13 Aug 2012

Craving for mineral wealth fuels support for Bosco

A UN report alleges direct Rwandan assistance to Bosco Ntaganda’s rebels, setting them up, reinforcing them, arming, supplying and funding them and recruiting for them – all in violation of UN sanctions.

In eastern Congo, people won’t have had much time to sit back and watch the Olympics. More than half a million of them are on the run, fleeing in terror from a rebel warlord, himself on the run from government forces and the International Criminal Court.

For Bosco Ntagana, the renegade general in question, is wanted for war crimes, and in recent weeks he has probably succeeded in lengthening his own charge sheet.

A few weeks ago, I was in South Sudan and wrote about my overwhelming sense of deja vu, as I watched victims of another ICC-indicted war criminal, Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir, fleeing from Blue Nile State into the newly independent South.

Eight years earlier, I’d reported on the misery inflicted by Bashir and his henchmen in Darfur, where the United Nations estimates that 300,000 have been killed and nearly 2 million displaced. Now they’re doing it all over again, somewhere else.

I’m in Deja Vu Despair Vortex No. 2 of 2012. What’s happening in eastern Congo is exactly what happened less than four years ago. Same people and exactly the same place. I watched an interview recorded by a Congolese journalist with a soldier for the national army, the FARDC. “There’s still heavy fighting going on in Rutshuru and Kiwanja,” he said, “but the republican army is doing well.”

The place names jumped out at me. In November 2008, I was part of a Channel 4 News crew to discover the aftermath of a massacre in Kiwanja. We’d arrived there having driven through Rutshuru, where dead bodies lay on main street and the UN peacekeepers had barricaded themselves in the fortified barracks. Survivors in Kiwanja blamed insurgents under the command of Bosco Ntganda, who was named by the UN as the rebel chief of staff.

A few months later, Bosco did a deal with the government, swapped uniforms and was rewarded with a plum job in the army, in the provincial capital, Goma. Now Bosco’s back on the run. His subalterns claim they’ve rebelled because the government violated the terms of the peace deal.

The reality is that renegade general went awol when the Congolese president announced that he thought Bosco should be arrested for war crimes.

As ever, the biggest UN peacekeeping force in the world has failed to keep the peace in eastern Congo. Until April, when General Bosco fled into the bush with a few hundred men, the UN peacekeepers had rubbed shoulders in Goma restaurants and hotels with an indicted war criminal, unable to arrest him without a presidential warrant. Now Bosco is posing a direct military threat to the city of Goma itself, pushing a wave of displaced people ahead of his notorious ragtag army as it advances.

How did it come to this? One word: Rwanda – and that’s according to a group of experts commissioned by the UN to report to the security council. When their report was published in late June, it drew venomous denials from Kigali.

The report alleges direct Rwandan assistance to Bosco Ntaganda’s rebels, setting them up, reinforcing them, arming, supplying and funding them and recruiting for them – all in violation of UN sanctions.

The government of Rwandan President Paul Kagame dismisses these accusations as “one-sided conjecture”; his foreign minister says Rwanda has no motive and no interest in supporting the uprising.

Rwanda’s main aid donors don’t buy that. The US, Britain and the Netherlands have pulled the plug on aid in protest over Rwanda’s alleged involvement in Congo. It’s happened before.

Some of this is to do with the fallout of the genocide in Rwanda 18 years ago; Bosco Ntganda’s a Tutsi. His insurgents act as Kigali’s proxy Hutu-hunters in eastern Congo, to which many genocidaires escaped all those years ago.

But a lot, too, is to do with eastern Congo’s vast mineral wealth: gold, coltan and tin, and who controls it. For more than a decade, armed militia in Congo have enriched themselves and funded their rebellions though sales of these minerals.

A succession of UN reports in recent years have named Bosco Ntaganda as the kingpin of the mineral-smugglers. His house in Goma sits right next to the Rwandan border; Rwanda is the primary transit point for smuggled minerals, according to Global Witness, the conflict resources and human rights group.

In a report released in May, the group said: “Ntaganda, a career warlord wanted by the International Criminal Court, seized control of some of the region’s richest mining areas and built up a highly lucrative conflict minerals trafficking operation prior to his April mutiny. Global Witness believes it is highly likely that proceeds from the general’s racketeering are being used to finance the current fighting.”

For three years, Bosco Ntaganda sat in Goma, adding daily to his looted millions.  He considered himself untouchable – and General Bosco was not touched.  Now the civilians of eastern Congo have re-entered their recurring nightmare.  Will history repeat itself?  Probably.