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Last Updated: Thursday, 28 June 2007, 12:46 GMT 13:46 UK
Congo's 'Ninja' leader ready for peace
By John James
BBC News, Republic of Congo

The leader of the Ninjas, a group of rebels from the Republic of Congo which battled against the government until signing a peace deal in 2003, has finally emerged from his jungle hideout to declare he is ready to take his place in the democratic process.

A good journalist has the knack of being in the right place at the right time, but when Pasteur Ntumi, leader of Congo's last rebel group decided to surrender his first cache of weapons, I was on the wrong side of the river, in the wrong capital and in the wrong Congo.

Pasteur Ntumi (l) and journalist John James (r)
Ntumi, seen here with journalist John James, is now a politician
It is a story that had fascinated me since I first arrived in Congo-Brazzaville: a guitar-playing mystic, writing songs about peace while leading one of Africa's armed religious sects/ ethnic rebellion.

They call themselves the Ninja rebels, taking the name of the cloaked Japanese warriors.

This is not particularly unusual in a country where 10 years ago, an earlier civil war had included the Cobras, the Mambas and the Zulus. In case you are wondering, the Cobra militia won and their leader Denis Sassou-Nguesso is still president.

Being in charge of one of Africa's biggest oil-producing states is a big prize. Winning control of such resources, or at least a place at the table, was strong motivation for the militia leaders. The fighting was reckless and the most fortunate civilians fled.

The Ninjas remain as the last rebel group, an estimated 5,000 young men with guns and a charismatic leader hiding for more than a decade in the forested region to the west of the capital Brazzaville.

A peace deal was signed four years ago, but such conflicts do not respect the rules of war and peace, civilians and combatants. The Ninjas kept their guns, and local people continued to be robbed and intimidated.

Peace and reparations

For weeks, though, rumours had been growing that for the first time weapons would be decommissioned and destroyed. Pasteur Ntumi was setting out on the difficult road from rebel leader to politician.

Pasteur Ntumi
Ntumi fought the Congolese government from 1998 to 2003
In February, his movement became a political party and in April he signed an agreement with the president giving him a place in government responsible for peace and reparations.

Then, all of a sudden, came the destruction of weapons.

I scrambled to take the boat across the Congo river from Kinshasa to Brazzaville, which is surely one of the world's great river crossings. The next morning, I left early for the three-hour trip to the town of Kinkala.

40 AK47 assault rifles
Charred skeletons of around 40 AK47 assault rifles were piled up
When I finally arrived, I ran my fingers through the cold ashes left beneath the charred skeletons of around 40 AK47 assault rifles and a few rocket launchers destroyed the previous day.

I chatted to some Ninjas seated on a couple of antiquated anti-aircraft guns. They were young men mainly from the Lari ethnic group who let their hair grow and wear a distinctive purple cloth.

I must have looked rather downcast as they told me of the previous day's events: the prime minister arriving by helicopter, the thousands of Ninjas, and the arrival of Pasteur Ntumi, who was ferried from his forest hideout in a flashy new American car surrounded by bodyguards armed to the teeth.

Half-heartedly I sat in on the remaining moments of the disarmament ceremony chewing on a bitter kola nut.

A prophet from the ethnic Kongo people dressed in a silky red
An ethnic Kongo prophet said prayers to capture evil spirits
A prophet from the ethnic Kongo people dressed in a silky red robe with a white polka-dot sash said prayers to capture all the evil spirits from this region of massacres and rape in a plastic drinks bottle.

I followed him out of the hall, where the event was taking place, to see what would happen next.

He poured the palm-wine mixture out on the threshold and returned back down the central aisle pouring as he went, and splashing the evil spirit mix all over the camera under my aisle seat.

Song of hope

As the ceremony drew to a close, there was remarkable news. Pasteur Ntumi was close to the town and wanted to meet the man from the BBC.

As we took our seats, I immediately noticed his purple socks
So we picked-up some people from his fledgling political party and drove for about half an hour.

On the way they called base to let them know we were on our way: "Tell papa we're coming," they said.

We stopped by some innocuous roadside huts. A few men stood around with weapons and purple scarves. I followed them up a sandy path expecting a long trek, but just on top of the bank sat Pasteur Ntumi on a plastic chair. He had a youthful face with a broad smile.

There was no sign of his guitar or his long purple robes. He is now a politician, so was instead wearing a light purple shirt, a deep purple jumper and a green two-piece suit.

As we took our seats, I immediately noticed his purple socks, which proved almost as distracting as the bodyguard who stood with arms crossed behind the Pasteur throughout the interview.

"Will you return to Brazzaville to take up your government position?" I asked.

"At the moment it's not safe," he replied.

"Are you still considering boycotting the elections?" I continued.

"No," he replied, "we don't think they'll be fair but we'll take part."

"When will you destroy the rest of your weapons?" I say.

"There needs to be a future for my young fighters," he replied.

As I leave, I mention a musician we both know.

"I'm a guitarist too," he said with obvious enthusiasm.

I play a bit myself, so I joked: "Next time we meet I'll bring my guitar and we can play a duet. Maybe we can sing songs of peace."

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Thursday, 28 June 2007 at 1100 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

Surviving Congo's Ninja rebels
04 Dec 03 |  Africa
Congo peace deal signed
18 Mar 03 |  Africa
Country profile: Republic of Congo
16 Jun 07 |  Country profiles
Timeline: Republic of Congo
26 Jun 07 |  Country profiles

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