Dear readers – please find below a commentary written by Olivia Bueno at the International Refugee Rights Initiative in consultation with Congolese activists. 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.
At the International Criminal Court, Germain Katanga and Mathieu Ngudjolo Chui are charged with the particularly bloody joint attack on the village of Bogoro in February 2003. The facts of this attack are particularly disturbing: at least 200 civilians are estimated to have been killed, civilian women were raped and held as sexual slaves, and children were used to perpetrate theses atrocities. Unlike the Lubanga prosecution, which has been criticized both for its procedural mishaps and for the narrow scope of the charges, the case against Katanga and Ngudjolo has both run fairly smoothly and embraced a broader range of charges. This broader scope of charges is critical to fulfilling the expectations of victims. In the words of one Congolese activist, is the trial is “an important process because the court listened to the victims.”
At the same time, however, activists on the ground note that the activities of Katanga and Ngudjolo were supported and influenced by a broader range of political actors in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The same activist complains “the court is not systematic in its investigations” and wonders why others who were involved are not also being tried. Why are the political forces that sponsored Katanga and Ngudjolo and their respective militias not also in the dock? As horrific as the attack in Bogoro was, it was part of a complex web of other atrocities and shifting alliances of the war in the DRC. This reflection attempts to draw some of those connections, between about the careers of Katanga, Ndugjolo, and their militias and to link these to the broader conflict and political actors in the DRC. Although the trial is an important step forward for justice, there is a significant impunity gap both in terms of other crimes committed by these forces and other sources of political support that local activists want to see filled.
The attack on Bogoro was one episode in a particularly violent round of fighting between militias in the Ituri region aligned with the Hema and Lendu ethnic groups. Although there were longstanding tensions between these groups, serious fighting broke out in the context of the second war in the DRC. That war pitted President Laurent Kabila with the support of Angola, Zimbabwe, and Namibia against his former Rwanda and Ugandan backers and the various militias that they supported. In this context, the struggle between the Hema and the Lendu was influenced by the surrounding national and international dynamics. How then, did Katanga and Ngudjolo come to play their respective roles and how did they interact with these national and international dynamics? How did they end up in The Hague?
Both Katanga and Ngudjolo followed similar paths to engagement with their respective militias, the Forces de Résistance Patriotique d’Ituri (FRPI) and the Front Nationalist et Integrationist (FNI). The two militias are distinct but related, and charged with planning the attack on Bogoro together.
Mathieu Ngudjolo (also known by his alias Chui or “leopard”) was formerly a soldier in the Mobutu era. According to local observers who followed his career, he had deserted the army in 1996 and gone back to his home village in the Ndjugu region of Ituri. His military experience made him a natural choice for a leader when his community, in the context of their conflict with the Hema, began to seek to build up military capacity. According to local NGO report and news reports, Ngudjolo began organizing ethnically aligned militias even before the formal creation of the FNI and FRPI, with the support of Lendu chiefs. At the creation of the FNI, he was named military commander, under the political authority of Floribert Ndjabu. Despite his political responsibility for the group and the widespread recognition of the international crimes they committed, Ndjabu has not been held accountable. Rather he has been in prison in Kinshasa for the last five years without facing trial in connection.
Through his military experience and early engagement, Ngudjolo came to control Lendu militias, imposing his authority and, according to local NGOs, personally participating in operations. Under his watch, FNI troops are reported to have participated in a number of other serious violations of international law. These include large scale looting in Bunia on May 7-8 while in control of the town of from March 6 to May 12, 2003. Local NGOs and news reports also named Ngudjolo as the commander in charge of the Tchomi and Kasenyi massacres in 2003.
Ngudjolo was arrested by MONUC at the end of 2003 and accused of murdering a Hema businessman with connections to the UPC. He was later acquitted of these charges but remained in custody as the prosecution appealed. On the request of the government, Ngudjolo was then transferred to Makala prison. Whether there were any proceedings after he was transferred to Kinshasa is unclear, but Ngudjolo was able to escape from prison. He returned to Bunia to form another armed group, called the Mouvement Révolutionnaire Congolais (MRC). Following an accord with the government, Ngudjolo was integrated into the Congolese army as a colonel and arrested while attending an officers training in Kinshasa.
Germain Katanga, otherwise known as Simba (or “lion”) played an important role as the chief of staff of the FRPI. According to local observers, unlike Ngudjolo, who was very active on the ground, Katanga rarely left his home turf in the Ngiti village of Kagaba, controlling his forces from a discreet distance. Local activists say that in 2003, he published a press release in which he asserted his role as president and military head of the FRPI. The press release also claimed FRPI was independent from the FNI.
Katanga was invested with military authority for the Ngiti by a spiritual and mystical leader Kakado and chosen over Colonel Cobra Matata, who had just deserted the national army. After Katanga was arrested Matata took over command of these elements. Matata signed a peace deal with the government in 2006, allegedly accepting integration into the army in exchange for amnesty. He has not been held accountable for his role in the violence, a fact that has been decried by rights activists. For example, Eugène Bakama Bope, president of the Friends of the Law in Congo group, was quoted by the Institute of War and Peace Reporting as saying “warlords like Peter Karim and Cobra Matata who still occupy positions of command within the Congolese military must also be prosecuted for their crimes.”
According to local activists, although the FRPI originated as a community affair, intended for the defense of the Ngiti community in the face of UPC attacks, it soon came to function in practice as a violent organization, terrorizing local communities. Although he received important support from several Ngiti intellectuals, according to a local observer, Katanga dominated questions of military organization and discipline. He had strong influence over his troops, infamous as stubborn, reckless, and often under the influence of drugs. Katanga reportedly extended his control over the territory Walendu Bindi.
In January 2004, Katanga was integrated into the Congolese army at the rank of general. This move was criticized by human rights organizations, which had already identified him as a particularly abusive commander. Katanga was arrested in 2005 following serious international pressure for accountability following the killing of nine UN peacekeepers serving as part of MONUC in the same year. He was held without trial in the DRC for some time before being transferred to The Hague.
Although the FNI and the FRPI collaborated in the context of the attack on Bogoro, the relationship between the two groups is complex and not always friendly. The militias represented two distinct, although closely related, groups, the Ngiti and the Lendu (with the Ngiti usually described as a subgroup of the Lendu). Some describe the FRPI as serving as the political wing of the FNI before asserting its independence in 2003. However, the International Crisis Group distinguished the two that same year by emphasizing the FNI’s links with Uganda as opposed to the FRPI’s increasing links with the RCD-ML and the government of the DRC. It is clear, however, that over the course of time that alliance frayed.
Whatever their relation to each other, both the FNI and the FRPI were part of a broader game in which national political forces sought Lendu support in order to control Ituri and in which the Lendu sought patronage that could give them an upper hand against their rivals. An emblematic example of this was the conflict between Wamba dia Wamba and Mbusa Nyamwisi for control of the Rassemblement Congolais pour la Démocratie (RCD). Mbusa Nyamwisi relied on Hema support in gaining control providing critical support to Thomas Lubanga (a Hema fighter also on trial at The Hague) early in his career.
Over time, however, as described by the Human Rights Watch report on Ituri, Covered in Blood, Nyamwisi had increasingly come to rely on Lendu support, alienating him from the Hema leader, Thomas Lubanga. At the time of the attack in Bogoro, Nyamwisi’s RCD-ML had signed the Sun City Accord with the government of the DRC, securing government support that was then allegedly funneled to their key Lendu and Ngiti bases of support.
According to reports from local NGOs, the FRPI as an armed group could not have existed without the logistic and military support of the RCD-ML. This support took the form of the training of FRPI Ngiti militia at the RCD-ML training center at Nyaleke in North Kivu. In this context, both human rights activists and intellectuals in the Hema community assign particularly significant responsibility to Mbusa Nyamwisi. They express concern that Nyamwisi has not been called to account for his role, but has rather been promoted to the rank of current minister for decentralization.
A number of others, including Matata and Ndjabu mentioned above, and a number of others, including some high ranking FRPI and FNI fighters now serving as national parliamentarians have escaped justice. Mbusa Nyamwisi, however, is a particular emblem of the need for further accountability because of the high degree of responsibility attributed to him and the extremely high level of government to which he has risen. For civil society activists, it is a signal of the fact that, as important as the trials of Katanga and Ngudjolo are, much work remains to be done.