Dear readers – please find below a commentary written by Olivia Bueno at the International Refugee Rights Initiative in consultation with Congolese individuals. The views and opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of the International Refugee Rights Initiative or of the Open Society Justice Initiative.
For watchers of the International Criminal Court (ICC), there has been a flurry of recent activity around the suspension of the proceedings against Thomas Lubanga. The Office of the Prosecutor is appealing and spectators are eagerly awaiting the decision from the appeals chamber. At the same time, there has been talk about the failure of the court to arrest the man charged alongside him – Bosco Ntaganda.
Ntaganda has been living openly in Goma and has been integrated into the Congolese army since signing a 2009 peace deal between the government of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) on behalf of the Congrès National pour la Défense du Peuple (CNDP), the rebel group with which he had been working. Since then, there has been significant concern about his continuing role. Some have expressed concern about the possible return to arms of the CNDP, whose command and control structures are rumored to have remained in place despite the integration into the army. Others have voiced concern about the UN potentially sullying itself in collaborating with human rights abusers among the former rebels and government forces, including Ntaganda.
Activist Georges Kampiamba, of the Congolese Coalition for the ICC, was recently quoted in an Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR) story saying, “His presence within the army is menacing victims and witnesses and contributing to worsening tension in the region.” In Ituri, rumors are circulating that the government has lost control of Ntaganda and that he is organizing new rebel groups in Ituri. Analysts have speculated that Ntaganda has had an informal deal with the government assuring that he will not be arrested and, if he were arrested, the CNDP could resume hostilities. However, when asked about these concerns, one Ituri activist said, “If he were arrested? Who is going to arrest him?”, implying that the prospect of arrest was so remote that such concerns barely merit discussion.
In light of the renewed discussion of Ntaganda and the impact of the failure to arrest him, it is interesting to explore the history of this character.
Bosco Ntaganda’s origins are obscure. According to the ICC’s arrest warrant, Ntaganda is “believed to be a Rwandan national.” However, in the words of one Ituri activist, “I have never heard that, it is always said that he is a Tutsi from North Kivu like Laurent Nkunda [former head of the CNDP].”
Ituri activists recall that Ntaganda, or Commander Bosco, made his first appearance in Ituri in 2000. Rwandan and Ugandan forces had recently faced off in Kisangani – leading to the formation of two factions of the Rassemblement Congolais pour la Démocratie (RCD), the Rwandan leaning RCD-Goma and the Uganda leaning RCD-ML. Ntaganda found himself on the side of the Uganda leaning Professor Wamba dia Wamba despite his “Rwandan” identity. It was as part of the RCD-ML administration that he arrived in Bunia, just a few months after tensions between the Hema and Lendu had exploded into violent conflict.
Within the RCD, it is likely that Ntaganda’s “Rwandan” background identified him suspiciously with the movement’s competitors. Feeling sidelined by dia Wamba, it is perhaps not surprising that he eventually made common cause with Lubanga, who at the time was loudly criticizing dia Wamba for his alleged support of the Lendu in the inter-ethnic clashes that were taking place. He is said to have warmed up to Hema in the movement who were guarding John Tibasima (now a senator). By the time that internal conflicts pitted dia Wamba against Mbusa and Tibasima, Ntaganda was clearly embedded with the Hema.
Meanwhile, political tensions were rising. Bosco Ntaganda and several Hema rebels mutinied and moved south where they would be joined by Thomas Lubanga to constitute a Hema militia calling for the departure of Wamba dia Wamba from Ituri.
One activist recounts how Ugandan officials, in order to calm the situation, dispatched a military mission to convince the Hema militants to abandon their mutiny. They offered training for the group in Uganda under Lubanga and had Ntaganda arrested. While Lubanga was serving as Defense Minister in the RCD-ML, Hema businessmen approached Ugandan authorities requesting Ntaganda’s release. Uganda complied. When Lubanga returned to Bunia in 2001 to serve under Mbusa Nyamwisi, he quickly soured relations with his boss by trying to impart command of the town to Ntaganda. Mbusa objected to the choice and the dispute split the RCD-ML along ethnic lines, with the Hema supporting Lubanga and the Lendu supporting Nyamwisi.
It was at this time that Lubanga was arrested by the Ugandans and handed over to the authorities in Kinshasa. While Lubanga was imprisoned, Ntaganda and Chief Kahwa reportedly set up a military base at Mandro and began training young Hema with support from certain Ugandan army officers with supplies from Rwanda.
From this base, they would take control of the town of Bunia and its surroundings on August 9, 2002. Lubanga would make a triumphant return to Bunia and form a government with Ntaganda as chief of staff of the military. Lubanga headed up the political wing, the Union des Patriotes Congolais (UPC), and Ntaganda the military wing, the Forces Patriotiques pour la Liberation du Congo (FPLC). The ICC arrest warrant alleges that Ntaganda was third in command in the military structure. Activists in Ituri, however, see him as playing a critical role, in particular in the movement’s rapprochement with Rwanda.
In the arrest warrant issued by the ICC, Ntaganda, like Lubanga, is accused of recruitment of child soldiers. However, in his capacity as chief of the UPC’s military wing, he has been associated with a number of the movement’s operations that include the bloody campaigns and attacks on Lendu and Ngiti civilians and villages. Among other crimes allegedly involving Ntaganda in this period, the International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ) points to attacks on Lendu and Ngiti villages, including Songolo and Zumbe where civilians were massacred, homes were burnt, and looting was widespread. In Kilo and Mongbwalu, he is alleged to have overseen the massacre of civilians on account of their ethnicity. Between August 2002 and March 2003, he is said to have engineered the arrest, torture, and killing of numerous Lendu and Ngiti civilians.
Relationship with Lubanga
As recounted by a local activist, “It is important to remember that Ntaganda was mobilizing Hema militia when Lubanga was a simple spokesperson of the Hema youth.” There are shadowy suggestions that Lubanga did not control Ntaganda and that the latter was a vehicle for Rwandaphones who are believed to have controlled the UPC.
Lubanga and Ntaganda were defeated by the Uganda defense forces and took refuge in Rwanda until on May 12, 2003, the UPC retook Ituri. Ntaganda was in charge of organizing the armed wing of the UPC, which he is said to have used to engineer attacks on civilians and United Nations (UN) personnel. In June 2004, he allegedly murdered a UN peacekeeper.
As the conflict quieted, the government of the Democratic Republic of Congo offered Ntaganda and others, including Floribert Kisembo, Germain Katanga, and other former Ituri armed groups the opportunity to sign political accords and receive government posts. Ntaganda refused and joined the CNDP of Laurent Nkunda in North Kivu, where he took up the post of army chief of staff.
Accused of numerous additional crimes in his tenure with the CNDP, including killings of civilian populations in Kiwanja, Ntaganda eventually deposed Nkunda in early 2009. He quickly signed a peace accord with the DRC government, allowing him and his movement to be integrated into the army and allowing him to live openly in Goma. CNDP units in the army have now collaborated with the government of Rwanda and the UN in operations against the Forces Democraties pour la Liberation du Rwanda (FDLR) in the operations Umoja Wetu and Amani Leo. He is said to remain in control of forces to this day.
Ntaganda has proved a prolific rebel and has seamlessly shifted to his government profile, which has offered him protection against arrest. This new governmental identity presents a continuing challenge for the court.