The arrest of the Democratic Republic of Congo's notorious rebel leader General Laurent Nkunda removes a major impediment to peace in one of the world's most war-torn countries. The fact that he was arrested in Rwanda also helps the government of President Paul Kagame restore a reputation severely tarnished last month, when the U.N. accused it of arming and supplying men to Nkunda and using him as a proxy inside Congo.
Nkunda, a flamboyant figure and self-declared pastor who is accused of a series of war crimes, was arrested late Thursday evening on Rwandan soil. The rebel leader had fled over the border as Rwandan troops, operating on Congolese soil by agreement with the Congolese government, advanced on Nkunda's stronghold in the town of Bunagana. "The ex-general Laurent Nkunda was arrested on Thursday 22 January at 2230 hours while he was fleeing on Rwandan territory after he had resisted our troops at Bunagana with three battalions," said a joint official statement from Congo and Rwanda. (See pictures of Congo on the brink)
Nkunda, a Congolese ethnic Tutsi may once, indeed, have been a Rwandan proxy. His rebel group, created in 2003, fought against the Rwandan Hutu militias that had fled into Congo after being driven out of Rwanda following their 1994 genocide that killed 800,000 Rwandan Tutsi. But the mayhem and abuses wrought by Nkunda's forces eventually made him a liability to Kagame. Around 4,000 Rwandan soldiers entered Congo on Jan. 20. on the basis of an agreement with the Congolese government, in order to disarm the Hutu militias, also known as the Interahamwe. At the same time, they appear to have moved to curb Nkunda's ambitions.
Rwandan efforts to stamp out the Hutu genocidaires sheltering in Congo mushroomed into a wider war that spawned a plethora of new rebel groups and sucked in at least six neighboring African countries. It degenerated into a self-sustaining fight for control of Congo's mineral and timber resources, eventually spurring the deployment of the world's largest U.N. peacekeeping mission. According to the International Rescue Committee, the Congo war also cost more than 5 million lives, mostly through the malnutrition and disease that accompanied the fighting.
The crisis peaked again last September when Nkunda kicked off a new offensive against the Congolese army and other armed groups in the area, doubling the territory under his control in a matter of weeks and advancing to the outskirts of the main eastern Congolese city of Goma. That offensive intensified an already grave humanitarian crisis by creating hundreds of thousands more refugees. Human rights groups and the U.N. also accused Nkunda's men of war crimes rape, torture, executing prisoners, and recruiting child soldiers. Then in December, the U.N. issued a report alleging that Nkunda was being supplied with weapons, uniforms and men by Rwanda.
Kagame was stung by the criticism. In recent years, Rwanda has become a darling of the international community for its advances in economic development and its crackdown on corruption. Initially, Rwanda hit back angrily, accusing the Congolese government and the international community of seeking a scapegoat for their failure to stem the fighting. Now, however, Rwanda appears to have changed tack: Faced with a collapsing Congolese national army and an overwhelmed U.N., Rwanda is taking it upon itself to remove the Interahamwe, whose presence in Congo first sparked the war 14 years ago. Even more dramatic is its arrest of Nkunda, which simultaneously removes the man who was the most prominent obstacle to peace in Congo, and gives an unambiguous answer to the U.N.'s accusations. The Congolese government has issued an international warrant for Nkunda's arrest and it remains to be seen whether Kigali will extradite him to Kinshasa and risk being embarrassed by information that could emerge in a public trial. Still, Rwanda's actions have given some cause for cautious hope that the deadly dynamic of conflict in Africa's Great Lakes region may be about to change.