Over the past two years, seismic shifts have taken place in Kivus region. First, in January 2009, came a secretive deal between Rwanda and the Congo, bringing a lull to over a decade of antagonisms. Then, last September, President Joseph Kabila banned mineral exports from the eastern Congo, a move that had a radical impact on the local economy. One can discuss the complex consequences these developments have had, but one clear winner has emerged, at least for now: Gen. Bosco Ntaganda.
Bosco is one of the most notorious figures in the region, so much so that he usually just goes by his first name, a common name in these parts. Also known as "The Terminator," he was indicted by the International Criminal Court in 2006. That indictment came shortly after his move from Ituri, where he had been the Chief of Staff of the Union des patriotes congolais (UPC) to join Laurent Nkunda's Congres national pour la défense du peuple (CNDP) armed group in North Kivu.
He was Nkunda's main military commander, the man who took care of military business and deployments while Nkunda was busy politicking. He was most likely jointly in command of the CNDP operations that led to a massacre in Kiwanja (North Kivu) in November 2008.
Then, the early 2009, Rwanda struck a deal with President Kabila to forcefully integrate the CNDP into the Congolese army. Although the precise chain of events is not entirely clear, Gen. Nkunda was arrested as a result of this deal and remains under house arrest until today in Kigali. Bosco, who is known to be a soldier's man, a intrepid but ruthless commander, was named to lead the remnants of the CNDP and to integrate them into the Congolese army.
Bosco, who is a Tutsi of the Gogwe clan from Masisi territory (Nkunda is Jomba from Rutshuru), has little formal education and - in stark contrast with Nkunda - is not comfortable in the company of journalists or politicians. Perhaps this, along with his ICC indictment made him appear more malleable to his Rwandan allies across the border. Yet, he proved himself adept at surviving and making the most of the situation. He was quickly appointed as deputy commander of the Kimia II military operations – a position he has kept for the successor Amani Leo operations – and remained in direct control of many of the CNDP units, especially the several unintegrated ones that are deployed in the Masisi highlands.
Tensions developed among the former CNDP units as Nkunda loyalists, irked by their new leader's tight connections with Kigali, scuffled with the smaller group of officers who remained loyal to Bosco. Under the informal leadership of Col. Sultani Makenga, they were temporarily placated by lucrative deployments to mineral-rich areas and generous operational budgets. But tensions mounted to a hilt in 2010, when soldiers under Bosco's command assassinated several CNDP leaders who had remained close to Nkunda. This coincided with concerns by Kigali that Nkunda loyalists were joining up with dissenting Rwandan officers led by former army chief of staff Gen. Kayumba Nyamwasa. The worst incident was the brutal assassination of Denis Ntare Semaduinga, a highly respected Tutsi elder close to Nkunda. He was killed in a particularly gruesome fashion in his house in Rwanda, just across the border from Goma.
Throughout this time, Bosco was living in Goma, in a house just a stone's throw from the Rwandan border. He frequently dined and ate in full sight of the coterie of foreign aid and diplomatic officials, much to the outrage of human rights workers.
Then, in September 2010, came President Kabila's ban of mineral exports from the eastern Congo. It now appears that Kabila has been trying to secure large, industrial investments in the Kivus mining sector, which has hitherto brought little revenue to Kinshasa actors. (This strategy may have brought fruit this past week, with Malaysia Smelting Corporation announcing large investments in the region). Mining exports came to a standstill throughout much of the province. Minerals, however, continued to flow out of the region, albeit in much reduced volume. According to diplomats working in Goma, Kinshasa and Kigali, these smuggled goods needed military protection to muscle their way through border crossings or across Lake Kivu. Bosco, who commands many of the units controlling these crossings, was the go-to man for many of these operations. According to the same officials, most of these exports passed through Rwanda.
Bosco was becoming increasingly wealthy and powerful. He managed to woo back some of the disaffected CNDP officers, united with Nkunda loyalists to resist redeployment outside of the Kivus.
Bosco's importance and stature as local military strongman was made even clearer during his involvement in a multi-million dollar gold swindle that took place in February this year. Although the details are still murky, a bunch of international investors was trying to buy gold from Congolese businessmen. The investors - some of whom had dubious reputations themselves - appear to have been swindled out of at least $10 million. Once again, Bosco provided some of the muscle for the operation, although his precise role remains unclear.
What lessons can we draw? The economy and politics of the region is riddled with criminal networks; what one thinks may be a politically-neutral development project or reform can easily have political repercussions. The reconciliation between Congo and Rwanda was seen as a good thing by many diplomats - but it has helped create new, unwelcome power players in the region who may be difficult to get rid of. The export ban on minerals - seen by many as a strange initiative, as it didn't go hand-in-hand with major reforms - also fueled new networks of corruption, as well as vicious tensions within the Congolese Tutsi community.