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Who is Laurent Nkunda?

by Aidan O'Donnell

Article published on the 2008-11-07 Latest update 2008-11-14 10:05 TU

Laurent Nkunda(Photo: AFP)

Laurent Nkunda
(Photo: AFP)

Tutsi rebel leader Laurent Nkunda has brought the fighting in the Democratic Republic of Congo back into the world's headlines, with his conflict with the DRC military and other armed groups. He says he is defending an embattled people against hostile militias and armies. His enemies say he has committed atrocities and is fighting for his own material interests.

Laurent Nkunda was born Laurent Nkundabatware in the Rutshuru region of the Congo’s North Kivu province in 1967. Mobutu Sese Seko was in power and a few years later renamed the Congo as Zaire.

Mobutu Sese Seko(Photo: AFP)

Mobutu Sese Seko
(Photo: AFP)

Nkunda is Tutsi and so part of a group that was split by colonial cartographers over the borders of Rwanda, Burundi and eastern Congo. He attended university in Kisangani, studying psychology, and then worked as a high-school teacher in Masisi, North Kivu.

In 1993,a year before the massacre of Tutsis in Rwanda, Congolese Tutsis were already the targets of killings in the eastern Congo. Nkunda joined the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) in 1994 and was given military training at the Gabiro military camp in Rwanda, the same year that the RPF pushed south to take Kigali and end the slaughter.

Much of Rwanda’s Hutu population fled across the border into Congo in the face of the RPF advance on Kigali. Within a year, there were millions of refugees in eastern Congo and the Forces Armées Rwandaise (FAR) had established camp ten miles west of Goma. Hutu militias recruited in refugee camps and began to kill and expel Tutsis from eastern Congo.

Nkunda fought in the newly-formed Alliance des Forces Démocratiques pour la Libération du Congo-Zaïre (AFDL) which regrouped Tutsi militias and the Parti de la Révolution Populaire (PRP) of Congolese guerrilla leader Laurent-Désiré Kabila in an attempt to topple Mobutu. The AFDL was backed by Uganda and by Rwanda's newly-installed RPF.

Laurent-Désiré Kabila(Photo: AFP)

Laurent-Désiré Kabila
(Photo: AFP)

Although the Rwandan Hutu Interahamwe, the Forces Démocratiques de la Libération du Rwanda (FDLR) and the Angolan anti-government Unita rebels fought for Mobutu, Kabila and the AFDL reached Kinshasa and declared the Democratic Republic of Congo in 1997.

Kabila then distanced himself from his Rwandan Tutsi allies. In 1998, he began to remove Tutsis from key posts in the military and provided training camps for Hutu fighters. The Rassemblement Congolais pour la Démocratie (RCD) was created in response with support from Kabila’s former allies, Rwanda and Uganda. Nkunda went on to command the Seventh Brigade of RCD-Goma forces as the RCD attempted to defeat Kabila.

Over the next four years Nkunda fought as a commander in the RCD in the Congolese wars. Millions died in the most bloody African conflict in recorded history as an increasing number of Congo’s nine neighbours became involved in what came to be known as Africa’s “Great War”.

The UN’s largest and most expensive mission, Monuc (Mission de l’ONU en RD Congo), arrived in the DRC in November 1999. Created by Security Council Resolution 1291, it grew to require an annual budget of one billion dollars.

Human Rights Watch has alleged that, in 2002, Nkunda was among the RCD-Goma officers responsible for a massacre in Kisangani in which 160 people were executed. The US-based group says that attempts by the UN to investigate the killings led to the abduction and beating of two UN guards by Nkunda himself.

The Congo War was complicated by the vast mineral riches of the country as the price of the precious mineral Coltan, which is used in the manufacture of mobile phones, jumped from 30 to 155 dollars per pound.

The rebel RCD exported 30-million-dollars-worth of gold and diamonds in 2000 alone and, in a 2001 report, the UN accused Rwanda and Uganda of “looting”. “Uganda, which backed the rebels in the main DRC gold region of Bunia, has no important gold reserves but since the war has registered as a gold exporter,” the writer Guy Arnold points out.

Laurent-Désiré Kabila was assassinated in 2001 and succeeded by his son Joseph. A peace agreement was signed in 2002, marking the end of the war, but thousands of Hutu militia fighters remained in eastern DRC including the FDLR which had supported Laurent-Désiré Kabila. As a member of the RCD, Nkunda was integrated into the regular Congolese armed forces, the Forces Armées de la République Démocratique du Congo (FARDC) and was promoted to General.

Nkunda soon defied orders and refused to leave North-Kivu. In 2004 he captured Bukavu, the capital of South-Kivu, claiming to be protecting Congolese Tutsis. Human Rights Watch has alleged that “summary executions, torture, and rape [were] committed by soldiers under Nkunda’s command in Bukavu in 2004”.

A year later the Congolese government issued an arrest warrant for Nkunda and since then the question of an amnesty has hung over all negotiations with him. Nkunda called for the overthrow of the Congolese government, calling it “corrupt” as former RCD-Goma soldiers deserted the Congolese army to join Nkunda.

Joseph Kabila(Photo: AFP)

Joseph Kabila
(Photo: AFP)

2006 saw Joseph Kabila defeat Jean-Pierre Bemba in the DRC’s first multi-party elections. The political wing of Nkunda’s forces, the Congrès National pour la Défense du Peuple (CNDP) was founded the same year. Meanwhile, Nkunda attempted to take Goma, but was prevented from doing so by Monuc.

In January 2007 a Rwanda-led mediation with Kinshasa led to a proposed reintegration of Nkunda’s troops into the DRC armed forces, although Nkunda made no major concessions in the end. By 2007 Nkunda had been offered 2.5 million dollars and a villa in South Africa, a proposition that he rejected.

A rebel soldier, loyal to General Laurent Nkunda, stands guard in Kiwanja(Photo: Reuters)

A rebel soldier, loyal to General Laurent Nkunda, stands guard in Kiwanja
(Photo: Reuters)

On 23 January 2008 the “Goma Agreement” was signed after negotiations between Nkunda, the government and the Coalition of Congolese Patriotic Resistance (Pareco), one of the Congo’s Mai-Mai militias. The Rwandan FDLR, however, were absent from the talks. Amnesty was offered for insurgency and acts of war but not for what were termed “war crimes” which, given the allegations against him, would exclude Nkunda. The UN estimates at 200 the number of violations of the ceasefire in the first six months of 2008.

Positioned outside Goma in October 2008, Nkunda cited the continued presence of multiple foreign armed groups (Uganda’s Lord’s Resistance Army and Allied Democratic Forces and the Forces Nationales de Libération of Burundi) in eastern Congo as part of the reason for his group’s existence.