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).

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.

Ntaganda's arrest had nothing to with vaunted ideals of global justice or accountability. But it probably had a lot to do with recent, violent schisms within M23, and a parallel schism within the Kigali elite. On February 26, eight members of M23 were killed during a shootout between supporters of Ntaganda and followers of Sultani Makenga, the head of the M23's military wing. Just earlier this week, another flare-up sent Jean-Marie Runiga, the political leader of M23, fleeing across the border, along with Ntanganda and other fighters loyal to him. There is some evidence that Rwanda has pulled back its support from M23 after several countries -- including the United States -- cut aid to president Paul Kagame's government, in light of a U.N. report tying his regime to the rebel movement. It now seems likely that Rwanda is channeling its perhaps-decreased assistance through Makenga while offering up the ICC-indicted Ntaganda as a sign that the country is committed to a new regional peace building effort, as well as to good global citizenship more generally. Ntaganda probably wouldn't have fled into Rwanda simply to turn himself in. It's even less likely that he would have fled east had he not expected Rwanda to shelter him, or at least place him under a loose or comfortable house arrest.

The latter must have seemed like a realistic possibility for him: after all, Rwanda isn't an ICC member state. And as part of the 2009 agreement, Laurent Nkunda, the head of the anti-Kinshasa militia that was integrated into the military under the treaty, was deported to Rwanda and placed a under house arrest, from which he was alleged to have played a fairly active role in organizing the M23 mutiny. House arrest could have meant a second lease on life for Ntaganda, and he might have seen it as a more attractive option than constantly fighting for his life as leader of a rump M23 faction. But this wasn't an attractive option for the Rwandans, who clearly wanted Ntaganda out of their lives for good.

If Ntaganda's capture is far from an ambiguous victory for global justice, it is even harder to determine its effect on the people who once lived under The Terminator's reign of terror. The conflict in the eastern DRC isn't over yet; in an informal conversation, one person familiar with the region even suggested to me that Ntaganda's capture could make M23 stronger than it was before. Ntaganda might have passed from the scene, but he leaves behind a militia movement that's less troubled with internal strife and a conflict that still stubbornly resists even the most broad-based attempts at solving it. The root factors of the eastern DRC's ongoing problems -- like the splintering of militia groups and the interference of neighboring states -- are apparent even in the conditions of Ntaganda's capture. The ex-warlord is safely behind bars. But the chaos and suffering that he epitomized are as present and as challenging as ever.