Congo army accused of multiple abuses

NAIROBI, Kenya — General Bosco Ntaganda may be fighting the bad guys but that doesn’t make him a good guy.

Ntaganda, 37, is one of the most senior military commanders in the army of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Backed by United Nations peacekeepers he has led assaults on the FDLR, an ethnic militia whose leaders organized the Rwandan genocide of 1994 that killed 800,000 and have been hiding out in the jungles of eastern Congo ever since.

He is wanted by the International Criminal Court for the war crime of using child soldiers, and is accused of ordering civilian massacres, rapes, torture and assassinations and of running illegal mining operations. Nicknamed "The Terminator,"  human rights activists say Ntaganda has inflicted horrors on the civilian population. He is very definitely part of Congo’s problem, they say, not its solution.

As revealed in a detailed United Nations report published in late November, Ntaganda is emblematic of the rot at the core of Congo’s army (FARDC), a force riddled with criminal networks that profit from Congo’s vast mineral wealth.

“The consequences of this involvement in the exploitation of natural resources by networks within FARDC are an important cause of instability and conflict in the eastern part of the country,” said the five-member Group of Experts whose job it is to monitor sanctions violations in eastern Congo.

President Joseph Kabila has acknowledged the existence of “a kind of mafia” militarizing the mining of minerals such as tin ore, coltan and gold which eventually reach the world market. In September the president ordered a ban on mining, but activists say it is regularly flouted.

Former rebel Ntaganda and his National Congress for the Defense of the People (CNDP) troops were integrated into the army in 2009, just like dozens of others FARDC has been unable to defeat militarily since a partially successful peace deal in 2003.

In reality "integration" has meant new uniforms and ranks for the rebels who continue to operate as factions within the army. “They didn’t integrate into the army they took it over and now control huge parts of [the region],” said a former diplomat in the regional capital, Goma, of the CNDP.

The U.N. report confirms that view saying the former CNDP control four times as much territory now as they did upon joining the army nearly two years ago. Within this territory Ntaganda’s loyalists run lucrative businesses in minerals, timber, charcoal, fishing and poaching.

“The integration of these armed groups has often been only skin deep and has weakened the army, making an already corrupt, ill-disciplined, abusive force that is one of the worst in Africa even harder to control,” Anneke Van Woudenberg, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch, told GlobalPost. “The army has been at the forefront of rewarding and promoting human rights abusers.”

It is not only the integrated rebels that are the problem. As Van Woudenberg put it, “Congo’s army has lived off the back of the population pretty much since its inception.”

The world was horrified this summer when several hundred were raped in just a few days close to the mines of Walikale. The group responsible, Mai Mai Sheka, was one of more than 20 armed groups created in the last year alone, according to Van Woudenberg’s research.

The U.N. experts discovered that Mai Mai Sheka “is a creation of a criminal network within FARDC.” The FARDC officers responsible were ousted from their control of the Walikale mines, and so set-up Mai Mai Sheka to sow insecurity and undermine the new military controllers of the mines in order to justify their own re-deployment to the area.

The rape of more than 300 people was then collateral in an internal battle, within the national army, over who controls the Walikale mines.

Soldiers and officers are described as fighting amongst themselves for the lucrative deployments to mineral-rich zones. Operations to dislodge armed groups from mining areas are legitimate but are driven by the desire to take over those areas for themselves, so when the army moves in the civilians remain under threat by a new group of rapacious armed men. The displaced rebels are often allowed to remain nearby and undefeated to justify the army’s presence.

According to the investigators, high-ranking officers jostle for the right to deploy more junior “enfants cheris” (favored ones) to profitable locations where they are expected to set up rackets such as illegal taxation, protection and security or theft in order to repay the largesse of their patrons.

The U.N. experts name FARDC head of land forces, Gen. Gabriel Amisi and Ntaganda as well as the top regional army commanders in North and South Kivu and their deputies as being involved in illegal mining.

Fixing Congo’s dysfunctional army is the long-term solution and the United States and other foreign donors are generously funding what is known as “security sector reform.” But in the short-term activists say that simply making sure soldiers receive their paltry $45 monthly wage will help.

Van Woudenberg adds that senior officers must be brought to justice for human rights abuses and involvement in illegal mining. She says that should start with Ntaganda.