The Congo's baby-faced 'Terminator' remains untouchable

 

Despite an ICC arrest warrant, General Bosco is a key figure in eastern Congo, writes MARY FITZGERALDin Goma

BOSCO NTAGANDA IS a familiar figure in Goma. The baby-faced general, believed to be in his late 30s, can be seen driving along its rutted streets in a convoy bristling with guns or playing tennis at an upmarket hotel by Lake Kivu. At night, he is often spotted at Le Chalet, a restaurant popular with expat aid workers and UN personnel who quietly bristle at his presence.

If anyone can be said to personify much of what is wrong with eastern Congo, it is Bosco Ntaganda. In 2006 the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague issued a warrant for his arrest for allegedly recruiting children under the age of 15 to fight. The man whose nickname is the Terminator is also accused of commanding troops responsible for the massacre and rape of civilians.

“Everyone fears Bosco,” says one man from Goma. “We know that he has the power to plunge this region back into war.”

The fact that he is wanted by the ICC has so far proved no obstacle to Ntaganda’s efforts to accrue wealth and power in Congo’s troubled eastern flank. According to the UN, he oversees a vast mineral-smuggling empire in the region. A report last month by the UN Group of Experts, a committee that monitors the situation in Congo, said he controls a key smuggling route to neighbouring Rwanda.

“He thinks he’s untouchable,” says another Goma resident. “He struts around Goma like he owns the place.”

Ntaganda, a former Tutsi rebel commander, was one of the main beneficiaries of an opaque deal signed between the Rwanda and Congo in 2009 which resulted in the arrest of Rwandan-backed rebel leader Laurent Nkunda.

Ntaganda was chosen to lead what remained of Nkunda’s National Congress for the Defence of the People (CNDP) militia and absorb it into the Congolese army, a force backed by the UN’s peacekeeping mission in Congo. But observers say the integration of CNDP fighters has proved patchy, with Ntaganda and others continuing to operate parallel command structures.

Congo’s president Joseph Kabila has argued that all of this is in the interest of stability. “Why do we choose to work with Mr Bosco, a person sought by the ICC?” he said last year. “Because we want peace now. In Congo, peace must come before justice.”

The recent report by the UN Group of Experts points at even murkier compromises. It said Ntaganda had managed to secure senior posts for his men in return for supporting Kabila’s re-election efforts in the country’s November presidential ballot. Kabila was declared the winner in a result bitterly disputed by opposition figures.

“Ntaganda has secured changes to [national army] restructuring in his favour, in return for the CNDP joining President Kabila’s electoral alliance,” the UN report said.

That backing may have involved the use of the military to pressure voters to cast ballots for the incumbent, it added. A local observer group said it had witnessed a “massive . . . presence of heavily armed soldiers” in pockets of eastern Congo where Ntaganda and his cohort wield considerable influence and that people were intimidated into voting for Kabila. His percentage of the vote was much higher in these areas than elsewhere.

With deals like that being made, it seems unlikely Congo will hand Ntaganda over to the ICC anytime soon. Despite his swaggering reputation, Ntaganda generally shies away from the media. In the few interviews he has given, he comes across as self-aggrandising and gauche.

“Who gave peace to Congo? It was me, General Bosco,” he puffed in an interview with a Reuters journalist two years ago.

Sitting in the shady garden of a hotel frequented by Ntaganda and his men, one of his chief aides gruffly rejected my request for an interview, saying the situation post-election was “too sensitive” for Ntaganda to comment on anything.

Those close to him scoff at the ICC indictment hanging over his head. As one associate put it: “Bosco has made it clear to the UN that the only way he will ever end up in The Hague will be in a funeral shroud.”