The Tangled Tale of the Terminator: Why a Warlord Turned Himself In

Bosco Ntaganda was one of the most feared men in Africa—until he feared for his own safety and ended up in the U.S. embassy in Rwanda

  • Share
  • Read Later
Paul Harera / REUTERS

Bosco Ntaganda talks on his mobile phone at his office in Goma on April 4, 2009.

Events have been swift for Bosco Ntaganda. The fugitive Congolese warlord unexpectedly showed up at the U.S. embassy in Kigali, Rwanda on Monday. Today, just four days after, he was escorted by officials of the International Criminal Courts from the embassy and put on a plane to The Hague, where he is wanted for crimes against humanity—including the recruitment of child soldiers, murder and the use of rape as a means of terrorizing civilian populations. An ICC official told TIME that within a week Ntanganda will face an initial hearing on the charges. His trial will start within five months.

It is a surprising end for a warlord nicknamed “The Terminator” who has come to represent impunity across the world, impervious to arrest despite the gravity of his crimes and a U.S. bounty of $5 million bounty for his arrest, Ntaganda has lived a seemingly cosy life, profiting from several mining operations in the region, and frequenting the finest bars and hotels eastern Congo has to offer. At times, he would slip eastward across the border to neighboring Rwanda, with no one lifting a finger to apprehend him.

(MORE: Congo’s Eastern Rebels Seize Goma: Will Rwanda Then Take Over?)

And then, Ntaganda appeared to run out of luck. On Monday, at 7:30am, Ntaganda turned up at the gates of the U.S. embassy in Kigali and asked “shocked” staff to be transferred to the International Crime Court. The high fenced compound then became Ntaganda’s home as the U.S. worked out the practicalities of flying him to The Hague. “It is an important moment because he is the first to voluntary surrender himself,” ICC official Fadi El-Abdallah told TIME. “Now his victims can begin to participate in the trial.”

While details of why Ntaganda ended up at the US embassy remain murky, the beginning of his downfall can be traced back to the November 2011 elections in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). That vote saw President Joseph Kabila win a second term amid allegations of fraud. Seeking ways to appease an increasingly critical international community, Kabila hinted he was planning to arrest Ntaganda and hand him over to the ICC. At the time, Ntaganda was a General in the state army following a peace agreement in 2009 which incorporated his rebels into the state army. Getting wind of Kabilla’s plans, Ntaganda deserted from his position and retreated to a former rebel stronghold in the highlands. Soon, other rebels followed him and a new rebel outfit was created, called the M23 after a peace agreement made in March 23 2012 between Ntaganda and the DRC. The M23 claimed that the government in Kinshasa had not honored the agreement and were therefore taking up arms. In November 2012, the M23 seized the city of Goma in the eastern DRC, a stone’s throw from the Rwandan border.

Whatever advantage Ntaganda gained from the maneuver proved to be short-lived. As the M23 rebels sought to gain international recognition, the warlord was quickly sidelined because of his international notoriety. Indeed, throughout the M23’s takeover of Goma, Ntaganda remained in the background. But in February 2013, heavy fighting broke out between M23’s military chief Sulatani Makenga and troops loyal to Ntaganda over the former’s willingness to sign a peace agreement with Kinshasa. “Ntaganda was afraid that Makenga would get a high-up state position and he would get sidelined and perhaps incarcerated,” a mid-ranking M23 rebel told TIME. After Makenga’s men got the upper hand, troops loyal to Ntaganda fled to the border on last Saturday where they remain in Rwandan custody. A few days later Ntaganda appeared at the US embassy.

(PHOTOS: Congo’s Crisis: Rebels Launch Offensive in Country’s East)

In previous days, there have been concerns that Rwanda might prevent Ntaganda from leaving Kigali due to the country had backed the warlord during his various rebellions. The relationship between Ntaganda and the government of Rwandan President Paul Kagame is deep and complex. Recent United Nations investigations have concluded that Rwanda was heavily involved in the creation and on going military operations of the M23. As a result it was feared that Rwanda try to prevent Ntaganda from divulging of Rwandan support. As a result of the UN findings, several donors cut aid to Rwanda, funds that account for 35% of the state budget.

Since aid was cut, the Kagame government has been on the brink of severe financial problems that threaten the country’s development. It had little incentive to safeguard Ntaganda and, indeed, facilitated his transfer to the Netherlands. According to Jason Stearns, Congo analyst, Rwanda may have also been comforted by the ICC trial of Thomas Lubanga, Ntaganda’s leader at one point. “That trial brought up nothing about Rwandan backing of DRC rebellions, so Kigali might have seen the benefits of handing him over to be more valuable than risk the development gains they have achieved” Stearns told TIME.

With Ntaganda in The Hague, his M23 hardline faction, which opposed the peace agreement with the DRC, is out the way. M23 Military chief Makenga may now be able to go ahead and re-incorporate his men into the state army. Whether that will lead to peace in eastern Congo–and perhaps a rapprochement between the DRC and Rwanda—remains to be seen.

Human rights groups, and the ICC may now celebrate Ntaganda’s arrest as a step forward in the fight against impunity, but they know that countless rebels who have committed similar crimes against humanity under Ntaganda and other warlords remain at large—and none are likely to turn themselves in.

MORE: Congo’s ‘Mamas’ and Their Campaign Against Wartime Rape