Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Call for More Ituri Warlords to Face Trial

Local activists argue that justice will not be served if only one man is prosecuted for the bloodbath in eastern Congo.
By David Rupiny
Kodjo Singa could not have foreseen the scale of the bloodshed that would ensue when, in the late Nineties, he attempted to evict farmers of the Lendu people from land he claimed as his own.

Singa’s move against thousands of farmers in the Djugu district of Ituri region in the northeast corner of the vast Democratic Republic of the Congo, DRC, triggered a conflict involving his own Hema ethnic group, their Lendu neighbours and many others that led to the loss of more than 60,000 lives and the displacement of hundreds of thousands of people in a province with an estimated population of four million.

News of the ferocious fighting was slow to emerge from Ituri, a densely-forested and under-developed region. As the scale of the bloodbath became clearer, the International Criminal Court, ICC, in The Hague began focusing on the roles of some of the key players in the carnage.

To date, the ICC has issued one indictment in DRC, against Thomas Lubanga Dyilo, one-time leader of the Union of Congolese Patriots, UPC, a Hema militia active in this complex civil war.

Lubanga was arrested by the DRC authorities and placed in custody in Kinshasa following the killing in February 2005 of nine Bangladeshi United Nations peacekeepers in the Ituri region. The ICC issued an arrest warrant against him in February 2006, accusing him of conscripting children under the age of 15 to fight as guerrilla soldiers with the UPC.

He was transferred to The Hague in March 2006, and is currently awaiting trial. Human rights groups have campaigned for the charges to be widened to encompass crimes of sexual violence, for which they say there is evidence.

Lubanga is the only wanted person whom the ICC has managed to apprehend in its first five years of work.

The geopolitics of northeastern DRC are fluid and of tortuous complexity.

After Mobutu Sese Seko was deposed as dictator in 1997, a power vacuum was created across what was then Zaire, since renamed DRC. That created fertile ground for myriad political, social, economic, ethnic and military interest-groups to jostle for power, especially in the backwood tracts of a country the size of Western Europe.

Despite its size, DRC has only 500 kilometres of tarred road, and no road or rail links at all through the more than 2,000 kilometres of dense rainforest that lies between the capital Kinshasa in the far west and the neglected “wild east” of which Ituri is part.

Soon after Laurent Kabila toppled Mobutu in 1997 and seized power, he fell out with his backers, Uganda and Rwanda. Both of these countries then embarked on a new war, conducted via local proxies, in a bid to oust him.

In the east of the country, Kabila was opposed from 1998 by the Congolese Rally for Democracy, RCD. By the following year, the diverging interests of Uganda and Rwanda led to this group splitting into the RCD-Kisangani, supported by Kampala, and the Kigali-backed RCD-Goma. To complicate matters further, the former group subsequently divided into a faction led by Ernest Wamba dia Wamba and another renamed the RCD-Movement for Liberation, RCD-ML and headed by Mbusa Nyamwisi, now a minister in the DRC government.

It was while RCD-Kisangani was in control of Ituri that the Hema-Lendu conflict erupted, after Wamba dia Wamba – backed by Uganda – appointed a Hema, Adele Mugisa Lotsove, as provincial governor.

The presence of a fellow-Hema as governor of Ituri was one of the factors that encouraged Kodjo Singa to stake his land claim in April 1999 and seek to evict thousands of Lendu residents he now regarded as squatters.

Another important factor was a land law dating back to 1973 that legalised private ownership and made it possible for the political elite to claim lands previously classed as “vacant”. What exactly Mobutu’s government had meant by “vacant” was never entirely clear, but the Congo’s tiny privileged elite used the ambiguity to good effect. They laid claim to lands long regarded as ancestral holdings, and after two years’ owneship they had the right to remove people who happened to be living there.

Another factor in Singa’s favour was that Zaire’s former Belgian rulers had always given the Hema priority access to education and employment within the local colonial administration and the mining industry.

The Belgians introduced the racial myth that the Hema were intellectually superior to their neighbours, in much the same way as they fostered the idea of the pre-eminence of the Tutsis over the Hutus in Rwanda. The Hema found themselves in a favoured position after independence in 1960, as Mobutu continued the policy of supporting their dominance of economic and political affairs in the region.

In Rwanda, the Belgian’ divide-and-rule policies were to lead eventually to the Rwandan genocide in 1994, in which Hutu extremists targeted Tutsis. The same was to happen in Ituri in the late Nineties.

In contrast to the traditional pastoralist Hema, the Lendu are agricultural farmers. Those living on the land claimed by Singa said they had been there since time immemorial. The dispute became the flashpoint for the Lendus’ century-old resentment of discrimination. Declaring that they must fight to stop the seizure of their farmlands, they rose up in arms.

“Increasingly, the pattern was one by which wealthy Hema landowners-cum-businessmen brought in the Ugandan army to fight alongside Hema militias,” said Johan Pottier, an expert on Rwanda and DRC who is professor of anthropology at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. “Lendu militias then retaliated with mass murder.”

By August 1999, some 5,000 people, both Lendu and Hema, had met violent deaths. The conflagration also engulfed the many other ethnic groups living in Ituri.

During the first intense wave of killings and reprisals between 1999 and 2002, the conflict went largely unreported, and the little that was known about it was scarcely understood by much of the international community.

Meanwhile, protagonists on both sides committed acts of violence on a huge scale with impunity. The New York-based watchdog Human Watch Right has collected testimony relating the brutality with which civilians were targeted, mutilated and killed.

Jacques Nobirabo, a political activist who belongs to the Babira ethnic group in the Bunia area, argues that the Ituri conflict was symptomatic of the failure of the entire Congolese state.

“It’s no secret to any one that our country lost its statehood since 1997 and it is… far from regaining it,” Nobirabo told IWPR.

Nobirabo’s home was destroyed by Lendu militiamen and most of his relations were killed because he supported Wamba dia Wamba’s faction.

In this war of many players, the conflict gradually polarised into a showdown involving Lubanga’s Hema-dominated UPC, the Alur-dominated Congolese Popular Army, the Lendu-led Nationalist Integrationist Front and Jerome Kakwavu’s Armed Forces for the Pacification of Congo, as well as other groups.

At present, a tenuous peace is in place and the United Nations is monitoring a disarmament and demobilisation programme for the various paramilitary groups. Members of the last three formations to make peace with the government have reportedly been surrendering their weapons in recent weeks.

Many problems remain yet to be resolved before the peace takes hold. According to Nobirabo, “The Ituri players don’t yet agree on whether the country should prioritise peace or justice; or general amnesty; or peace-general amnesty; or peace-justice; or justice-partial amnesty.”

But Nobirabo asserts that unlike these local leaders, the civilian population does have a common view on the question of justice – he says people want all those accused of crimes of war to go on trial “at all costs” and “regardless of who did what or what they are today”.

Nobirabo said it was right that Lubanga should be tried by the ICC, but there are many “big men” who participated in the Ituri bloodbath and subsequently did political deals with Kinshasa in exchange for peace. Some are now members of government institutions.

“They have achieved impunity and will not face justice for their villainy. The people are barely able to swallow these things,” he said.

Putting such individuals on trial would be “in line with the population’s will and with calls for international justice,” said Nobirabo. “Thomas Lubanga simply appeared to be more notorious than the rest at the time.”

Nobirabo said many other figures should follow Lubanga to The Hague if the international community is truly determined to bring justice to the people of Ituri and the DRC.

In addition, he said, the ICC should also be pursuing those external actors who sponsored the conflict, whom he described as “several big international names… who dealt in arms, lootings, dubious business contracts, war strategies, fighters’ training and so forth”.

Under its founding statute, the ICC cannot investigate war crimes or crimes against humanity committed prior to 2002. Since the Ituri conflict began in 1998, Nobirabo argues that the ICC’s mandate is too restricted to achieve any kind of closure.

He would therefore like to see the establishment of a special, United Nations-run criminal tribunal for DRC with a wider remit making it “able to cater for the big number of suspected criminals pointed out by the population”.

“It’s important to investigate cases dating as far back as 1997 when the uprising against Mobutu started,” said Nobirabo. “To achieve real justice, crimes from at least ten years back need to be investigated, and that’s why we need a targeted United Nations criminal tribunal.”

He warned that failure to act against the long list of alleged war criminals in Ituri could lead to another cycle of armed violence.

In interviews with people in Ituri, this IWPR contributor was told the names of many politicians and militia commanders who they believed should be brought before either the ICC or the kind of tribunal Nobirabo is proposing. In addition, they also pointed the finger at senior figures in the Ugandan military, which has been accused of training some of the DRC militia groups and plundering Ituri of gold and other natural resources.

Louis Omirambe, a Congolese journalist in Mahagi, a trading town on the border with Uganda’s northwestern Arua province, agrees that DRC needs its own special court because of the ICC’s limitations.

He said that despite last year’s internationally hailed presidential and parliamentary elections in DRC, Ituri cannot move on from the conflict until the issue of justice is addressed squarely, without glossing over past crimes for the sake of political expediency.

“There are so many crimes that have been committed in Ituri that it will be disastrous if they are all left out and not taken to the ICC, in the name of national unity,” he said.

“The fact is that these players have politicised all the crimes they committed, and now they are in the military, in politics, in the economy and even in the judiciary, influencing a lot of happenings in the country.”

David Rupiny is an IWPR contributor.

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