The Return of War to Africa’s Great Lakes Region: Can the Revolutionary Army of the Congo be Contained?

Andrew McGregor

November 30, 2012

The seizure last week by mutinous Congolese soldiers of the city of Goma in the midst of the mineral rich Kivu province of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) has brought the deaths of hundreds of people and displaced hundreds of thousands of others. The ineffective response of the DRC military and the UN troops intended to support it has nourished fears that the mutineers might continue their march through the Congo, plunging the war-wracked state into yet another round of uncontrollable violence.

Great Lakes AfricaNow calling itself the Revolutionary Army of the Congo (RAC), the group of mutineers formerly known as M23 had pledged to march on the DRC capital of Kinshasha if DRC president Joseph Kabila failed to agree to discuss their demands, which include calls for national talks to be hosted by President Kabila, the release of political prisoners (including leading opposition politician Etienne Tshisekedi), the dissolution of the national electoral commission (believed by the ARC to have arranged Kabila’s re-election in 2011) and the investigation of military corruption (New Vision [Kampala], November 27, 2012).

The RAC/M23 movement has its origins in the largely Tutsi Congrès national pour la défense du peuple (CNDP), an ethnic-defense militia based in the DRC province of Nord-Kivu. [1] The movement was believed to have been sponsored by Rwanda as a proxy force for use against the Kivu-based Forces démocratiques de libération du Rwanda (FDLR), a Hutu militia determined to finish the genocide of Tutsis and moderate Hutus that ravaged Rwanda in 1994. The FDLR appears to have stepped up cross-border operations into Rwanda in recent days and has renewed clashes with RAC/M23 (AP, November 27, 2012). The ICC issued a warrant in July for the arrest of FDLR commander Sylvestre Mudacumura, a Rwandan Hutu facing nine counts of war crimes.

General Bosco “The Terminator” Ntaganda, a Rwandan Tutsi wanted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for war crimes committed while both a rebel and an officer in the DRC national army, took control of the CNDP in 2009. [2] The peace agreement that followed in that same year resulted in the integration of most of the CNDP into the DRC army, known as the Forces armées de la République Démocratique du Congo (FARDC).  Colonel Ntaganda led a mutiny of up to 600 soldiers in Nord-Kivu in March after orders came for the ex-CNDP troops to be redeployed from Kivu, where ex-members of the CNDP had made a comfortable living by exploiting and taxing the numerous mining operations in the area. The Mouvement du 23 Mars (M23) was named for the March 23, 2009 peace agreement that movement leaders claim Kinshasha failed to honor (East African [Nairobi], July 16, 2012).

Colonel Ntaganda, who has always denied being the M23 commander despite abundant evidence to the contrary, has kept a low profile since April, allowing the movement’s leadership to pass into the hands of its official commander, Colonel Sultani Makenga. Makenga (now a RAC brigadier) is a former CNDP commander who is believed to have played a major role in massacres carried out in the region in 2007 and 2008. Colonel Makenga denies Ntaganda is being harbored by the RAC (East African [Nairobi], October 22, 2012). At the time of his desertion from FARDC in May, Colonel Makenga was the second-in-command of DRC operations against the Hutu FDLR. Makenga was designated for asset seizure by the U.S. Treasury Department on November 13 in relation to his alleged use of child soldiers and being a recipient of arms and material related to military activities in the DRC.

Under a deal forged by Uganda, a RAC spokesman announced on November 29 that the movement would hand over the town of Sake to UN forces on November 30, to be followed by a withdrawal from Goma to a point 12 miles north of the city, though 100 RAC fighters would be allowed to remain at the Goma airport (AFP, November 29, 2012). In return, Kinshasha has agreed to negotiate with the rebels and hear their grievances, once they have retreated to 20 kilometers (12 miles) north of the city.

The Assault on Goma

A three-month truce was shattered on November 15 as RAC and Congolese forces clashed at daybreak, both sides claiming later to have acted in self-defense. Tanks belonging to the UN’s Mission de l’Organisation des Nations Unies en République Démocratique du Congo (MONUSCO) rolled into defensive positions outside Goma, ready to support the defense of the city of one million people close to the Rwandan border. On November 18, UN attack helicopters, provided by the Ukraine and operated by Ukrainian pilots ran ten strike missions against the rebels outside Goma (AFP, November 18, 2012). The night before the assault on Goma, Rwandan General Joseph Nzabamwita reported that the DRC army had bombarded the Rwandan border region with T-55 tank shells, mortars and anti-aircraft missiles. A FARDC spokesman said an investigation was under way but countered that Rwanda had also fired mortars across the border (AFP, November 19, 2012).

RACongoPatrol of the Revolutionary Army of the Congo near Goma

RAC forces continued to advance and took the city in the morning of November 20 after a few hours of light resistance from FARDC and UN forces based in Goma. With the RAC on the outskirts of Goma, DRC forces engaged in some tough talk, with the local Republican Guard commander promising to “die with the population” rather than leave them to the hands of the rebels (Agence Congolaise de Presse, November 19, 2012). Residents of Goma reported that the Republican Guard (which reports to the president directly rather than to FARDC command) did offer some resistance to the insurgents while FARDC troops busied themselves with looting before abandoning the city (AFP, November 19, 2012). A FARDC spokesman claimed later that DRC armor came under fire from Rwandan artillery every time they tried to shell RAC positions, but a Rwandan spokesman replied: “Every time [FARDC] gets beaten on the ground, they use the RDF [Rwandan Defense Force] as an excuse” (AFP, November 17, 2012). Many of the Congolese troops shed their uniforms before fleeing into the bush. The precipitate departure of Congolese forces from Goma appears to have provided the ARC with an arms windfall of as much as 1,000 tons of arms and ammunition, including heavy artillery (AP, November 27, 2012).

After the attack, the DRC government reported that the rebels had been reinforced by 4,000 Rwandan troops and had been provided with night-vision goggles that gave them an advantage in the fighting (Agence Congolaise de Presse, November 19, 2012; November 20, 2012). The DRC had earlier claimed to have found bodies wearing Rwandan Army uniforms after clashes with the RAC on November 15, but a Rwandan army spokesman retorted: This an old propaganda gimmick; it’s easy to try to draw Rwanda into this mess” (AFP, November 15, 2012; November 18, 2012, Jeune Afrique, November 17, 2012).

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius expressed his disappointment with the performance of the UN’s 1,500 man peacekeeping force in Goma: “MONUSCO’s mandate should be revised. MONUSCO was not in a situation where it could prevent what happened when faced with a few hundred men” (AFP, November 20, 2012). The UN has stated its Goma contingent, part of a force of 6,700 UN troops in Nord-Kivu, would remain in Goma, though their role in the current situation remains undefined.

UN peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous defended the MONUSCO contingent in Goma, pointing out that their mandate called for support of FARDC troops, but given the fact that government forces fled from Goma shortly after fighting began this was “hardly achievable… and clearly it is not the role – not the mandate of MONUSCO – to directly hit the armed groups…” (Xinhua, November 21, 2012).

MONUSCO’s ineffective defense of Goma sparked large demonstrations in several cities, including Kisangani, where UN vehicles were set on fire and stones thrown at UN offices. Protesters also targeted the government and the ARC for their roles in the continuing violence (Agence Congolaise de Presse, November 21, 2012; November 22, 2012).

After a “strategic withdrawal” from the Goma area, FARDC troops are now based around the town of Minova, 36 miles from Goma. On November 22, FARDC launched an offensive to retake the town of Sake, west of Goma. The Goma Airport remains under the control of UN forces.

Regional Involvement in the Crisis – Rwanda

A UN report on foreign military involvement in the Kivu region was leaked earlier this month, creating a diplomatic crisis in the Great Lakes region. Much of the report appeared to confirm the DRC’s claims that neighboring Rwanda and Uganda were providing arms, intelligence and logistical support to RAC/M23. The DRC is now demanding that Rwanda and Uganda be targeted by U.S. and UN sanctions for its support of RAC (AFP, November 18, 2012). Some of the fallout was internal, however; General Gabriel Amisi Kumba, the chief of DRC land forces, was dismissed by President Kabila on November 22 after having been accused in the report of trafficking arms to various militant groups, including suspected RAC allies in the local Maï-Maï and anti-Hutu Raia Mutomboki groups ( [Kinshasha], November 23, 2012; AFP, November 22, 2012).

Based partly on MONUSCO radio intercepts, Rwanda was identified in the report as playing a major role in creating and backing RAC/M23, with Minister of Defense General James Kabarebe accused of directing the movement’s activities with the assistance of Army chief-of-staff Lieutenant General Charles Kayonga and Lieutenant General Jacques Nziza. Rwandan troops fought in the Congo during the rebellion against President Mobutu Sese Seko in 1996-1998 and again from 1998 to 2003. Rwandan troops returned to the DRC with permission in 2009 to pursue the Hutu FDLR militia.

Rwanda’s activities in the border region have led to the cancelling of an important training agreement with the Belgian military; according to Belgian foreign minister Didier Reynders: “We will not train soldiers who could contribute to the destabilization [of the Congo]” (Radio Télévision Belge Francophone, November 11, 2012). The DRC, seeing an opportunity, dispatched Prime Minister Augustin Matata Ponyo to Brussels to urge greater military assistance and training from the Belgians.

Regional Involvement in the Crisis – Uganda

Uganda, which President Kabila describes as “the bad boy” of the region, was also identified as a major backer of RAC/M23, much to the outrage of Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni (Sunday Monitor [Kampala], October 29, 2012). Ugandan police chief Lieutenant General Kale Kayihura and the President’s brother, General Salim Saleh, were singled out in the UN report for providing  military assistance and troops to RAC/M23 (Daily Monitor [Kampala], November 5, 2012).

Uganda has intervened in the DRC before, particularly in 1996-1998, when Ugandan troops backed Laurent Kabila’s efforts to depose President Mobutu Sese Seko and again in 1998-2003 during a vast civil war that dragged in many other African countries. Ugandan generals, some related to President Museveni, made enormous profits by pillaging the eastern Congo’s mineral industry.

Ugandan premier Amama Mbabazi described the leaked report as the work of “UN amateurs” and asked:

Why should we continue involving Uganda where the only reward we get is malignment? Why should the children of Ugandans die and we get malignment as a reward? Why should we invite retaliation by [Somalia’s] al-Shabaab by standing with the people of Somalia, only to get malignment by the UN system? (Daily Monitor [Kampala], November 2, 2012).

After the release of the UN report, Uganda announced it was considering three options before taking action:

  • Withdrawing from regional peacekeeping operations in Somalia (where they form the core of the African Union Mission in Somalia – AMISOM)  and the Central African Republic
  • Continuing with these operations despite the UN report
  • Demanding a withdrawal of the allegations contained in the UN report before allowing Ugandan peacekeeping operations to continue (Daily Monitor [Uganda], November 26, 2012).

After Uganda made its threat to abandon UN-backed peacekeeping operations in Somalia, UN officials quickly began to back away from the report, saying that the views expressed therein “did not necessarily reflect those of the United Nations” (Africa Review [Nairobi], November 5, 2012).

During an interview with a local newspaper, Ugandan defense minister Dr. Crispus Kiyonga admitted that Ugandan authorities had conducted secret meetings with RAC/M23 to urge them to stop fighting and suggested that these meetings might have been misinterpreted as support for the group (Daily Monitor [Kampala], November 12, 2012).

Pursuit of the largely moribund Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) rebel group is often cited by the government as the reason for its cross-border military operations in the eastern DRC. Museveni claims that a recent series of assassinations of prominent Muslim clerics in Uganda is the work of ADF operatives based in the DRC (Observer [Kampala], September 17; for the ADF, see Terrorism Monitor, December 20, 2007). In an interview with Ugandan journalists, Kabila said joint DRC-Ugandan operations against elements of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) based in the Congo had been successful and that further joint operations against Ugandan rebels of the ADF based in the Kivu region would have followed if they hadn’t been pre-empted by the new outbreak of violence in the region (Sunday Monitor [Kampala], October 29, 2012).

As leader of the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region (ICGLR), President Museveni is officially leading regional efforts to quell the fighting in Kivu and appears to have some influence over RAC/M23. [3] Despite the claims that Uganda is arming and facilitating the RAC/M23 rebellion, Uganda says it still has the “moral authority” to continue as a mediator in the conflict (IRIN [Nairobi], November 23, 2012). The ICGLR has proposed forming a “neutral” international force of 4,000 troops under AU and UN supervision to eliminate armed groups in the eastern DRC, but it will be difficult to find solid commitments of trained and capable troops for this force. The neutral force is intended to include 4,000 troops from Angola, Tanzania, Kenya and the DRC, although only Tanzania has committed a small force of 500 men in the three months that have passed since the creation of the force was announced, and funding remains unconfirmed. It was intended to deploy the force by December, but this now appears unlikely (Daily Monitor [Kampala], November 1, 2012). DRC Prime Minister Ponyo has stated his preference for a “reinvigorated” MONUSCO as a “credible and realistic alternative” to the proposed “neutral international force” (Agence Congolaise de Presse, October 26, 2012).  President Museveni, who favors the new force, has said that what is required is a “new hybrid of troops who are ideologically committed and loyal” (Observer [Kampala], September 17, 2012).


The struggle for the wealth of Kivu Province continues without regard for the residents of the region, who are buffeted one way or another by offensives and counteroffensives. For now, however, it appears that RAC has stepped back from its announced intention of taking the war to Kinshasha, which was always more of a threat than a potential reality due to the great distances, difficult terrain and hostile groups that would be encountered on any march to the national capital. If the RAC actually withdraws from Goma in the coming days (which is by no means guaranteed), it has still emerged from the latest round of fighting with greater wealth, more arms and a degree of respect for their military capabilities when matched with FARDC. The question is whether RAC can translate their new situation into an agreement by a largely unwilling DRC government to consider or even discuss their demands. For the moment, FARDC, even with the support of UN forces, is almost certainly incapable of driving RAC from its lucrative bases in the mining regions of Nord-Kivu and Sud-Kivu. The region’s notorious volatility and reputation as a haven for every type of bandit and would-be revolutionary does not hold much promise that a truce with one group will prevent other groups from continuing to rampage across the eastern Congo. In the end, Rwanda, Uganda and the DRC all value their proxy militias too much to be expected to take decisive steps to bring peace to a region bearing impressive mineral wealth for those willing to bend international protocols to exploit it.


1. For background on the M23, see Andrew McGregor, “M23: A New Player in the Proxy Wars of the Democratic Republic of the Congo,” Terrorism Monitor, July 26, 2012.

2. For Ntaganda, see Andrew McGregor, “War Crimes, Gold Mines and Mutiny in the North-East Congo: A Profile of General Bosco Ntaganda,” Militant Leadership Monitor, August 31, 2012,

3. The ICGLR consists of 11 member-states: Angola, Burundi, Central African Republic, Republic of Congo, Democratic Republic of Congo, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Sudan, Tanzania and Zambia.

This article was originally published in the Jamestown Foundation Terrorism Monitor

War Crimes, Gold Mines and Mutiny in the North-East Congo: A Profile of General Bosco Ntaganda

Andrew McGregor

August 31, 2012

Over 22 years of fighting for a variety of rebel-movements and national governments, General Bosco “The Terminator” Ntaganda has established himself as the leading warlord in the little-known Nord-Kivu province of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). The Nord-Kivu region is at the heart of seething Hutu-Tutsi ethnic tensions that have already exploded into one genocide in Rwanda and two vast conflicts in the DRC that have claimed millions of lives. Further contributing to insecurity in the region is the presence of gunmen and insurgents from Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi.

General Bosco Ntaganda

The commercial and political capital of Nord-Kivu is Goma, situated on the north side of Lake Kivu on the border with Rwanda. Goma’s political volatility is accentuated by the looming presence just outside the town of Nyiragongo, an active volcano that destroyed 40% of the city in 2002. Goma is also threatened by a vast pool of poisonous gas under Lake Kivu that awaits only a volcano-related event known as a “limnic eruption” to surface and poison everyone in the region (as happened with two similar lakes in Cameroon in the early 1980s, killing nearly 2,000 people). Ntaganda currently operates out of the nearby Virunga National Park, a Mountain Gorilla refuge and a popular haven for various guerrilla movements operating in the Rwanda-Uganda border region.

The Rwandan Patriotic Army

A Rwandan Tutsi, General Ntaganda was forced to flee tribal violence to the eastern DRC with his family from their Rwandan home of Kiningi while still a teenager. In 1990 he began his long military career at age 17 by joining the military arm of the Uganda-based Rwandan Patriotic Front, a movement of Tutsi exiles determined to end Hutu domination of Rwanda and restore Tutsi rule. Ntaganda remained with the Rwandan Patriotic Army (RPA – built largely around Tutsi deserters from the Ugandan Army) through a difficult campaign against national army units supported by French and Zaïrean detachments.  Led by Paul Kagame, the FPA eventually expelled the génocidaire Hutu government in 1994 after a nation-wide massacre had killed some 800,000 Tutsis and politically moderate Hutus. Nearly one million Hutu fled across the border into what was then northeastern Zaire, where many have remained as refugees or as members of extremist Hutu Interhamwe militias that have conducted cross-border attacks and carried out atrocities against the local Banyamulenge and Banyarwanda Tutsi communities. With the Tutsis back in power in Rwanda, the RPA became the Rwanda Defense Forces (RDF), the new national army.

The failure of President Mobutu Sese Seko’s Zaïre to prevent Hutu attacks launched from Nord-Kivu and Sud-Kivu led to the First Congo War (1996-1997), which ended with Rwanda’s invasion of the region and Mobutu’s overthrow by Rwandan and Ugandan-supported rebel forces under Laurent Kabila.

“The Terminator” Emerges in the FPLC

After the First Congo War, Ntaganda became military deputy chief of the Forces Patriotiques pour la Libération du Congo (FPLC), the military wing of the Union des Patriotes Congolais (UPC). Formed by Thomas Lubanga Dyilo near the end of the Second Congo War (1998-2003), the FPLC was backed by Rwanda and Uganda despite a notorious reputation for human rights abuses, including a 2002 massacres of civilians in Mongbwalu (Ituri district) and the murder of nine Bangladeshi peacekeepers in 2005. As an FPLC commander, Ntaganda was directly implicated in the kidnapping of a Moroccan peacekeeper and the killing of a Kenyan peacekeeper as well as being a suspect in the murders of two aid workers. [1] The Second Congo War had begun when Rwanda crossed into Nord-Kivu again in support of the Banyamulenge Tutsi, attacking refugee camps hosting the notorious Hutu militia known as the Forces démocratiques de libération du Rwanda (FDLR).

Ntaganda took orders from General Floribert Kisembo Bahemuka, who was Lubanga’s chief of staff before breaking away from the movement in 2003. Kisembo became a leading general in the Congolese national army, the Forces Armées de la République Démocratique du Congo (FARDC), but after splitting with President Joseph Kabila he was assassinated by DRC troops in May, 2011 (Radio Okapi [Kinshasha], May 1, 2011). As the movement collapsed with Lubanga’s arrest by Rwanda and the arrival of a new peace settlement Ntaganda was offered the post of general in FARDC in December, 2004, but declined the offer.  

During the period 2002-2003, Ntaganda is accused of running FPLC recruitment and training centers for child soldiers under 15 years of age as well as commanding troops accused of killing 800 civilians in the Ituri district in 2002 as his forces seized control of local gold mines (BBC, May 15). Ntaganda has attempted to downplay his involvement in the FPLC, insisting he was only “the fourth ranking member” of the movement, while suggesting that “Even Thomas Lubanga was just trying to defend himself” (AFP, May 2).

Joining “The Chairman” in the CNDP

Though once close, the relationship between Ntaganda and Lubanga began to deteriorate and Ntaganda decided to leave the FPLC in 2006 for the Nord-Kivu-based Congrès national pour la défense du peuple (CNDP), a new movement being organized by Congolese Tutsi General Laurent “The Chairman” Nkunda. Ntaganda became chief of operations as the CNDP’s chief-of-staff under Nkunda. It was in this capacity that Ntaganda oversaw the massacre of an estimated 150 civilians at Kiwanja in Nord-Kivu on November 4-5, 2008. UN peacekeepers nearby did not interfere with the massacre according to a report issued by the Office of the UN High Commissioner of Human Rights (Radio France Internationale, September 10, 2009). The CNDP offensive of late 2008 brought the movement as far as the outskirts of Goma, but though the garrison had fled after looting the city, Nkunda failed to give the order to occupy Goma, causing dissension within the movement (The Times [London], October 30, 2008; AFP, January 7, 2009). 

Ntaganda’s close CNDP colleague, Colonel Innocent Zimurinda, was the field commander who implemented Ntaganda’s orders in the Kiwanja massacre and was further accused of responsibility for a similar massacre at Shalio (Nord-Kivu) the following month during the Kimia II offensive against the FDLR in which some 50 refugees in a camp near a FDLR base were slaughtered, with the survivors reporting gang rapes and mutilation. An FDLR revenge massacre killed 97 ethnic-Tutsis in a neighboring village (BBC, October 16, 2009).

A growing dispute between Ntaganda and Nkunda over the movement’s leadership became public in January, 2009, with Nkunda promising Ntaganda would be charged with “high treason” and Ntaganda claiming he had dismissed Nkunda (AFP, January 6, 2009; January 8, 2009; BBC, January 6, 2009).There was speculation at the time that Ntaganda’s Bagogwe Tutsi followers from the Masisi region had grown tired of the prominence enjoyed in the movement by Nkunda’s Tutsi followers from Rutshuru (AFP, January 8, 2009).

Charged by the ICC

An International Criminal Court (ICC) warrant for Ntaganda’s arrest for charges relating to the use of child soldiers was filed under seal in August, 2006, but was only made public on April 29, 2008 (AFP, April 29, 2008). Nkunda dismissed appeals to turn Ntaganda over to the ICC, arguing that his military commander was only a “small fish” compared to government officials involved in various atrocities. Nkunda further awarded himself sovereign status when he argued that he was not a signatory to the Rome Statute that established the ICC and was therefore under no obligation to turn over Ntaganda (Rwanda News Agency, June 21, 2008).

 A second warrant released on July 13, 2012 included additional counts of crimes against humanity, including murder, rape, pillaging, persecution and sexual slavery. Thomas Lubanga, Ntaganda’s former commander in the FPLC, was sentenced to 14 years in prison by the ICC in July for recruiting and using child soldiers in the early 2000’s. Two other DRC nationals, Germain Katanga and Mathieu Ngudjolo Chui have already been extradited and await trial in the Hague. Despite the strong possibility he may follow these commanders to the Hague for trial, Ntaganda recently declared: “If the ICC has questions to ask me I can answer them because I don’t blame myself for anything” (AFP, May 2).

Ntaganda’s Commercial Empire

Wielding ultimate power in Nord-Kivu allowed General Ntaganda to build his own economic structure in the region, one that placed him atop a financial pyramid in which the illegal sale of raw materials and minerals and “taxes” imposed by his men on markets, charcoal production, vehicle checkpoints and anything else that can be taxed have permitted Ntaganda to invest in a flour factory, a bar, a ranch outside Goma and a hotel on the Rwandan border (Le Potentiel [Kinshasha], Februry 7, 2011).

In 2011, Ntaganda is reported to have run a sophisticated gold-sales scam using former NBA basketball star Dikembe Mutombo as a front-man. Mutombo convinced controversial Nigerian-American businessman Kase Lawal (owner of Houston-based energy firm CAMAC) and Houston diamond merchant Carlos St. Mary that 4.5 tons of gold could be obtained in Africa for a hugely discounted $10 million in cash, a third of the real value. St. Mary gave half the money to middlemen in Nairobi, then went on to Goma, where Ntaganda, still a general in the national army, relieved St. Mary of $3 million, with the balance going to the local Customs department. When asked to return the missing cash to DRC Customs, Ntaganda is alleged to have turned in a suitcase containing $3 million in counterfeit bills printed on yellow copy paper and all bearing the same serial number (Mail & Guardian [Johannesburg], August 10). [2]

Integration into the Congolese National Army

The CNDP’s independent existence came to an abrupt end in what appeared to be a pre-planned scenario in January, 2009, as General Nkunda was arrested by Rwandan authorities on the border with the DRC and Ntaganda stepped up to take control of the movement, announcing that the CNDP would now fight alongside its former FARDC enemy against Hutu rebel movements in the eastern DRC (AFP, October 23, 2010). In a surprising development, former enemies Rwanda and the DRC now began effective joint operations in the northeastern Congo against Hutu rebels, though President Kabila was criticized for “inviting foreign troops” into the DRC (East African [Nairobi], March 2, 2009).

Ntaganda agreed to integrate his forces with FARDC according to the terms of the March 23, 2009 peace agreement, ensuring that Kinshasha would not pursue the ICC warrants against Ntaganda and other CNDP officers. Though officially tasked with reintegration duties at Kinshasha, Ntaganda quickly became a principal planner and advisor on a FARDC offensive against Hutu extremists (though this has been denied by Kinshasha – see Agence Congolaise Presse, October 10, 2009). He was also accused of planning at least eight assassinations of opponents in Nord-Kivu during this time (Jeune Afrique, October 29, 2010). Ntaganda’s role as a leading commander in the anti-FDLR Amani Leo operation caused intense embarrassment to the UN’s peacekeeping mission, the Mission de l’Organisation des Nations Unies en République démocratique du Congo (MONUC), which was an active participant in the operation.

Until his desertion from FARDC in April of this year, Ntaganda was living openly in a house in Goma and was commonly seen in that city wearing a large cowboy hat and Western-style clothing, playing tennis or dining in Goma’s best restaurants (La Flamme du Congo, April 13).

M23 – New Threat in Nord-Kivu

On April 11, President Kabila said he resented international pressure to issue a warrant for General Ntaganda: We have more than a hundred reasons to arrest him and we don’t lack the force or the means to arrest him, but I will not work under pressure from the international community” (AFP, April 12). However, with the ICC fugitive clearly acting as part of the DRC regular army and Kinshasha subsequently risking being cited for complicity in the Ntaganda case, word began to circulate in mid-April that Kabila had finally issued the order to arrest the Tutsi warlord. Though the UN mission had no mandate to arrest war criminals, it pledged to assist government efforts to detain the warlord (Le Potentiel [Kinshasha], April 12; Le Phare [Kinshasha], March 19; April 12). The DRC later clarified that Ntaganda would face charges in Kinshasha first:He will be judged according to our laws, and it is our justice that will determine if he should be extradited or not… “We have our own grievances against the general Ntaganda, who was associated at one moment with the peace process and who has committed an act of felony, compounded by several blood crimes against both our army and civilians… We intend to catch him and try him in our country” (AFP, May 14). On May 9, government troops discovered 25 metric tons of arms and ammunition on Ntaganda\s farm in the Masisi region of Nord-Kivu, including mortars, recoilless rifles and small arms (Le Potentiel [Kinshasha], May 11; AFP, May 9).

With pressure growing against Ntaganda, ex-rebels of the CNDP integrated into FARDC mutinied in mid-April (La Tempete des Tropiques [Kinshasha], April 11).  As the number of desertions increased, Ntaganda at first issued vehement denials of involvement in M23, the armed group formed by the mutineers (AFP, May 2). Colonel Sultani Makenga, a former CNDP commander tied to the 2008 Kiwanja massacre and the 2007 Buramba massacre, was named the official head of M23. Despite Makenga’s own record, it was no doubt considered safer to place M23 under his nominal command rather than admit the movement was led by an individual wanted by the ICC. At the time of his desertion in May, Colonel Makenga was the second-in-command of DRC operations against the FDLR. As the mutineers abandoned positions in Nord-Kivu, they were quickly replaced in some villages by members of the FDLR under its Hutu military commander Sylvestre Mudacumura (also charged by the ICC with nine counts of crimes against humanity in July) and an allied militia known as the Patriotic Army for a Free and Sovereign Congo (APCLS) (L’Observateur [Kinshasha], April 5). Not all the men under Ntagana’s command joined the mutiny – several hundred appear to have taken advantage of an amnesty offered by FARDC in May (AFP, May 10). President Kabila suspended the joint operations with Rwanda after the scale of the desertions in Nord-Kivu became apparent.

M23 took its name from its principal demand – the full implementation of the March 23, 2009 accord that called for full integration of the former CNDP into the DRC political and military structure. The demand was slightly facetious; during his time in FARDC, Ntaganda created a parallel chain of command in Nord-Kivu and Sud-Kivu, much to the annoyance of the FARDC general staff (Jeune Afrique, April 3). His Tutsi troops also avoided mixing with other elements of the national army. While M23 spokesmen cited various other reasons for the group’s formation, including military mismanagement, poor living conditions and the release of CNDP prisoners, the most important reason was Ntaganda’s fear he would soon be brought to trial in the DRC or, worse, be extradited to face the ICC charges. This called for a quick (and apparently well-planned and financed) exit from FARDC, where he was vulnerable, and a return to his loyalists in the hills of Nord-Kivu to flex some muscle and negotiate a new deal with Kinshasha providing for his personal security.  

The Addendum to the draft UN Experts Report released in June cites Rwanda for direct assistance to M23 through the provision and transport of weapons and soldiers and direct military intervention in the DRC in support of the mutineers. [3] Despite the growing evidence collected by the UN that Rwanda is supporting Ntaganda and M23, Rwandan president Paul Kagame’s denials have grown even louder, recently telling a group of Rwandan officers: that not a single bullet had been supplied to the mutineers, adding that the UN “screwed up the case of the Congo and are instead [trying] to put it on our shoulders” (Rwandan News Agency, August 7; Africa Review [Nairobi], August 7).

In May a DRC government spokesman said they were sure that Ntaganda and his men would not be allowed to take refuge in Rwanda, adding that there were “good reasons” why the warlord had not been arrested earlier: “It was to consolidate the peace process to which he has contributed” ( [Kinshasha], May 16).


Despite all the turmoil in Nord-Kivu, some things have changed little. Human rights organizations active in the DRC have reported Ntaganda has returned to the recruitment of child soldiers in Nord-Kivu and the Tutsi warlord’s forces are once again poised outside of Goma, where an assault is expected soon by a garrison of 3,000 men reinforced by artillery, mortars, armor and rocket launchers (AFP, May 16; August 6).

Inability to contain Ntaganda may destabilize the regime in Kinshasha, which is already the target of growing protests over FARDC’s failures in the northeast and the perceived support provided by Rwanda to M23. However, Rwanda cannot be seen to be supporting a sanctioned individual. If Rwanda has indeed backed Ntaganda, it will be placed in a bind if a Congolese offensive should push Ntaganda and the M23 up against the border. If Rwanda allows Ntaganda to cross into its territory, it will inevitably become the immediate target of international criticism and will open Kagame up to charges of abetting war crimes. If, however, Ntaganda is captured there is a danger he might be extradited to the Hague for ICC prosecution, where he might decide to describe the exact nature of his relationship with Kagame and the Rwandan government. A remaining possibility would be Ntaganda’s arrest and quiet imprisonment in the Congo. However, the weaknesses of FARDC, including indiscipline, poor morale and shortages in food, ammunition and salaries do not encourage optimism in this latter result. For the moment, “the Terminator” appears to have the upper hand in Nord-Kivu.


1. Trial Watch, Geneva,

2. See Armin Rosen, “The Warlord and the Basketball Star: A Story of Congo’s Corrupt Gold Trade,” The Atlantic, March 1, 2012,

3. UN Security Council, S/2012/348/Add.1, Letter dated 26 June 2012 from the Chair of the Security CouncilCommittee established pursuant to resolution 1533 (2004)concerning the Democratic Republic of the Congo addressed to thePresident of the Security Council,

This article was first published in the August 31, 2012 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Militant Leadership Monitor.

M23: A New Player in the Proxy Wars of the Democratic Republic of the Congo

Andrew McGregor

July 26, 2012

The Congolese province of Nord-Kivu, which borders both Rwanda and Uganda on its eastern side, is a land of active volcanoes, mountain gorillas, valuable minerals, warring militias and over 200,000 displaced people. It is also home to M23, a new and powerful militia composed of veteran rebels and professional soldiers. Well-armed and apparently more capable than local units of the national army, M23 poses a new challenge to efforts to restore stability to a region of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) that has been in a state of upheaval since the genocide in neighboring Rwanda in 1994. 

Colonel Bosco Ntaganda in the hills of Nord-Kivu

M23 has its origins in the Nord-Kivu-based Congrès national pour la défense du peuple (CNDP) of General Laurent “The Chairman” Nkunda, a Congolese Tutsi. The largely Tutsi CNDP is believed to have been sponsored by Rwanda to fight a proxy war with the Hutu supremacist Forces démocratiques de libération du Rwanda (FDLR), a militia formed partly by former Hutu genocidaires. With the CNDP under pressure from an offensive by Congolese and Rwandan troops, the movement’s leadership split in January 2009. Nkunda was arrested and detained in Rwanda while General Bosco “The Terminator” Ntaganda, a Rwandan Tutsi wanted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for war crimes committed while both a rebel and an officer in the DRC national army, took control of the movement. Ntaganda agreed to integrate his forces with the Congolese national army, the Forces armées de la République Démocratique du Congo (FARDC),  according to the terms of the March 23, 2009 peace agreement, which also ensured Kinshasha would not pursue the ICC warrants against Ntaganda and other CNDP officers. The ICC issued a fresh arrest warrant against Ntaganda on July 13 related to crimes against humanity, murder, rape, pillaging, recruitment of child soldiers and sexual slavery (AFP, July 13). Thomas Lubanga, Ntaganda’s former commander in the Union des Patriotes Congolais (UPC) / Forces Patriotique pour la Liberation du Congo (FPLC), was sentenced to 14 years in prison by the ICC earlier this month for recruiting and using child soldiers in the early 2000’s.

M23 is named for the March 23, 2009 peace agreement that movement leaders claim Kinshasha has failed to honor (East African [Nairobi], July 16).  The movement was born when Colonel Ntaganda led a March mutiny of up to 600 soldiers in Nord-Kivu. Though poor living conditions, pay interruptions and other reasons were cited, it is likely that the main causes of the military revolt were a plan to transfer the former CNDP troops under Ntaganda’s command to another part of the DRC and a rumor that President Joseph Kabila had taken a new interest in enforcing the ICC warrant against Ntaganda. Colonel Ntaganda and other Tutsi officers profited from their control of rich mining areas of Nord-Kivu and by trading in tropical hardwoods grown in the region. The Tutsi officers and their men have opposed any transfer from the lucrative Kivu provinces and pose locally as the “protectors” of the Banyamulenge, Congolese Tutsis who live in the region. In the field with Ntaganda are three other senior officers, Colonel Baudouin Ngaruye, Colonel Innocent Zimurinda and Colonel Innocent Kaina, all of whom are accused of massacring civilians, mass rape, mutilations, and other crimes while profiting from illegal taxes on charcoal production and mining operations (IRIN [Nairobi], June 23; AFP, July 13).