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Rebel General Insists on Amnesty Deal

Laurent Nkunda says the government must honour its pledge to grant North Kivu militias immunity from prosecution for acts of rebellion.
By Jack Kahorha, Taylor Toeka, Lisa Clifford

With the ceasefire in Congo’s North Kivu province now on shaky ground, rebel leaders say a promised amnesty deal is crucial if the peace is to hold.

Numerous rival militia factions in this eastern province of the Democratic Republic of Congo, DRC, signed a peace agreement in January, but fighting among the various groups has continued, creating an ongoing crisis for civilian populations targeted by attacks, rape, looting and general harassment. (See Kivu Peace Deal Failing to Deliver, AR No. 160, 11-Mar-08.)

As part of the deal signed in the North Kivu provincial capital Goma, the DRC authorities promised to grant an amnesty to members of about 20 armed groups from North and South Kivu provinces, under which they would not face retribution for acts of war and insurrection committed during fighting in the two provinces which has displaced and killed hundreds of thousands.

One of the groups at the epicentre of the recent violence told IWPR that it was this promise of amnesty that brought them to the negotiating table in the first place, and he suggested it was now time for the government to live up to its promises.

“We fought each other and now we must work together … [but] the only way of getting us back to the parent’s hut was to be granted amnesty,” said Laurent Nkunda, leader of the National Congress for the Defence of the People, CNDP, one of the main warring militias in the province.

"The parent's hut" refers to the local practice where children expelled from the home by their parents for misbehaving are allowed to return after negotiation or asking for forgiveness.

CNDP spokesman Séraphin Mirindi insisted, “The success of [this deal] is dependent on the respect of the amnesty granted to the mutineers.”

Congo’s interior minister, Denis Kalume, has promised to submit a bill to parliament enabling the amnesty to take effect, but that has yet to happen.

Observers in DRC put the delay down to the periodic skirmishes still breaking out among rebels in the east.

“At this point the amnesty law has not yet been developed,” said Eugène Bope Bakema, chairman of the Friends of the Law group in Congo.

The offer of forgiveness was a controversial issue at the January 6-23 peace conference, particularly the question of whether the renegade general Nkunda – whose troops are accused of terrible crimes and who is seen as one of the instigators of trouble in the Kivus – should be included in the deal.

The speaker of Congo’s National Assembly, Vital Kamerhe, said any amnesty had to include Nkunda for the sake of peace.

“The amnesty is not selective or discriminatory. It concerns everyone,” said Kamerhe. “Nkunda has the same rights as the others. Why should we ask people to put down their weapons without granting them anything?”

The amnesty was accepted by many conference participants because while it covers acts of warfare and rebellion, it specifically excludes war crimes and crimes against humanity.

“If among the fighters there is a person who burned villages, committed mass killings of civilians for one or another reason, he will be pursued for those crimes,” said Kamerhe.

It is precisely such war crimes that interest the International Criminal Court, ICC, in the Hague.

ICC prosecutors said recently they would turn their attention from the northeastern Ituri region, where three alleged warlords have now been charged, to other parts of DRC. They named North Kivu as a possible location for investigations, and Nkunda as a potential target.

If and when ICC investigators arrive on the ground in the Kivu provinces, it could be difficult for them to know where to begin. The region has been mired in conflict for many years, with rape, murder and torture committed by all sides.

Nkunda’s troops feature prominently in many of the reports of abuses which the ICC could investigate, as they fall squarely within its terms of reference - war crimes and crimes against humanity committed from July 2002 onwards.

A recent United Nations report alleged that ethnic Tutsi soldiers loyal to Nkunda killed 30 civilians in the village of Kalonge, about 100 kilometres from Goma, in early January. The civilians, who were ethnic Hutus, were said to have been shot, hacked with machetes and beaten with hammers.

At the time of the incident, Nkunda’s representatives were in Goma attending the peace talks, and he denies the accusations.

Local human rights groups also allege that troops under Nkunda’s control committed war crimes during an attack on the South Kivu town of Bukavu in 2004. Nkunda’s soldiers allegedly killed civilians, looted and committed widespread acts of sexual violence in the town.

“During our investigations, we spoke to local leaders, human rights organisations, public servants and local people,” said Alex Byumanine, deputy chairman the National Observatory of Human Rights, ONDH. “We recorded war crimes and crimes against humanity such as targeted mass killings, sexual violence, [and] the destruction of economic infrastructures including the looting and burning of the Kadutu market in Bukavu.”

ONDH says Nkunda’s men sold items they had looted from the market in the nearby town of Cyangugu, just over the border in Rwanda.

Nkunda strenuously denies suggestions that forces under his command committed war crimes and crimes against humanity in Bukavu, or indeed anywhere else in Congo.

Responding to the allegations his troops attacked the town’s market, he said, “The Kadutu market was looted by the population itself, and I fought looters. I have kept pictures for evidence, and I have no fear of being a witness of that.”

The rebel general says his men went into Bukavu to protect the local Tutsi population, known here as Banyamulenge, from the regular army.

“I saved about 1,600 Banyamulenge who were encircled in their houses by General Mbuza Mabe and ready to be killed, and some of them were of course killed. And for me, it makes me proud that I saved them,” he said.

General Félix Mbuza Mabe was in command of government troops in Bukavu.

The DRC government issued an arrest warrant for Nkunda and his fellow rebel Jules Mutebutsi following the attack on Bukavu, but it was never enforced.

Nkunda describes the arrest warrant as a “distraction” created by “people who do not want peace”.

“They want to put again a stick in the wheel of peace. But peace is coming to Congo. Let people do whatever they want, but we are advancing towards peace,” he said.

Ituri rebel leader Mathieu Ngudjolo Chui is the third individual from DRC to be indicted by the ICC, joining Thomas Lubanga Dyilo and Germain Katanga in custody in The Hague. The three commanded different militia groups in Ituri.

Ngudjolo’s case shows that being granted an amnesty does not necessarily shield individuals from prosecution by the ICC. He agreed to end his paramilitary activities and even took up a post as colonel in DRC’s regular army, prior to his sudden arrest and transfer to the Netherlands in February.

General Nkunda says he is not afraid of meeting the same fate if he accepts an amnesty. “I’m ready to face justice. I am available to explain what happened,” he said.

Jack Kahorha and Taylor Toeka Kakala are IWPR contributors in Goma. Lisa Clifford is an international justice reporter in The Hague.

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