The Final Push
·DRC gives rebels April ultimatum ·SADC Brigade ready for deployment ·Details of The Terminator’s surrender emerge
Windhoek – The DRC government has vowed to forcefully disarm M23 rebels within the coming month, if members of the infamous militia ‑ that according to the United Nations has Rwanda’s backing ‑ do not voluntarily lay down arms and accept integration into civilian life.
Kinshasa has ratcheted up tough rhetoric against the M23, a rebel group that has made the traditionally volatile eastern DRC its playground, just as South Africa and Tanzania ready troops for deployment.
South Africa and Tanzania have the official backing of members of the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region (ICGLR), SADC, the AU and the UN.
Even while talks between the fractured M23 leadership and the DRC government, dubbed the Kampala peace talks, drag on in the Ugandan capital, the Joseph Kabila administration has said Kinshasa “no longer has space for armed groups”.
Members of the M23 rebel group are said to be amassed in their strongholds in Rutshuru in North Kivu Province, a hotbed for ethnic politics, general lawlessness and where smuggling of some of the world’s most sought after minerals ‑ such as cassiterite, coltan, gold, and diamonds ‑ flourishes.
Kinshasa says that it is ready for a final push to completely neutralise the M23 group that the UN accuses of mass killings, rape, torture and pillaging of minerals. The M23 leadership is under international sanctions and is wanted in DRC courts.
DRC Information Minister, Lambert Mende, told The Southern Times that if the rebels do not lay down arms voluntarily in April, they would be forced to do so by DRC armed forces backed by the SADC Brigade and UN troops.
“There is no place for an armed group in a democratic state … there is no place for M23 in DRC and they have a last chance to abide by our laws failure of which they are going to be disarmed by force,” Mende said this past week.
“The SADC Brigade is going to be deployed to fight and as the government we are not keen to witness the shooting of our people. But if they continue to disrespect the law, they leave us with no alternative,” he added.
Minister Mende said that the M23 is still a potent force due to continued surreptitious backing from the DRC’s eastern neighbour, Rwanda.
The rebel group is now under the leadership of General Sultani Makenga, who took over from General Bosco Ntaganda. Ntaganda was recently transferred to the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Netherlands after Rwandese authorities handed him over to the US embassy in March.
Makenga is a staunch loyalist of Laurent Nkunda, who started and led the rebel group called CNDP, which was to split following his arrest by Rwanda in 2009. M23 is an offshoot of CNDP.
Reports of infighting within the top echelons of the rebel movement have not weakened it, Information Minister Mende contends, adding that the divisions within M23 are machinations by the Rwandese government “whose intention was to fool SADC and the Great Lakes from deploying troops”.
“They assumed wrongly that no international forces would be deployed when the rebels themselves are shooting each other,” Minister Mende said.
The Ntaganda Slipup
The DRC government has also lifted the lid on the Rwanda government’s role in the arrest of Gen Ntaganda, infamously named “The Terminator” due to his brutality.
Ntaganda is a Rwandese-born Tutsi who earned his notoriety at the age of 17, both as a formidable soldier and ruthless commander.
The ICC had a warrant out for him to face charges of murder, rape and sexual slavery.
Last month The Terminator walked into the US Embassy in downtown Kigali and surrendered himself to the American government, a development that media reports say “shocked even embassy staff”.
The US was last year accused of blocking a UN report implicating Rwanda and Uganda in M23 activities. The US is a strong backer of the President Paul Kagame regime in Kigali.
But Minister Mende said this was no ordinary move by Ntaganda, as the chess board was controlled by the Rwandese army. Their intentions were to have Ntaganda smuggled out of the country through friendly channels to avoid an ICC trial that could blow the lid on the external forces that are behind the destabilisation of the DRC.
While Rwanda claimed that Gen Ntaganda was in the DRC along with his fighters, Minister Mende said Kinshasa was fully aware the warlord was holed up in Rwanda under the protection of President Kagame’s government.
“Rwanda had come to realise that Bosco (Ntaganda) was too indefensible because of his past and the warrant from the ICC. They abandoned him and told (Gen Sultani) Makenga to take over. Makenga has no warrant of arrest,” Minister Mende said.
“Rwanda took him to the US Embassy. They were forced to place him at the US Embassy thinking that the US would not co-operate with ICC. The idea was to make him disappear by sending him through a country, which is not a signatory of the Rome Statute (that created the ICC).
“Rwanda does not respect the ICC and eventually it was (US President Barack) Obama’s decision that Ntaganda be sent to the ICC.
“The Obama administration had made an undertaking to co-operate with us to have all criminal elements sent to the ICC. It appears Rwandese authorities were not aware of Obama’s pledge to us,” Minister Mende explained.
The US is not part of the ICC system and even has a law in place, the American Servicemembers Act – also called the Hague Invasion Act – that empowers the country to send its military to free any American citizens who are hauled to The Hague.
Great Lakes political analyst, Jason Stearns, has also raised important questions on why Ntaganda ended up at the US Embassy in Kigali.
“If he wanted to hand himself over to the ICC, why not just go to the MONUSCO (UN Peacekeeping Mission in the DRC) base in Kibati, which was under his control up until the last minute?” Stearns asked. Stearns has been following Congolese armed groups and has written extensively on their activities. Minister Mende also said he did not expect Ntaganda to tell the truth at the ICC because that would expose Rwanda and President Kagame.
Birds of a Feather
The fall of Gen Ntaganda strengthens Gen Makenga’s grip on power over M23, Stearns says, adding that it will not bring peace to the DRC’s eastern region as quickly as many people have assumed.
Makenga has reportedly rid himself of officers with legal problems and who were aligned to Ntaganda, and has recently been rationalising his military chain of command.
Makenga became the face of M23 in 2012 as Ntaganda, burdened by his international notoriety, sought to maintain a low profile.
Stearns says that M23 delegates to the Kampala peace talks are rejecting terms proposed by the DRC government unless they are given senior military ranks, influential political positions and a generous amnesty.
Describing the stalemate, Makenga is reported to have confided in his top officials that “there is still war, the road is still long”.
“Whether it’s Makenga, or Bosco, we are talking of the same criminal elements. Makenga is from the same league,” Minister Mende said. He said that on rebel demands, the DRC government has considered amnesty for non-officers and child soldiers and those conscripted but with no criminal records.
However, Kinshasa will not entertain the idea of giving military ranks to rebel leaders.
“Makenga and those serving with him, there is no future for them in our army. We can offer them rehabilitation and help to integrate them into civilian life, but not any position in the security sector,” Minister Mende declared. The DRC government also slammed Rwanda for refusing to hand over seven criminals who are wanted for trial in Congolese courts. Minister Mende said Rwanda was refusing to hand over Jean-Marie Runiga (M23’s political leader until recently sacked by Makenga), Colonel Baudouin Ngaruye (M23’s deputy military commander who was recently placed under US sanctions), Col Jules Mutebusi and Laurent Nkunda. He said this was a show of Kigali’s “double standards” in that on one level, President Kagame claimed to be working hard for peace, but on another level, he continued to collaborate with rebels.
“Why send Bosco to the US Embassy when he is wanted here in the DRC? Why has Rwanda been refusing to send Runiga, Ngaruye, Mutebusi, Nkunda and others to Congolese courts?
“We have been waiting for Rwanda to tell us when they are going to respect our courts and hand over these criminal elements to be tried in our courts,” Minister Mende said.