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Nkunda’s arrest: What Now for the Congo?

Commentary, 27 January 2009
The remarkable alliance between the Rwanda and the Congo governments and the arrest of Laurent Nkunda offers hope for the future, but internationalising the conflict further may prove problematic.

The remarkable alliance between the Rwanda and the Congo governments and the arrest of Laurent Nkunda offers hope for the future, but internationalising the conflict further may prove problematic.

By Dr Knox Chitiyo, Head, Africa Programme, RUSI

The arrest of the Congo’s rebel leader Laurent Nkunda on 22 January is an extraordinary turnaround in the military and diplomatic situation of the Great Lakes region of central Africa. Nkunda, who was arrested by the Rwandan military on the Congo–Uganda border, was seen as Rwanda’s foremost proxy; his arrest by his erstwhile ‘handlers’ is a sign of a diplomatic revolution.

The new military and diplomatic partnership between the Congo and Rwanda governments is meant to end decades of mutual antipathy. It will certainly weaken the rebel groups in the Congo. However, there are questions as to how long this alliance will last and whether direct Rwandan military intervention in the Congo can have long-term benefits in that strife torn country. The role of the UN mission in the Congo (MONUC) and its relations with the Congo’s new power-brokers also remains unclear.

Why was he arrested?

In late 2008 Laurent Nkunda had seemed unassailable. Ensconced as the de facto ‘governor’ of north Kivu, Nkunda and his Tutsi rebel group, the National Congress for the Defence of the People (CNDP), had outfought demoralised Congo government forces, and seemed poised to dictate terms to both the Kabila government and the region.

By January 2009, however, Nkunda’s position had changed dramatically. The CNDP was beset by internal strife, the DRC government and Rwanda had concluded a diplomatic and military rapprochement, and the Tutsi rebel groups had indicated that they were willing to join with government forces against the Hutu rebel militias. This confluence of opportunity and resources made for a perfect storm with which to remove Nkunda, who was seen by all sides as the greatest obstacle to progress.

The internal split within the CNDP was the primary reason for his subsequent fall from power. Nkunda’s celebrity, and, more importantly, his tactical failings, had alienated his powerful chief of staff Bosco Ntaganda and other hard- core CNDP elements. They blamed Nkunda for tactical ‘errors’ which had turned the CNDP ‘blitzkrieg’ in north Kivu into a war of attrition. After capturing a string of strategic towns from August to December 2008, the CNDP forces then withdrew. Nkunda claimed that this was to create a humanitarian corridor and give negotiations a chance, but the failure to press home their advantage caused disaffection within the CNDP ranks.

The CNDP retreat from Goma, in particular, led to bitter recriminations between Nkunda and Ntaganda, with the latter decrying what he perceived to be a wasted opportunity to seize north Kivu and dictate terms in the eastern Congo, using the UN mission (MONUC) as a bargaining chip. The Kiwanja massacre of 5-6 November 2008 also worsened relations between the two men. Nearly 200 civilians were slaughtered by Mai Mai (Hutu) militias, retreating government forces, and CNDP forces. Nkunda distanced himself from the atrocity and the blame fell squarely on Ntaganda, thus causing more recriminations.

The November 2007 UN Security Council Report on the Congo also brought international pressure on both Rwanda and the Congo government. The Report detailed the atrocities committed by the proxy forces of both countries, and concluded that Congo’s eastern conflicts could only be resolved when Kinshasa and Kigali ceased sponsoring insurgencies. This also empowered UN Special Representative Olasagun Obasanjo (the former President of Nigeria). The Report’s unassailable evidence, and Obasanjo’s standing as both an African and global figure, encouraged him to press the key stakeholders to make common cause to resolve the conflict in the east.

The UN Report gave ballast to the 2007 Nairobi agreement, which had committed the Rwandan and Congo governments to work together to remove all of Congo’s rebel groups. The arrival of the new Obama administration may also have spurred a flurry of activity from the Great Lakes countries. Susan Rice, the new US ambassador to the UN, has indicated that the Obama administration wants to improve relations with the UN. African Great Lakes countries will want to position themselves to leverage better deals with both the US and the UN, and promoting conflict resolution rather than conflict management may be one way of doing this.

The Diplomatic Volte Face

Nkunda’s fate was sealed when Rwanda announced in November 2008 that it would immediately work with the DRC government to destroy Hutu rebel groups in the eastern Congo. Although the combination of international and regional pressures was important, it is likely that the intersection of mutual and national interest persuaded Rwanda and the DRC to seek an alliance. Previously, each side had accused the other of sponsoring rebel groups: Rwanda had sponsored the CNDP Tutsi rebel group attacks against the Hutu and the government forces, while the Congo government forces had made common cause with Hutu militia groups who attacked Tutsi communities in the DRC and Rwanda.

The Rwanda-Congo alliance represents the triumph of expediency over ideology. For the Congo government, there was little choice; although the internal ructions within the CNDP had bought precious time for the government forces to re-group, the CNDP remained a formidable threat. Kabila’s forces were not yet ready to launch unaided military operations against the weakened CNDP, but neither could they wait and allow the CNDP to regroup. An alliance with the Rwandans against the Congo army’s greatest immediate threat made sense.

The Rwandan government has faced long standing allegations of sponsoring the CNDP with money, weaponry and recruits. Although there is no consensus on the extent of Rwandan involvement in the CNDP, it is clear that they play a major role in CNDP operations. The Rwandan government has recently been embroiled in international disputes with France and other EU countries regarding war crimes issues. The allegations of Rwandan sponsorship of Nkunda also left Rwanda open to accusations of being a spoiler in the security architecture of the Great Lakes region.

From the Rwandan perspective, removing Nkunda softens criticism of Rwanda’s role in the Congo and gives the Rwandans a little more international elbow room. Nkunda’s intransigence had become a liability, and there was the future prospect of his becoming a direct threat to Rwanda itself. In addition, Nkunda will make a useful pawn. It is better for the Rwandans to have Nkunda (and his wealth of information) than for him to be in the hands of the Congo forces, where he could embarrass Rwanda and possibly destabilise the new alliance.

What Next?

Nkunda’s arrest, and the CNDP’s disarray, is good news for thousands of victims of the CNDP’s depredations, but it does not end the conflicts in the DRC. Although Ntaganda’s faction of the CNDP have stated that they will cease their insurgency and reintegrate into the national army, there are still an estimated 2,000 Nkunda loyalists who have vowed to fight on. It is unlikely but not impossible that the Nkunda loyalists could make common cause with the FDLR or other militia groups. The FDLR Hutu rebel group numbers approximately 8,000 experienced fighters, many of whom are ex-genocidiares from Rwanda. They have shown an aptitude for set piece battles and sieges, unlike the Mai Mai militia groups, who favour the ambush tactics of classic irregular warfare.

Nevertheless, the end of the FDLR–Congo army alliance is likely to prove as devastating to the FDLR as the end of Rwandan sponsorship has been to the CNDP. The FDLR now finds itself pitted directly against the overwhelming firepower of the Rwandan Defence Forces, and the rebels have already sustained casualties in a recent battle near the village of Mitiminga. The Kinshasa ‘twin–track’ military alliance between the Congo and Rwanda governments commits the two sides to a joint operational command led by a Congolese officer, General Numbi. It is still unclear as to whether the forces from the two countries will fight in integrated units. For now, it is the Rwandan Defence Forces who are engaging the FDLR, while the re- built Congo Army retakes CNDP bases in Kivu. The likely plan will be to envelop the FDLR between the Congo government forces and the Rwandan forces.


The eastern DRC remains volatile, and there is little reason to expect early closure to the conflicts there. Several questions remain, the first being how long the Congo–Rwanda alliance will last. Although mutual self interest has been a powerful factor in bringing about the rapproachement, Kinshasa and Kigali are not natural allies. The Congo civil war of 1996–2000 and Rwanda’s intervention in the conflict remain seared in the memories of many Congolese, and there are questions regarding Rwanda’s intentions.

For many Congolese in the east, Rwanda is seen as a protector and guarantor of Tutsi community and they will welcome the formal intervention of Rwanda. For other Congolese, however, there will be a suspicion that Rwanda is using the alliance to establish an informal protectorate – a greater Rwanda – in eastern Congo. The Rwandan intervention will almost certainly prove to be divisive for the Congo.

Many Congolese will want the Rwandans to leave as soon as they have completed operations against the Hutu rebels; there is a suspicion that Rwandan intervention will, in the long-term, fuel the emergence of new insurgent groups, who will claim to be fighting on a nationalist platform. Others will insist that given the relatively weak Kinshasa government and the reconstruction of the national army which is now underway, the Rwandan army will be the best guarantor of national cohesion. The greatest fear is that inherent tensions between Kinshasa and Kigali could eventually lead to renewed conflict between the Rwandan and Congo armies.

Another question is whether the Rwandans will hand over Nkunda for trial. The Congo government has warrants of arrest for Nkunda, and they have insisted that Rwanda should hand him over. In addition, although they have not yet issued warranst of arrest against Nkunda, the International Criminal Court is compiling a dossier. It is unlikely that Rwanda will hand over Nkunda to the Congo any time soon; he could prove to be a grave embarrassment to Rwanda. He will almost certainly remain sequestered in Rwanda for the foreseeable future, and could ultimately become a pawn in Rwanda’s discussions with the ICC and the wider international community regarding war crimes trials.

The UN Mission in the Congo (MONUC) remains another key stakeholder in the region. The diplomatic revolution and the weakening of the CNDP, have given the UN valuable time to rebuild. Although there has been a diminution of conflict in the Kivu provinces, civilians are still at risk in the other eastern provinces where FDLR and other Hutu militia groups remain active. Nor is there any guarantee that the CNDP is no longer a threat. With more than a quarter of a million civilians displaced and no definitive end to the conflicts, it is clear that MONUC has to upgrade its capacity to provide civilian protection. This entails a greater clarity of mission and resources – MONUC will have to provide credible humanitarian and combat – ready personnel, and equipment. Despite the strategic rapprochement, the new uncertainties may put civilians in greater danger. Building MONUC’s capacity thus remains more important than ever.

Other stakeholders

The changed circumstances in the Congo conflict are also a remarkable example of African intervention bringing a positive change. For years, the ‘African solutions to African problems’ mantra has been touted as an all-embracing solution for Africa’s problems. Zimbabwe, the DRC conflicts and the Darfur conflict have highlighted the flaws in the ‘African solutions’ ideal. Although peace remains elusive in the eastern DRC, there is no doubt that a combination of regional intervention and the negotiating skills of Obasanjo’s group has engineered the turnaround.

Much was expected from the UN and the EU and other influential organisations, but it is Rwanda’s African neighbours who have taken the initiative to prevent the eastern Congo conflict spiralling into all-out civil war, or worse still, a re-run of the murderous regional conflagration of the late 1990s which killed more than 5 million. Time will tell if the DRC sets a precedent for a new type of pragmatic action by African leaders.

The ICC has also emerged as a powerful stakeholder, not just in the DRC but in Africa as a whole. A formal indictment against Ntaganda has been issued by the ICC, and there is little doubt that the current trial of Thomas Lubanga (another Congo militia leader) in the Hague, was a factor in persuading Ntaganda to make peace. War crimes indictments and prosecutions are now being taken increasingly seriously by African leaders and civil society, and the threat of international judicial retribution may regulate state behaviour.

Uganda also remains an interested party in the Congo conflict. Ugandan forces have launched join operations with forces from south Sudan, against the Lord’s Resistance Army insurgents, who have been terrorising civilians in the eastern Congo. It has been estimated that LRA rebels have massacred more than 500 civilians in eastern Congo from November 2008. Ugandan forces were also involved during the Congo civil war, and there have been occasional border skirmishes between Ugandan and Congo army forces since.

No one disputes the need for effective action against the LRA, but the deployment of Ugandan and Sudanese forces in the Congo is, for some, a worrying development. There are fears that the diplomatic turnaround between Kinshasa and Kigali obscures the real change in eastern Congo; namely that the de facto partition of the eastern Congo between the various rebel groups, will now be replaced by an informal partition of the eastern hinterland, by the country’s neighbours.


Laurent Nkunda’s arrest is the first step in resolving the Hutu–Tutsi conflict, which is one of the primary causes of conflict in the eastern Congo. The remarkable alliance between Rwanda and the Congo government represents the best hope of eliminating or substantially reducing the tribal insurgencies in the eastern Congo. But the Congo’s history shows that there are no quick fixes; the alliance could become fractious, and it does not deal with the minerals and resource struggles which have fuelled conflict. The jury is still out on whether formally internationalising the conflict in the DRC, as the alliance has done, will be beneficial for the DRC. Millions of war weary Congolese will hope that it is, but only when there is lasting peace in the Congo will disbelief truly be suspended.

The views expressed above are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.  

More on the Congo>

Nelson Mandela International Essay Competition on African Security and Development 2008: 'What Future for the Democratic Republic of Congo?'      Read the winning essays here

Guerrillas in the Congo's Midst: Greg Mills meets Laurent Nkunda in early 2008



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