This week the warlord Gédéon Kyungu Mutanga surrendered in southern Democratic Republic of Congo with about 100 of his fighters. Instead of arresting him, local officials in the provincial capital of Lubumbashi gave Gédéon a celebratory welcome. No doubt as a political gesture to the government, Gédéon wore a shirt with a photo of President Joseph Kabila and the slogan “Shikata” – which means “stay for a long time,” a reference to efforts to extend Kabila’s presidency beyond the constitutional two-term limit that ends on December 19.
From 2002 to 2006, Gédéon led a militia that committed numerous atrocities in an area of central Katanga that soon became known as the “triangle of death.” As Gédéon’s group fought the Congolese army and terrorized local civilians whom they initially claimed to be defending, hundreds were killed and an estimated 150,000 forced to flee their homes. In some cases, Gédéon’s fighters publicly tortured victims before killing and cannibalizing them.
Gédéon surrendered once before, in 2006 with about 150 fighters, most of whom were child soldiers. The government tried him for crimes against humanity in a landmark case for Congolese justice. In March 2009, he was convicted and sentenced to death.
But Gédéon managed to escape from prison in 2011. He went on to lead an armed group that has carried out serious abuses in central Katanga for the past five years.
It remains unclear what led to Gédéon’s latest surrender, but it comes against a backdrop of heightened political tensions surrounding President Kabila’s future.
In the past, the Congolese government has given amnesties to former warlords and “rewarded” them with senior positions in the Congolese army, effectively perpetuating the cycle of impunity and abuse.
It should not resort to old practices this time. Authorities should ensure that Gédéon is returned to prison, ideally in a high-security prison outside of Katanga to minimize the risk of escape. They should also open judicial proceedings into the alleged crimes committed since Gédéon’s escape in 2011.
Doing so will make the surrender of one of Congo’s most brutal warlords an opportunity for accountability and a measure of justice for victims – and not just the recipe for more atrocities.