Bosco Ntaganda's Surrender Doesn't Mean the DRC Conflict Is Over

The M23 rebel group remains strong even though the Congolese general is behind bars.
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Bosco Ntaganda, when he was a general in the Congolese military. (Reuters)

There's something morally satisfying about International Criminal Court indictee, prolific career militant, and former M23 rebel leader Bosco Ntaganda's dramatic surrender to American diplomats at the U.S. embassy in Kigali, Rwanda yesterday. Ntaganda recruited child soldiers and ran a mafia-like network in the war-torn and resource-rich eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. But now a person responsible for building, profiting from, and ruling over an empire of human exploitation and suffering will live out the next few years in a prison cell, rather than in a villa along the shores of Lake Kivu or in a secured jungle redoubt, surrounded by armed henchman. As a moral statement, this is something to celebrate: Ntaganda won't die a free man, because the contemporary international order refuses to grant him the privilege. Even in a world well attuned to the dangers that atrocity and impunity pose for the human race at large, it is unusual for the moral balance to be so immediately and dramatically restored, and rarer still for the International Criminal Court to play such a straightforwardly positive role in meting out justice (seelast week's events in Kenya for an example of just how rare).

The chaos and suffering that Bosco Ntaganda epitomized are as present and as challenging as ever in the eastern DRC.

This is an encouraging story, but a highly schematic one -- with just the slightest bit of context, yesterday's events begin to look like something other than a clear-cut win for the forces of good. To begin with, Ntaganda didn't throw himself at the mercy of the ICC as the result of a political solution to the ongoing M23 conflict, or even because of any external or multilateral diplomatic or political pressure. Quite the opposite: in 2009, Ntaganda was made a General in the Congolese military after a secretive peace agreement between the Congolese and Rwandan governments, an accord that not only shielded the ex anti-Kinshasa warlord from ICC prosecution, but protected his patronage and smuggling networks in the eastern DRC.

Things hardly changed when Ntaganda and his followers defected from the Congolese military in early 2012. Thanks to material and political support from Rwanda, M23 was able to carve out its own micro-statelet in North Kivu, an entity that became powerful enough to march on and subsequently occupy the region's most important city in November of 2012. Until very recently, Ntaganda wanted to protect his sphere of influence in the east, while Rwanda wanted to continue using its proxies as a hedge against anti-Kigali militants and the general chaos lurking in its western border (rational enough concerns, considering that the eastern DRC has been in a more or less continuous state of war since the mid-1990s). The politics of the region actively reinforced Ntagnda's impunity. Amazingly, this atmosphere persisted even after the 2009 agreement fell apart -- and, with it, the assumption that ignoring the past exploits of ICC-indicted warlords was a nasty but unavoidable precondition for peace in the eastern DRC.

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Armin Rosen is a former writer and producer for The Atlantic's Global channel.

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