Over a year ago when I first tried, ever through intermediaries, to get “his side of the story’, it was 2 or 3 weeks shy of the emergence of the M23 movement.
Prior to this episode Ntaganda was on the run in eastern DRC. There was talk of betrayal on all sides, assassination attempts on him and by him. There was also indication that he was in the mind frame to negotiate an exit- through international justice, and a ticket to The Hague, in return of course that he would end up a witness and not an accused in the dock. During a retreat in Dare salaam, on freedom of information, which I spent attempting to negotiate that interview with the man known as The Terminator, it became clear just how little control, he and others around him had of the affairs of that part of the world.
I eventually dropped my attempts soon after the M23 movement bust into the frame and like other rebel coalitions burned bright as if to shine a light on the innards of the Congo. Soon their ambitions came closer to Kampala where delegations came for negotiations.
Years ago when I first took interest in Ugandan involvement in the Congo, I quickly came to the conclusion that the shuffling of the bloody cards there was only possible because responsibility for the killing, looting and raping could never be fully addressed. Later in my professional life I developed a working theory of the problem.
Conflict resolution was trapped in national borders whereas the actors on the ground, like Ntaganda, were stateless in many ways, moving alliances across national borders and the shifting interests of the political-military elite many of who were themselves trapped in nationalism but in fact were ethnic patriots, with specific grievances grounded in historical events.
This is how international justice and international conflict resolution got it wrong. Going after the Ntaganda’s, Lubanga’s and asking them to take responsibility is attacking the agency of the problem not the principal. As agents they can be replaced and they have been.
However national governments and nationalism never addressed the core insecurities of ethnic rivalry, insecurity and suspicion that nestled at the core. Neither did international conflict resolution, which focused on humanitarian assistance, conflict minerals and yes- threat of prosecutions at The Hague. They instead contributed goods like aid, guns and conditions through which a more subterranean struggle for self-determination of some of the most affected ethnic groups, like the Banyarwanda continued apace.
Those celebrating the surrender of “Gen” Bosco Ntaganda should best hope that he accounts not just for his own crimes but for his role in the criminality that is the collective failure of all players in the Congo fiasco.
I have met many who felt, like me, that untangling this problem, is the Holy Grail not just of the Congo and central Africa but also of the African crisis itself.
Just days before he “surrendered” I had been in touch with M23 sources and a fixer who worked closely with Ntaganda and was once a newsroom colleague about interviewing him. Before their split an uneasy bargain appeared to have settled the fate of Ntaganda. If M23 had succeeded in bargaining itself into political power in the east, he may well have secured for himself a haven there. Once a combination of international pressure over its activities including donor sanctions on Rwanda and Uganda gutted its ambitions- Ntaganda’s position became untenable.
Several M23 sources indicated in the past few weeks that their relationship with Monusco, which fought a bitter battle for credibility for its role in the DRC, had warmed up. They would hand Ntanganda over – is what I was told. It was as if Ntaganda would be the sacrificial lamb at the alter of the restoration of the balance of power in the east- an inept government in Kinshasa, an equally ineffective and expensive UN peace keeping effort and for the moment a cessation of the proxy conflict over influence by neighboring governments. No doubt many human rights NGO’s will celebrate his transfer to ICC as a victory for justice and “ a chance for peace” and they would be wrong. A restoration of the status quo is just a pause button.
Until the next episode.
The interview I had in mind with Bosco Ntaganda was meant as part of a deeper profile of the main actors across these borders. In the principal countries now, Uganda, Rwanda, DRC and Sudan- the political-military elite share many histories. Their leaders in particular have emerged from the shared violence that has continued in this basin for much of the last 50 years. Joseph Kabila, Paul Kagame and Yoweri Museveni in some ways were a single military force in the late 90’s early 2000’s. Neighboring conflicts such as the one that birthed South Sudan, a new Burundi and now Somalia involved the commitment of these leaders to a certain way of doing business. Ntaganda is a small part of this story.
Changes over the last 30 years involve not just conflict- which is less today than before but attempts at economic recovery, regional cooperation and more multilateral security.
In the next decade this way of doing business will be an important legacy of the political transitions currently underway in most of these countries. The baton will be handed over to another generation but it is possible that other Ntaganda’s will be reborn out of that process unless of course something gives.
Ntaganda’s surrender may whet the appetite of the peace, conflict and justice community but its value would be in how his story sheds light on the conflict economy he has participated in for much of his adult life. Perhaps for those reasons he may never fully get his day in court and I may never get my interview.
By Angelo Izama