A broken rebellion and Rwanda's cold shoulder: Why Congo's Terminator turned himself in

Warlord Bosco Ntaganda turned himself in because, with his rebel group fracturing and dwindling support from Rwanda, he had little other choice, writes political analyst Jason Stearns.

Abdul Ndemere/Reuters
General Bosco Ntaganda addresses a news conference in Kabati, a village located in Congo's eastern North Kivu province, Jan. 2009.

• A version of this post originally appeared on the blog Congo Siasa. The views expressed are the author's own.

There has been a lot of conjecture and speculation surrounding the Rwandan-born Congolese warlord Bosco Ntaganda's "surrender" to the US embassy in Rwanda on Tuesday morning. In recent weeks, various parties to the conflict have been purposely spreading false information about "The Terminator" – who was wanted in connection with war crimes by the International Criminal Court – which has made it difficult to parse the facts in the case. Here are my own thoughts on some of these points.

Why did he surrender?

His time was up. On Feb. 24, an internal battle had broken out among the M23 rebels, pitting Mr. Ntaganda's wing against that of Sultani Makenga (for more information about Ntaganda's career and the divisions within the M23 see the Usalama Project's briefing here). While Ntaganda led a large group of soldiers – at least 500 were reported to have crossed the border on March 14 – he was short on ammunition. After weeks of fighting, he decided to run.

The larger and perhaps more important question is: Why did the M23 implode? Divisions existed since the group's creation in April 2012, driven by ethnic considerations – Ntaganda is from the Gogwe sub-ethnic group, many of Mr. Makenga's officers are Banyajomba – as well as historical differences (Makenga was close to Laurent Nkunda, whom Ntaganda replaced in January 2009), and struggles over money and power (each carried out promotions behind the other's back and set up separate tax structures).

The final straw, however, appears to have been the looming possibility of a peace deal, or at least Ntaganda's perception that one might take place. With an international arrest warrant looming over his head, and declarations by the Congolese government concerning his arrest, he knew that he would have no chance of re-integrating into the Congolese army.

Nonetheless, important questions persist. Allegations abound, for example, that Congolese President Joseph Kabila exacerbated the divisions with bribes. But which side did he bribe? Each accuses the other for having received blood money.

Rwanda's role is also curious. Reliable reports point to Rwandan backing for the M23 up until the capture of the eastern Congolese city of Goma on Nov. 20, 2012. Since then, however, support appears to have declined, perhaps also because there has been a de facto truce with the Congolese army during the Kampala negotiations.

However, if the Rwandan army had wanted to prevent the implosion, it most likely could have. Also, if it had wanted to solve Ntaganda's ammunition problem, they could have easily sent bullets and mortar rounds across the border. So why didn't it? Had the aid cuts affected its view of the conflict, and the M23 squabbles looked like a way out?

How did Ntaganda get from the eastern Congo to the US embassy in Rwanda?

It is obvious that Ntaganda thought his choice was the International Criminal Court or probable death, but at the hands of whom? And was it his choice to make?

The first version, supported by many current and former M23 soldiers, has Ntaganda crossing the border along with the rest of his troops, probably on March 14 or 15, then being arrested by the Rwandan army and debriefed. They then decided that they didn't want yet another Congolese rebel under house arrest in Rwanda – Laurent Nkunda and Jules Mutebutsi are enough of a headache and Ntaganda's ICC warrant would certainly make him a more difficult case.

But why would the Rwandan government hand Ntaganda over to the US embassy, where he immediately asked to be transferred to the ICC? The Rwandan government opposes the ICC, and is probably concerned by some of the revelations that Ntaganda could make on the stand. After all, Kigali backed the Union of Congolese Patriots armed group for whose crimes Ntaganda is now answering, as well as the the National Congress for the Defense of the People (CNDP) and M23.

If this version is correct, it may be that Rwanda was not left any good options and preferred Ntaganda being sent to the ICC than having him sit around under house arrest in Rwanda (or worse). After all, Ntaganda's former UPC boss Thomas Lubanga stood trial for five years without any revelations being made about outside support to his group.

The second version, supported by ex-CNDP officers, diplomats, and Congolese and Rwandan intelligence agents, suggests that Ntaganda slipped across the border, evading detection and eventually arriving at the US embassy in downtown Kigali. According to this version, he took advantage of his contacts in the Rwandan army, as well as his ethnic kin and family in Ruhengeri, to escape arrest. There have even been reports of Rwandan intelligence agents being arrested for failing in their duties to detect him.


Hard to say – Ntaganda does have friends and family in Rwanda, as well as a lot of money. But if he wanted to hand himself over to the ICC, why not just go to the MONUSCO base in Kibati (just north of Goma), which was under his control up until the last minute? It would probably have been safer for him. And could he really escape detection by Rwandan security services, who have extensive contacts with M23 members and good control over their own country?

What will the impact be of his transfer to the ICC?

In part, it strengthens his rival Makenga's hand – he is now rid of a large faction of his officers and political leaders who had been a thorn in his side. While he has probably lost over a third of his troops to death or defection, he has rationalized his military chain of command and now has more reliable politicians to represent him in Kampala. While he is now rid of all of the officers with serious legal problems (except himself), it is unclear whether this will result in a peace deal in Kampala.

M23 delegates say that they can't accept the terms proposed by President Kabila, which amount to integration with almost nothing in return. In particular, they insist on good ranks, political positions, the return of refugees, and generous amnesty. As one of Makenga's officers told me today, just before a meeting of the officer corps, "Alituambia: vita ingali. Kungali njia mrefu." (He told us: there is still war. The road is still long).

On the other hand, Rwanda emerges with a boost to its reputation. While it isn't clear what role it played in Ntaganda's surrender, at the very least the country signed off on the implosion of the M23, which makes it look like their are more part of the solution than the problem.

In recent weeks, the World Bank has disbursed $50 million of the previously cut aid, and other donors may soon follow suit.

What will happen at the ICC? Ntaganda is reportedly more of a slam dunk that other cases currently being tried. Given his direct involvement in military operations, there is strong evidence against him for the crimes of rape, recruitment of child soldiers, murder, and pillage. In addition, the prosecutor will seek to add charges related to his time as chief of staff of the CNDP (2006-2009).

So, in sum, Ntaganda's arrest won't bring peace to the eastern Congo, but it does spell a victory in the battle against impunity and the dismantling to one of the barriers to a peace process in the country.

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