An Army Mutiny Could Lead to New War in Congo

The situation in eastern Congo remains tense as up to 600 troops defected from the Congolese army in early April. The soldiers, formerly of the Rwanda-supported CNDP militia, were integrated into the national army in 2009. They are supporters of General Bosco Ntaganda, who was the head of the CNDP and is wanted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes. Thousands of people fled the fighting between the defectors and government troops.

As part of the 2009 deal, the CNDP became a political party, an amnesty was declared, and Ntaganda was promised protection from ICC prosecution. Integration of the CNDP was seen as a major step forward for attaining a measure of stability in the eastern Congo, and President Joseph Kabila has said in the past that “In Congo, peace must come before justice.

There has been some speculation as to why the mutiny took place. It is not unreasonable to say, for example, that the frenzy surrounding Kony 2012 got Ntaganda anxious about increased attention on himself. Another theory focusing on the ICC indictment is that the recent conviction of Ntaganda’s former commander in the Hague, Thomas Lubanga, has him worried. Indeed, shortly after the conviction, international calls for Ntaganda’s arrest multiplied, and the Belgian Foreign Minister warned Kabila that his credibility was at stake for failing to make the arrest. On April 11, Voice of America reported that Kabila capitulated to international pressure and called for Ntaganda’s arrest, although Melanie Gouby reports that it sounds like Kabila wants him tried at home for the defection of his troops, not in the Hague for war crimes.

It appears, however, that the causes of the defections are more complicated than that. It’s assumed that Ntaganda himself defected with his troops in April, but different reports contradict each other and on April 5 diplomats said he had not defected. He also denies being behind the mutiny. This seems dubious, however, as Ntaganda was reported to have left Goma in early April along with his troops and a substantial amount of military equipment.

A new movement, M23, has emerged as a military wing of the CNDP, and Jason Stearns at Congo Siasa reports that a Colonel Makenga has been put in charge rather than Ntaganda. Colonel Innocent Gahizi of the national army, a former CNDP commander who has remained loyal to the government since his integration, says he agrees with those that suspect the effective replacement of Ntaganda is actually a strategy for keeping him safe.

Stearns rightly points out, however, that this is about more than the welfare of Ntaganda. The M23 movement has some political bones to pick, and in fact their name was chosen for the date, March 23, 2009, of the 2009 deal. They claim to be disgruntled over the failure to adequately implement the agreement, which also provided for the return of refugees from Rwanda. Even more importantly, Stearns says, many CNDP officials are not overly concerned about the fate of Ntaganda and are more worried about the aspects of the agreement that deal with decentralization and the CNDP’s parallel command structures in the Kivus.

The army has since found arms caches at Ntaganda’s farm, and declared a ceasefire in order to give the defectors a chance to surrender and return to the army. Depending on what source you read, the deadline was either Wednesday or Thursday; but in any case, the AFP reported Thursday that hundreds of the mutineers had returned to the army. Stearns reports enthusiasm in the army over this apparent success, but as most of the senior leadership is still on the run, asks — and I ask with him — “Is it the end or the beginning of a rebellion?