Congolese General Remains At Large
General Ntaganda keeps his whereabouts a secret, a smart move given he’s one of the most wanted men in the world.
Ntaganda, the Military Chief of Staff of the rebel militia group M23, is the subject of two arrest warrants from the International Criminal Court. His record includes a myriad of human rights violations, ranging from massacres of towns to recruitment of child soldiers and sexual slavery. He is considered by many to be the most dangerous man in the Congo, an impressive feat considering the violence the region has endured these past decades.
The former General has been recently causing disturbances in Congo’s northeastern provinces, a region renowned for its treacherous mountain jungles, wealth of natural resources and history of ethnic conflict. Just two weeks ago M23 captured the highly populated city of Goma, located on the north shore of Lake Kivu in Eastern Congo.
Guerilla forces, comprised of several hundred loyal soldiers who defected from the Congolese army with Ntaganda, seized the city from UN-backed government forces on November 20th and held it for 11 days before withdrawing this past Saturday. The skirmish has resulted in the displacement of over 130,000 residents, who have currently set up camp in the outskirts of the city.
General Ntaganda, effectively a warlord, has been slowly trengthening his hold over the region since his defection from the army three years ago. He has set up a business empire in the nearby region of Masisi, where he collects revenue from charcoal exports. He also uses intimidation to coerce resources from local towns; to ensure no one believe his threats empty, he periodically savages entire towns at a time, leaving behind hundreds of dead.
Ntaganda has been surrounded by violence since his youth. As a teenager, he fled his native Rwanda as attacks on his fellow ethnic Tutsis escalated in the early 90s. He made his way to Southern Uganda, where he joined the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), a guerilla army comprised almost entirely of Tutsi soldiers intent on overthrowing the genocidal Hutu regime.
After successfully removing the Hutus from power, Ntaganda joined forces with Thomas Lubanga, the notorious warlord and human rights violator sentenced by the International Criminal Court this past May. Lubanga’s militia—the Union of Congolese Patriots—was headquartered in the mineral-rich region of Ituri, also in the northeastern region of Congo.
Though he has been wanted by International Courts for some time, Ntanganda had enjoyed an open life of privilege before his defection from the military in 2009. He was frequently spotted playing tennis or dining at nice restaurants seemingly without fear of arrest.
Reports indicate that M23, like many militia groups in Africa these past few decades, has begun recruiting child soldiers. Ntaganda’s forces have been kidnapping boys from their homes and schools, forcing them to walk long distances without food or sleep and brutally beating them if they complain or slow their pace.
Child soldiers serve an unfortunate role for guerilla armies; they are typically placed at the front of the ranks, where they’ll be the first to die in the case of landmines or ambush. Several thousand young men ranging in age from 12 to 20 have sought refuge in neighboring Uganda or Rwanda.
The persistence of violence and lawlessness represent a failure of the international community to intervene in the case of a clearly failed state. The central government of the Congo has little to no authority outside the region—they have no army and little revenue stream. Independent militias like M23 really rule the country, providing their own law and order within the various territories they occupy.
While pro-democratic nations stand idle, more authoritarian regimes haven’t been abashed to meddle. Though both vociferously deny their involvement, both Uganda and Rwanda are strongly suspected of funding rebel groups in the regions near their borders. Rwanda in particular has been linked to M23, a group run by one of their own.
The case of the Congo should challenge how we measure the success of international organizations and their ability to create peace and order throughout the world. Though the UN and other human rights groups are definitely involved, their ability to curb the absurdly high death rates is questionable.
Consider: over five million Congolese have died from conflict, hunger or disease since 1998. The Congo exists as Europe did half a millennium ago, with various lords competing for resources at the expense of the peasantry. Only now, instead of swords and horses, the knights have guns and trucks, which only makes it easier to spread the violence.
Inter-country conflict always results in the world going up in arms. Issues of sovereignty, as we saw with Georgia recently, have successfully gotten the international community to pressure the offending parties to back off.
It’s easy to impose a trade sanction or parlay a truce, which one can do from the safety of one’s own country. It’s much more difficult to solve conflicts when they are within another country, since the solution will only come from direct intervention, a tactic most Western countries are hesitant to endorse.
In a sense, they are right: it’s not their concern, and many have more pressing dilemmas at home, namely the economy. But then again, Europeans did carve up the world the way it is today, laying the groundwork for the ethnic conflict that has ravaged the continent.
Western powers won’t make big changes any time soon. But as the clock ticks, the death toll keeps rising.