21 March 2013
Ben Shepherd

Ben Shepherd

Consulting Fellow, Africa Programme


Rwandan-born former Congolese General Bosco Ntaganda, an International Criminal Court indictee and rebel leader, has gone to The Hague to face charges of war crimes.

The former general, known as 'The Terminator', walked into the US Embassy in Kigali on 19 March, seven years after the ICC issued an arrest warrant. He denies charges of conscripting child soldiers, murder, ethnic persecution and rape during the long-running conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. 

Why did Bosco surrender? 

Why it happened is relatively clear. The M23 rebellion in Eastern Congo left the governments of both the DRC and Rwanda exposed. President Kabila of the DRC was leaking what little support he had left, especially since dubious elections in 2011; Rwanda's President Kagame has been stung by international criticism and aid suspensions after the level of Rwandan military support to the M23 was revealed by the UN. Both leaders needed a resolution but neither could be seen to compromise.

The answer was finally presented by a peace agreement initiated by the Southern African Development Community (SADC), which both upped the pressure and gave political cover for Kabila and Kagame to climb down from their posts with honour intact. The signing of the Addis Ababa agreement on 24 February meant that the writing was on the wall for Bosco. 

SADC's focus on the border region, in addition to criticism from donors, makes further large-scale Rwandan military intervention in Eastern DRC less likely. The diplomatic costs of humiliating the big hitters in SADC, notably South Africa and Angola, would be unacceptably high and with little return. Without Rwandan help, the M23 would have been defunct: until Rwanda intervened, the nascent rebellion was nearly defeated by the Congolese military, as unlikely as that sounds. So, with no political or military backing from Rwanda, the M23 leadership have little choice but to negotiate with Kinshasa.

But a deal, particularly one done on Kinshasa's terms was never likely to appeal to Bosco. An internecine struggle erupted the same day the Addis Ababa agreement was signed between Bosco loyalists and the M23 elements more favourable to a negotiated settlement. Bosco lost, the remnant of his forces fled to Rwanda, and his political ally and erstwhile M23 leader Jean-Marie Runiga was arrested. 

Could surrender lead to peace?

In the immediate term Bosco's surrender clears the way to a negotiated settlement between the M23 and the Congolese government. More symbolically, it marks the end of a cycle of Rwandan-backed rebellions that started at the beginning of the second Congo war in the 1990s. Each has used the same blueprint: mobilizing popular discontent around a leadership cadre dominated by Rwandan-speaking Congolese, with military and political support from Rwanda. Launched in 1998, the RCD - later RCD-G - initially had cross-community support but was increasingly seen as serving the interests of Rwanda and Rwandan-speaking Congolese.

Its successor, the CNDP, launched in 2006, was built around a core of former RCD-G fighters led by Laurent Nkunda. The CNDP again tried to present itself as a movement for all Congolese, and had non-Rwandan speaking members, but it was dominated by the Congolese Tutsi community. 

The M23, launched in 2012, is smaller still to the CNDP, in military, territorial and political terms. Many former CNDP fighters declined to join the M23, and large sections of the Congolese Tutsi community were uninterested. The M23 deployed the same rhetoric as the RCD and CNDP, of fighting for better treatment for all Congolese but – and despite widespread dislike of President Kabila – no one rallied to them. The hand of Rwanda was too visible and promises had been broken too many times already. The group's capture of the DRC's eastern city of Goma was a desperate last roll of the dice, raising the stakes with the hope of igniting a new country-wide rebellion. It failed to do this. The old blueprint proved itself obsolete. 

Not over yet

The M23 is likely to be the final iteration of a pattern that has shaped Eastern DRC for fifteen years, and Bosco's arrest is an important marker in its demise. But it is not going to be transformative. If SADC can remain engaged and newly-appointed UN Special Envoy for the Great Lakes, Mary Robinson, can draw in the wider international community, then sustained improvement in relations between Kigali and Kinshasa is possible. But, it will not be easy. Rwanda will remain a key player in Eastern DRC, for good or ill, and has genuine economic and security interests at stake. It will need to finally engage in an honest conversation with its neighbours and international partners.

And, more fundamentally, there are no easy answers to building sustainable peace in Eastern DRC. The Congolese state will take decades to reform, and its military will remain largely ineffective. Rwandan-speaking Congolese communities will need to see their interests protected, amid deep local grievances. And local conflict – not large enough to disrupt the region or threaten Kinshasa, but no less deadly for the civilian population – will simmer on. Eastern Congo will be a better place with Bosco behind bars, but lasting peace is still remote.

Further resources:

What Next for the Democratic Republic of the Congo?
Event Audio, Video, February 2013

Eastern DRC: A Return to War?
Expert Comment, Ben Shepherd, November 2012 

Kagame's Congo Dilemma
Expert Comment, Ben Shepherd, August 2012