NAIROBI — Accused Congolese rebel leader Bosco Ntaganda walked into the U.S. Embassy in Rwanda's capital on Monday and asked to be sent to the International Criminal Court. Despite facing charges of crimes against humanity, Ntaganda apparently assumed he would be safer in The Hague than on the battlefield of eastern Congo.
By turning himself in to U.S. diplomats in Kigali, Ntaganda has essentially retired from a career as a rebel soldier-turned-general in eastern Congo.
The exact circumstances of why he chose to surrender and why he went to the U.S. Embassy are uncertain. But during the past few weeks, his faction of the M23 militant group had been defeated in fighting with soldiers under rival commander Sultani Makenga.
Ntaganda is now running for his life, said International Crisis Group central Africa director Thierry Vircoulon.
“So I think really what happened yesterday was the move of a man who had no other option left," he said.
Ntaganda had evaded an ICC arrest warrant for war crimes committed during an armed rebellion in eastern Congo in the early 2000s, including murder, rape and sexual slavery.
His alleged co-conspirator, Thomas Lubanga, has been tried and convicted by the ICC and sentenced to 14 years in prison for the forced conscription of child soldiers, a charge Ntaganda is also facing.
If Ntaganda is brought to trial, it could have a significant impact on the region, said Human Rights Watch Senior Researcher Carina Tertsakian.
“Bosco Ntaganda himself has been responsible for some of the worst crimes and abuses committed in Congo for more than 10 years now, so it would be hugely significant in that respect, that one of the worst war criminals would finally be made to face justice,” she said.
Tertsakian notes that Ntaganda is not the only rebel leader carrying out abuses in Congo, and that if he does face justice it could serve as a deterrent to the others.
Human Rights Watch and U.N. researchers have accused Rwanda of supporting the M23 rebellion, and of harboring Ntaganda, a charge Rwanda strongly denies. The U.S. State Department says the embassy in Kigali is consulting with Rwanda to arrange Ntaganda’s transfer to The Hague.
Rwandan Justice Minister Tharcisse Karugarama said in an interview with VOA that government will allow the law to take its course.
“There is, as far as we are concerned, no legal impediments, no legal issues that would require any special facilitation from the Rwandan government, other than providing what you would call safe passage,” Karugarama said.
As for what happens next in the Congo, analysts expect Ntaganda’s absence could make room for a peace deal with the remaining M23 fighters, who defected from the Congolese army last year. It will be easier politically for Kinshasa to negotiate with M23 commander Makenga, Vicroulon said.
“Now the Congolese government is going to be able to sign a peace deal with a leader that is, let’s say, less embarrassing than Bosco Ntaganda," he said. "I would not say more legitimate of course.”
The Congolese government had refused to arrest Ntaganda in the past, insisting his influence was essential to ensuring a peace deal. But Kinshasa has since changed its position and now says it welcomes the surrender of the former general.
DRC spokesman Lambert Mende told VOA’s English to Africa service Monday that Ntaganda being brought to trial would be a “very big achievement” for the peace process.