaders of the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda and Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir.
Ironically, President Kabila’s government has in the past cooperated with ICC requests, handing over people such as Lubanga, who had abandoned fighting to join the government, just as Ntaganda is negotiating to do.
Congo also handed over Germain Katanga and Matthieu Ngudjolo Chui to the ICC, both of whom are accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity.
But Kabila, struggling to pacify his country after a decade of debilitating conflict, is waffling on Ntaganda.
His regime has indicated that the need for peace in eastern Congo-the unfortunate theatre of Lubanga and Ntaganda’s deadly enterprise-is more important than the capture and delivery of Ntaganda.
Kabila’s seeming reluctance to arrest Ntaganda, who is often seen in the town of Goma and regularly meets with Kabila’s ministers, points to a president who appears willing to sleep with the enemy, if that is that is the price for peace.
Unfortunately, impunity in Congo will not end and peace cannot be secured if Ntaganda-the perpetrator of gross human rights violations-is allowed to go free after making a deal with the government.