• A version of this post originally appeared on the blog of the Enough Project, an anti-genocide NGO. The views expressed are the author's own.
In a startling development Monday, Rwandan-born Congolese rebel leader Bosco Ntaganda turned up unannounced at the US embassy in Kigali, Rwanda, asking to be transferred to the International Criminal Court.
Wanted by the ICC since 2006, Mr. Ntaganda, who is known as “The Terminator” for his ruthless tactics – including recruitment of child soldiers, murder, and sexual slavery – has been elusive ever since international pressure mounted for his arrest in early 2012. Protecting Ntaganda and his lucrative links to eastern Congo’s illicit minerals trade is seen as a key rationale behind the formation of the rebel group M23, which he headed, in April 2012.
What might explain his decision to give himself up? Ntaganda, a Congolese Tutsi born in Rwanda, once served in the Rwandan army alongside Rwandan President Paul Kagame and is implicated by the United Nations Group of Experts to have maintained links to President Kagame's government through various roles commanding rebel groups in eastern Congo.
But as this connection proved increasingly awkward for the Rwandan government, Ntaganda’s decision to go underground suggests he questioned the strength of that loyalty. Ntaganda would have considered all his options before deciding to turn himself in to the US embassy, so he may have felt his best chance for survival was to surrender to people he believes can ensure his safety.
Ntaganda's decision to surrender is a consequence of a profound crisis within M23. During recent weeks, the group has been consumed by infighting. Early Saturday morning, Ntaganda’s rival in the M23 and leader of its competing faction, Sultani Makenga, seized control of the town of Kibumba – 30 kilometers north of the provincial capital of Goma – from Ntaganda’s forces.
Meanwhile, Ntaganda's political head, Jean-Marie Runiga, fled into neighboring Rwanda with over 700 combatants, where Rwandan authorities said they have been detained. Two eyewitnesses at the Congo-Rwandan border crossing in Kibumbu told the Enough Project that they had seen Ntaganda cross into Rwanda along with his affiliates Colonel Charles Muhire, Colonel Seraphin Mirindi, and Innocent Zimurinda (allegedly wounded and carried on a soldier’s back).
While all eyes will now be on the fate of Ntaganda, the handling of his affiliates will also have a significant impact on efforts to stabilize eastern Congo. The United States government and the UN Security Council have enacted sanctions on Mr. Runiga, Mr. Ngaruye, Mr. Kaïna, and Mr. Zimurinda.
The UN Framework agreement signed by regional heads of state in Addis Ababa three weeks ago should obligate Rwanda to break with its tradition of providing a safe haven for people wanted in eastern Congo, such as Colonel Jules Mutebutsi and General Laurent Nkunda. (Read more about the framework and its uncertain future.)
Rwanda must comply with Congolese and international efforts to prosecute all Congo war criminals in refuge on its territory. Kinshasa has already requested Rwanda to extradite Runiga, who, in turn, requested for Rwandan authorities to deport him to Uganda.
Rwanda’s potential role in the surrender of Ntaganda and cooperation in holding the others accountable is still unclear. Colonel Olivier Hamuli, spokesman for Congo's army in the province North Kivu, asked: "Is it an arrest or are they hiding him [Runiga] away?"
If Runiga is extradited to Kinshasa, Congolese authorities must provide for a fair trial and not set suspects free in exchange for a temporary "peace" deal with the M23.
What implications does Ntaganda’s surrender and M23 infighting have for the peace talks currently held between the government of Congo and the M23 in Kampala, Uganda? As of yesterday, the talks are suspended for a week but until they resume, uncertainty prevails.
In pursuing further peace talks with the M23 – and seeing the potential end of the group suddenly close at hand – Kinshasa must not settle for a shady deal with a wanted war criminal such as Sultani Makenga or offer him amnesty.