After nearly two decades of conflict, the Democratic Republic of the Congo makes a regular appearance in international news. The most recent chapter of the story is the conflict between the Congolese government and the M23 rebel group which started in April 2012. The back and forth fighting since then displaced more than 300,000 people with large casualties on both sides. Recent divisions within M23 furthered the spiral and placed peace talks on hold. But while events developed quickly, no one expected what happened on March 18 when the leader of M23, Bosco Ntaganda, walked off the street into the US Embassy in Kigali to request his own transfer to the International Criminal Court where he is indicted for war crimes and crimes against humanity.
It would appear that this is a low key – albeit perplexing – end of the warlord’s career who earned the nickname “the Terminator” for his ethnic cleansing of villages while with the Union of Congolese Patriots (UPC). His fighting career started when he fought with the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) who ultimately gained control of Rwandan following the 1994 genocide. However he then moved back to the DRC where he was raised and fought for the UPC in the Ituri conflict and the National Congress for the Defense of the People (CNDP) in the Kivus. After the CNDP was integrated into the Congolese national army as the result of a 2009 peace agreement, an army mutiny last April gave rise to the M23 movement led by none other than Bosco Ntaganda.
Despite strong opposition from the UN, M23 made impressive gains against the army, ultimately taking the city of Goma before pulling back. However the territorial gains of M23 became almost secondary to the political turmoil the conflict released. Accusations of alleged Rwandan and Ugandan support for M23 led to a reduction of foreign aid to Rwanda and strained relations between the small country and foreign donors who they accused of trying to manipulate African affairs with their checkbooks. Uganda in turn threatened to withdraw all Ugandan troops from peacekeeping operations, which would have dealt a serious blow to operations in Somalia among other places. Back in the DRC, various militia groups took advantage of the chaos for their own gain, including the FDLR which is comprised of former genocidaires from Rwanda. As peace talks centered on a possible multinational African peacekeeping force, the threat of escalation in a combustible region always remained near the surface.
Yet the chances of a possible peace agreement seems to be what led to the dramatic infighting between M23 factions in February. As Jason Stearns notes, Ntaganda’s indictment by the ICC meant the chances of reintegrating again with the Congolese army were slim and even if allowed to happen, he made for a choice bargaining chip for the DRC and could easily be sold down river in the future. The same could not be said for other M23 elites who could be granted amnesty as part of a peace agreement if approved by parliament. With such divergent futures, rivalries escalated into full scale fighting, further limiting the political power of M23.
And with this backdrop, one of the most wanted men on the planet walked into a US embassy to voluntarily face a prison sentence in The Hague rather than face an ever shrinking future in the DRC. Ntaganda’s surrender does not end the conflict in the Eastern DRC, but marks a positive development for the region. But even here, “the Terminator” has enshrined his place in history by apparently becoming the first international fugitive to voluntarily try to turn himself in to the ICC. Given that, it is unlikely this will be the last we hear of him.
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