Lunching with Congolese rebel leader

M23 leader reveals how the Kinshasa regime okayed a robbery to steal $5million from American gold smugglers

by Richard Mgamba

It was seven days before Christmas eve, the period in which Christians all over the world are busy with shopping and planning for the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ. But to me it was the day I lunched with M23 rebels’ top commander, General Sultan Emanuel Makenga. His resume included three different wars in three different countries (Uganda, Rwanda and Congo) but still, as he told me, he was willing to fight till his last blood.

Why, I wondered, and what was driving the engine behind this conflict? Who was paying the piper? What were the source of arms and ideologies?

It was frightening because as a journalist, I was invited into the heart of the conflict, and its orator, and I was risking my life to do so. Courage is often perceived as a normalised characteristics of a good journalist. But we are still human, and through it all, we still fight the other internal conflict — the fear that fights to conquer your mind and heard as you ponder the journey ahead of you.

Yet, it was memorable too, because this was a rare opportunity for me as a journalist. I needed to be fully prepared to get the story, and get out, or end up being a war victim. Earlier, before leaving Kigali, where I had been invited to attend the 25th anniversary of the ruling party, Rwandese Patriotic Front. But thinking about possible threats, I opted to skip the 25th RPF Anniversary. Securing the interview with the M23 Commander was bigger than attending the celebration of the ruling party in Rwanda, which was merely politics of the ruling elite, the curtain concealing the window to the world.

I made this assignment top secret for security reasons. At the last minute, I informed my news editor, Rodgers Luhwago, via email, that if I don’t make it or if I faced any problems, he could, where necessary, set the record straight . In investigative journalism, security protocols - especially for those involved directly in the assignment — is fundamental for the integrity of the story, and the journalists, and also significantly reduces risks.

From your phone calls to emails, it’s important to take precautionary measures to ensure that no leaks get out. Journalists should also make sure that very few people — especially in the editorial team — know about the investigation to avoid any leakage by the moles in newsrooms. Keep your family or friends off the investigation and plan a cover story to feed them because they are not part of the operation or editorial team, and should not be involved in any means.

I had been in contact with my sources within the M23 for some weeks before I got a nod to meet the military head and commander of the 3500-plus rebel forces, Brigadier General Makenga — a young fighter whose rebellion drew a strong reactions from the Great Lakes regional leaders and international condemnation.

I had been seeking this opportunity as part of researching my book, but also to tell the other side of the story. From what I have read in local, regional and international media, the M23 narrative was told in broken parts, or was entirely missing. Finally on December 17, this year, I was briefed in my hotel in Kigali by my contact from Goma, about how I would travel to the rebel stronghold in the next day. My fixer (who I will not reveal for security purposes) had worked in the war-torn country for a decade as a security and humanitarian analyst, and was very familiar with the reality on the grounds.

Entering the war zone to chase a story requires a credible fixer who is both knowledgeable, and highly connected to both sides: the rebels and the government. This is the man who organizes how you travel, where to stay, the people you should meet, and how to minimize the risk while on the ground.

In the early morning of December 18, 2012, our journey started from Kigali, heading to the city of Goma, a home to nearly 1.5 million people, which have seen many devastating wars since the ousting of Mobutu regime started in 1996.

As we negotiated the sharp corners between Kigali and Goma, our conversations were mainly focused on the current Congo crisis triggered by the M23’s capture of the town of Goma, before we were interrupted by a phone call from Brigadier Makenga’s assistant.

The caller wanted to know where we were, how long it would take us to arrive at the Rwandan-DRC border. This was to ensure that he could organize security details for me to travel from the Rwanda-DRC border of Goma, to the M23 military base.

He briefed me that shortly after crossing the border, I would find him standing behind an unmarked Nissan Patrol truck. (He would later tell me that all executive vehicles for M23 leaders were unmarked for security purposes.)

When the caller who introduced himself as John, a special assistant to General Makenga, hung up, we resumed our talks about the security situation in Eastern Congo. The views of my fixer was that the much leaked UN report authored by a group of experts led by Steve Hague was seriously flawed, aimed at punishing Rwanda and Uganda.

The report, he tells me, as our Land Cruiser hit the road to Goma, was mainly based on the so called confessions from some defected soldiers who used to work for M23 rebel faction. Now in Congo, where millions of dollars are paid to rebels, it was easy for defecting soldiers to be paid and then coached on what they should say before the UN Group of Experts.

From his views, first of all, there was no credible verification that the alleged defected soldiers used to work for M23. In a country like Congo where there are more than 40 rebel factions, it’s challenging to establish who is working for who until furnished with credible evidence or talking directly to prisoners of wars.

But the mere fact of meeting some people on the streets who claim to be working for a certain rebel faction is highly questionable, according my fixer. My stand was that one day time will tell whether Rwanda and Uganda are the main cause of the current crisis in DRC or not.

As my fixer continued to narrate how his country Rwanda has been victimized by some international conspirators, deep in my mind I was pondering Goma, the place where I would soon be walking in its land, in my mission to meet the rebel leader, Brigadier General Makenga.

For the past two decades, Goma residents had witnessed more guns, tanks and rebels making it perhaps the leading city in Africa that has witnessed many wars as well as hosting many refugees at its own peril. It’s infrastructure especially roads have seen more soldiers than contractors, paving the way for potholes and tranches to blossom in this Congolese city whose legacy is clouded with blood, guns and deaths.

Located in the eastern part of Democratic Republic of Congo, and bordering Rwanda in the northern shore of Lake Kivu, Goma city has certainly suffered heavily from man-made and natural disasters during the past two decades. In the era of M0butu regime, Goma hosted an airport with the longest airport, which could accommodate Concorde plane. When Mobutu travelled abroad, he would hire Concorde using Goma airport as for his departure and arrival for security reasons.

During the 1994 Rwandan genocide, Goma become the shelter for millions of Rwandese mainly Tutsi and moderate Hutus who fled their country, which was then ravaged by killings of civilians conducted by the Hutu regime. When the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), a rebel movement formed by Tutsi refugees in Uganda overthrew the Hutu government in Kigali, forcing its remnants to relocate to the border town of Gisenyi, the battle shifted from Kigali to Goma town.

Goma has also felt the pinch of first and second wars during the past decades as armed militias fought to control the soul of Democratic Republic of Congo — the richest country in the world in terms of natural resources, but the poorest in terms of human development.

When I arrived here ready to trace and finally interview the military leader of rebel faction, M23, the city was weathering the aftermath of the recent capture by the rebels, who overpowered the 20,000 soldiers from the Congolese national army. Though the rebels have just pulled out of the city pending the outcome of the Kampala negotiations, the legacy of war was still looming among millions here. Some believed this was the end of warring, while others claimed this was a just Christmas break, and the real fight would resume in January, 2013.

However, many people here seemed to sympathize with M23 rebels, calling them liberators, who have come to save them from the poor leadership of Joseph Kabila, a young soldier who took over the presidency after his father, Laurent Desire Kabila was assassinated by one of his bodyguards. As my fixer put it, “This is why when M23 captured Goma: they were welcomed by residents before holding a peaceful massive public rally in the heart of Goma town.”

As we shake hands with my fixer, he tells me, “Good luck in your mission ... remember to call me anytime you sense any danger so that I can help.” I was alone with my phones, notebook and pen, ready to cross the border to Congo’s war zone. As I ponder the situation, just a few hundred metres before I cross the Rwandan side to enter the DRC territory, my eyes capture someone waving for me.

At this border, there were fully armed Rwandese soldiers manning their territory being assisted by the Police and some immigration officer. I greeted them, and answered some few questions from them. They wanted to know who I was, where I was going, and above all what my business was there. After answering these questions, I was cleared to cross the border.

After crossing the border, I realize that the man who was waving at me, was my host, sent to pick me at the Rwandan-DRC boarder. On the Rwandan side, the border is heavily guarded by armed soldiers from Rwandese Defense Forces(RDF), police and immigration officers. Just few hundred meters in the Congolese territory, the M23 soldiers heavily guard the boarder.

In the Congolese territory, everything was being controlled by rebels. Gone were the days when the government law enforcers like army, police and immigration used to protect this border. To put things into perspective, M23 in Goma was the government within the government because even after pulling out of the city, they still ruled large part of Goma.

My host, whom I later learnt was a senior military officer within the M23, fought for 16 years, before deciding to pursue a degree in Business and Economics by using a pseudo name. He briefed me about the security situation, before our journey started.

“Since we can’t take chance, you will be escorted by six armed soldiers from our troops,” he said. “There will also be a surveillance team monitoring our movement so that in case of any ambush, the team could respond immediately.”

After the briefing, I was shown a brand new unmarked Nissan Patrol, four-wheel drive which would take me to meet the M23 military leader.

“Our vehicles are not marked for security purposes,” said my host, John, as he started the engine, ready for the journey to meet the head of M23 rebels, Brigadier General Sultan Makenga. After few hundred meters, we are intercepted by fully armed M23 soldiers who patrol the area. They immediately demand who I was and where I was going. After brief discussions with my host cum driver, we are cleared to proceed.

Again after driving for about twenty minutes we were intercepted by six armed soldiers — something that frightened and puzzled me.

“Don’t worry - these are our soldiers,” said John. “I dropped them few hundred meters before I came to pick you at the boarder...They will escort us to the General’s base.”

He opened the doors, and six armed soldiers entered our unmarked car ready to escort us to unknown location where I was scheduled to meet M23 military commander, Makenga.

We drove about one kilometer before we were again intercepted for the third time by over 20 armed soldiers, who proceed to stop our car, demanding to know who I was ... and where I was going.

 I asked John about what was going on but he calmed me by saying everything was fine. He made some few calls ... exchanged some words with these soldiers and we were finally cleared to proceed with our journey.

“These are also our soldiers who are patrolling the area... that’s how we work here to ensure there’s security,” he told me, as he struggled to handle the Nissan Patrol on the dilapidated road.

Contrary to what I thought, it seemed villagers here sympathize with rebels fighters. Most of the time, while we were driving to General Makenga’s base, people were waving and cheering for the soldiers. In some areas they were called ‘Mkombozi’ a Swahili word for savior or liberator.

After thirty minutes, we are intercepted by armed soldiers, in a white land cruiser. They were to escort us, I was told, because we can’t ‘take chances’. Though the war has been halted to pave the way for the Kampala peace talks, still there was no real trust between rebels, and government forces.

Due to the dilapidated roads, worsened by the heavy rain that hit Goma, it took us nearly two hours to reach the rebels’ base. Though the war has been going on here, villagers were just moving on with their daily activities as if nothing happened. Goma’s main activity is agriculture, charcoal and timber trade. On the roads we passed many heavy trucks, some are stuck in the muddy roads, while others fully loaded with charcoal, timbers or foods, cruising at snail’s pace with no fear, despite being in a war zone.

“When you hear reports from Goma, it’s claimed that we are killing, rapping and robbing people...but what you see here is the opposite,” said John.

“If we were killing these people, or raping them as reported, they would have fled...but you can see them waving for us. We were born and raised here, and therefore we are fighting for these people,” he stated, adding the biggest assets for M23 rebels were neither Rwandese nor Ugandan but the people who are tired of poor leadership, corruption and poverty.

After nearly one hour, my eyes are welcomed by roadblocks heavily guarded by M23 Special forces. Before entering Makenga’s base, we undergo security screening at five different road blocks. As I entered the base, I was welcomed by heavy rainfall and hundreds of soldiers parading as part of their daily exercise before being dispatched to various stations.

“We have arrived...welcome to our home” John told me as he pulled over the Nissan Patrol. Suddenly our vehicle was surrounded by armed soldiers with AK47, Rocket Propelled Grenades and many heavy weapons. I was led to the church-like building, heavily guarded, where I was finally welcomed by General Makenga, a tall, black and slim guy whose red eyes tell who he really is.

As we greet each other, he is fully surrounded by seven armed soldiers, but tells them to leave the area, so that we could start our interview. He also tells me that he doesn’t speak fluent English or French and the only language he knows better is Kiswahili. He sits on the corner of this building, ready for the interview.”

Our interview, which lasts for one hour touches many issues including why he has been fighting the government that he agreed to serve during the Nairobi peace accord signed on March 23, 2009; his reactions about the ongoing Kampala Peace talks and plans by SADC to deploy troops in Goma. The reason behind the latest fight, he tells me, is because he and his colleagues feel betrayed by President Joseph Kabila’s government which he accused of failing to fully honour the Nairobi Peace agreements.

““We want peace ... the Congolese want peace, but if we are forced to achieve peace through the barrel of the gun, we shall fight this war at any cost.”...It seemed like the Kinshasa regime is playing games ... pending the deployment of the SADC forces in Goma and that’s why they are not fully committed in the Kampala peace negotiations. He tells me adding that, “If the Kampala talks can bring peace, we are ready for peace but if it’s war we are also ready because that’s how we’ve lived for the past two decades.”

When I ask him about where he gets his support to fight the Kabila’s regime, General Makenga smile before he says, “I know journalists like you, and international community believe we are backed by Rwanda...You have the right to believe anything, but the truth is that we are supported by very powerful figures within the Kabila government.”

“We have very powerful support from the FARDC (Congolese national army) as well as within the Kinshasa government...We get weapons from them as well as financial and intelligence support.” General Makenga tells me confidently, adding that, “our biggest sin is being Tutsis.”

He further tells me, “We are associated with Rwanda simply because of our origin, and I wish I was born somewhere else because I am tired of being judged basing on my ethnicity...I want Africa and the world to understand the bigger picture so that they can help DRC.”

According to Makenga, he never chose to be a soldier fighting for two decades, but was forced by the situation in his country, DRC formerly known as Zaire under Dictator Mobutu. “I have family, my wife and children...I have parents and friends...I love peace and I want peace but when we are forced to get it through the gun, there’s no choice.”

The last time Makenga saw his parents was 15 years ago. They would be forced to flee DRC following the outbreak of the civil war. “We want all Congolese refugees to return home unconditionally including my parents...we want all Congolese to participate on governing and reconstructing their country.

When we end our interview, General Makenga tells me that he has prepared lunch for me. “You are our guest, and the first journalist to come here to see reality...some of your colleagues stay in nice hotels in Goma, but the next morning report things which suit their desires.”

As we sit down to have our lunch - rice, beans and chicken accompanied with bottled water and fruits - General Makenga tells me: “I would like to see an international independent team, which also involves prominent and educated Africans investigating the truth about Congo ... I want the truth to be known so that we can be judged fairly.”

“We took Goma in a daylight fight, and there were no children fighting on our side. Few weeks after we captured Goma, I am hearing these baseless allegations, but no one has shown the alleged children recruited by M23. You have visited our stronghold, and where we are right now is our training base, did you see any child soldier here?”

I asked him if he was still talking to President Kabila and his response is, “Yes of course...for the past three weeks he hasn’t called me, but if I want I can call him anytime.”

When we started this fight, Makenga tells me, he was offered two posh houses plus $2million so that he could abandon M23 but he refused. Who offered him this big bounty? He claims President Kabila.

“My struggle is not about money, but getting justice to my people, the Banyamulenge” He tells me

I wasn’t able to verify these claims. Multiple requests sent to Kinshasa regime were left unanswered.

Makenga doesn’t end there. He tells me in those good days when they had abandoned rebellion, and integrated with government forces following the Nairobi Peace accord of 2009, one day they staged an armed robbery at the Goma airport to rob some gold dealers who were flying there to buy gold.

According to Makenga, Bosco Ntaganda, told him that he asked for cash from Kinshasa, but instead of being granted his wish, he was given a means to get the money.

“We have clearance from Kinshasa to stage a robbery at the airport...there are gold dealers from Nairobi arriving with about $5million,” Makenga claims he was told by his then boss, Ntaganda. It happened in February, 2011.

It was a deal involving Casey Lawal, a Nigerian-born businessman currently living in Texas, and a retired Congolese basketball player, Dikembe Mutombo.

The story is not new: The US publication, Atlantic, narrated this story: “Twenty million dollars in potential profit was enough to convince Lawal and Mutombo to overlook the possibility that they were getting themselves into something risky and possibly unethical. Instead, Reagan Mutombo went to Goma to oversee his uncle’s side of the deal. A few days later, on February 4, 2011, Lawal sent St. Mary to Goma on a leased Gulfstream jet, along with several CAMAC employees and nearly $5 million in cash.

It wasn’t until the plane landed in Goma that St. Mary realized just how deeply involved the Congolese army was in the transaction. "When we got there they came on the plane and took our passports," says St. Mary. "They said ’the general wants to see you.’ We said, ’general who?’ At that point nobody had even told us. They said ’Bosco wants to speak to you now.’"

But, from Makenga’s version, that was just a ploy to rob the gold dealers of their $5million, which they had carried in private jet hoping to secure 4.5 tonnes of gold.

 The gold dealers were robbed in Goma in an operation that was closely supervised between Bosco Ntaganda and his top boss in Kinshasa, according to Makenga.

Ntaganda currently in the International Criminal Court custody for war crimes at the time of this robbery, served as both the leader of the CNDP or National Congress for the Defense of the People (which after March 23, 2009 Nairobi peace accord, joined the Congolese government it once fought), and a general in the Congolese army. He was indicted by the ICC in 2006 for his enlistment, and use of child soldiers in the early 2000s, during the violent closing years of the second Congolese civil war.

When Kinshasa regime decided in 2009 to integrate the CNDP insurgents it had been fighting for two years, President Kabila gave Ntaganda more power than the general already had. After an agreement between the governments of the DRC and Rwanda (the details of which remain secret to this day), Kabila put Ntaganda in charge of the army’s campaign against the FDLR, the Congo-based Hutu militant group that the Tutsi-led Rwandan government accuses of sheltering fighters responsible for the country’s 1994 genocide, and considers an ongoing threat to national security.

According the Atlantic publication,

“After landing in Goma, St. Mary and the small group of CAMAC employees traveling with him were taken to a hotel owned by Ntaganda. "When we get to the hotel the yard is littered with soldiers and [Ntaganda] comes in looking like Crocodile Dundee with a bolo collar and a leather hat and vest on," recalls St. Mary. Ntganda announced that he was the actual owner of the gold they had come to buy, and that the exchange would take place at the Goma airport the following morning.

St. Mary realized that his chances of leaving the country with four tons of gold were fading. "I told Bosco, you took almost five million from us in Nairobi. We don’t have one gold bar. Give me just one reason to trust any of you in this room," says St. Mary. "And he looks me in the eye and says, ’We didn’t kill you this morning.’"

Ntaganda demanded that St. Mary’s team take at least some of the money they’d left on the plane and give it to him to hold temporarily, supposedly to cover customs, documentation, and routine bribes. St. Mary, along with one of Ntaganda’s colonels, was sent to the airport to retrieve a suitcase with $3.1 million from the CAMAC Gulfstream — money that, it would turn out, neither St. Mary nor the Congolese government would ever see again.” The Atlantic Magazine wrote.

It turned out the Colonel who was sent to grab the suitcase at the airport was Makenga.

But, during the interview with UN group of experts, Ntaganda claimed that the entire deal had been a setup, and that he was simply working with President Kabila to entrap gold smugglers. The day after St. Mary’s arrival, customs officials seized Lawal’s chartered plane, arrested everyone on board, and took the remaining $2 million St. Mary had brought with him.

But from Makenga’s version, having got the news about the planned fake gold deal that was about to happen in Goma , President Kabila told Bosco to plan something so that he could get the money he wanted.

Makenga’s reason for telling me the story, he said, was to show me how in those heydays, he and his boss Ntaganda were very close to President Kabila before they fell out.

After our lunch, we say goodbye to each other. My journey to the Rwandan border resumes. It’s still raining, but since I was warned by my fixer not to spend a night in the Congolese territory, I have no option but to leave the area as soon as possible.