Kris Berwouts (°1963-2023) studeerde Afrikaanse taalkunde en geschiedenis in Gent.
Fake news throws heavy smokescreens over eastern Congo
Fake news is used purposefully and very strategically in Congo today — to score politically and diplomatically, to create a certain psychological climate, or simply to cover up hard facts. The greater the insecurity, the harder the rumour mill turns.
This article was translated by Kompreno, with support from DeepL. Original source.
Congo has often been fertile ground for wild rumours and conspiracy theories, fueled by the complexity of the conflicts and the large number of parties involved in a country where livelihoods are very precarious and where there is a lack of a strong independent press and a lack of strong and independent libraries.
In Kivu, eastern Congo, the situation is currently more insecure than in the past decade. Rebel movement M23, neutralised in 2013 and also today supported by Rwanda, has been re-emerging there since late 2021. First the rebels took some positions on the border and there were skirmishes with the government army. In 2022, the situation escalated in several stages. Since November, they have virtually surrounded Goma, the capital of North Kivu province.
According to humanitarian agencies, the exact number of dead is difficult to estimate, but it is many hundreds. On top of that, at least 500,000 people were driven from their homes. Several sources, including the United Nations, reported widespread human rights violations. But there is no consensus about what exactly is happening in the region.
What is certain: the M23 movement is present in Congo. This is only possible, says the Congolese government, because they are supported by neighbouring Rwanda, which backs op the M23 rebels militarily and logistically in order to destabilise Congo (and in the past regularly provided support to rebel groups made up mostly of Tutsi, the ethnic group that dominates heavily the Rwandan regime).
the events in Kishishe did cause major international players to take a tougher tone towards Rwanda.
But Rwanda denies it. Rwandan President Kagame says his country is doing nothing to help the M23 rebels. He in turn accuses the Congolese army of collaborating with the Hutu militias that left Rwanda after the 1994 genocide and continued their struggle on Congolese soil. Congo, in turn, denies this.
The yes-no debate peaked after the dramatic events of 29 November in Kishishe. According to Congolese authorities, M23 had killed just under 300 Congolese civilians that day. Yes, there were deaths in and around Kishishe that day, M23 admitted. Not three hundred, but still a lot, and they were said to be warriors from extremist armed groups with a genocidal agenda. And, unfortunately, that included eight innocent civilians, who walked into the wrong place at the wrong time.
How many people were killed exactly and whether they were civilians or not remains controversial. But the events in Kishishe did cause major international players to take a tougher tone towards Rwanda. The United States initially declared that the country should stop supporting the M23 movement. Later, France, Germany and also Belgium joined in.
In mid-December, another topic surfaced in the rumour circuit inside and quickly swelled from whispers to a hurricane. The notorious Wagner Group, the Russian mercenary factory deployed in Ukraine and elsewhere, grew into an obsession in African countries in recent months. Since the violence erupted in Ukraine, there has been intense speculation about Wagner’s mercenaries. They were also rumoured to be in Congo. As recently as August 2022, Gilbert Kabanda, the Congolese defence minister, had visited Russia.
The rumour became a source of great concern and much whispering, both in Congo and the international community. It was feared that Wagner would also be discussed in the wings of meetings on military cooperation. Congolese President Félix Tshisekedi quickly tried to quell the rumours, stating in the Financial Times that he would never use mercenaries.
The panic in Goma translated into negative feelings towards Monusco (the UN peacekeeping force in Congo), and by extension the West.
The military situation on the ground escalated dramatically in the Autumn of 2022. The Congolese army launched an attack to retake the town of Bunagana from M23. The rebels had taken control of it earlier, in June, and the loss of the town at the tri-border point with Rwanda and Uganda had important consequences for the country. It increased the military urgency of M23’s presence on Congolese soil, and also marked a political and psychological turning point for Congo.
Panic gripped the population in the east, and in capital Kinshasa it dealt a heavy blow to President Tshisekedi’s popularity and credibility. After all, he had promised from the start of his mandate to restore stability in eastern Congo. Bunagana’s fall was a humiliation for the president and for the country.
In October, the Congolese army failed to recapture the city. In a counterattack, M23 even managed to abandon its positions on the border, capture much of le Petit Nord (the southern half of North Kivu) and virtually encircle Goma.
Among other things, the panic in Goma translated into negative feelings towards Monusco (the UN peacekeeping force in Congo), and by extension the West, and even whites in general. They were fueled in part by the lack of clarity about the arms embargo to which the United Nations subjected Congo.
The embargo was introduced in 2003 and had its form and content changed since that period. In recent years, it was aimed at restricting the supply of arms to the armed groups. The government could buy weapons and other military equipment, but had to strictly report these purchases to the UN.
A significant part of Congolese public opinion interpreted this measure very differently. The Congolese saw the embargo as an obstacle to providing weapons to their army. Throughout 2022, this became the subject of a Russian propaganda campaign in Congo, focused mainly on social media. “The West makes sure you cannot defend yourselves at a time when you are threatened,” was the message. In December, the UN Security Council lifted the reporting requirement, on Russia’s initiative.
A significant part of Congolese public opinion felt differently about that measure. The Congolese saw the embargo as an obstacle to arming their army. Throughout 2022, this became the subject of a Russian propaganda campaign in Congo, focused mainly on social media. ‘The West prevents your country from defending itself at a time when it is under attack,’ was the message. In December, the UN Security Council lifted the reporting requirement, on Russia’s initiative.
In mid-December, a journalist known as pro-Rwanda and pro-M23 signaled the presence of a few dozen Russians in Goma — Wagner’s mercenaries, he was pretty sure. The Rwandans, he said, considered this excellent news. Since the events in Kishishe, Congolese diplomacy had gained a lot of ground internationally and Rwanda had been heavily criticized. Bringing Wagner in would obviously be the quickest way to lose that ground again.
I asked a few international diplomats who follow the security situation closely. According to them, they were not Russians but employees of a Bulgarian enterprise, people with different nationalities — people working for the Bulgarian security firm Algemira. That supplied technicians and logisticians for the maintenance of the helicopters bought by the Congolese army. To a limited extent, they are also engaged in security assignments.
Not mercenaries, then, but a firm heavily involved in the war industry. Algemira has set up a subsidiary in Congo, Algemira RDC. It is headed by a French businessman, Olivier Bazin, who has been active for 30 years as a broker of military equipment, especially in the FrançAfrique, the former French colonies.
In that informal arrangement, France has been trying to secure its interests in Africa for decades, but it has been in full disintegration since 2022. Bazin himself worked in several African countries, including Chad, Angola, Congo-Brazzaville and Côte d’Ivoire. Now he is in Congo for the first time. With accreditation from the defence minister, Bazin landed there with 40 employees.
Many of them are Belarusians and Georgians, veterans of the Soviet army. They are ostentatiously visible in the city. They walk around Goma wearing Algemira T-shirts and work on the tarmac of the airport every day. They stand in for two Sukhoi Su-25 aircraft, Ukrainian fighter jets that Congo acquired in the early 2010s.
They also maintain two Soviet-made Mi-24 attack helicopters. These were deployed in November 2022, with Georgians as pilots, in an attack against M23. Since then, Congo has mainly used the Sukhoi to observe the border with Rwanda. On 28 December, Rwanda reported that one of those fighters had violated its airspace, but Congo denies it. For the same reason, Rwanda shelled a Congolese plane on 25 January, which the pilot was nevertheless able to land safely, despite a burning wing. Congo denies that the plane had been in Rwandan airspace.
#Fardc Sukhoi 25 de l’armée congolaise essuie une roquette à la frontière #RDC — #Rwanda. Que Dieu protège mon pays. pic.twitter.com/7kgnhyZJbD— N.Basubi (@nbasubi1) January 24th, 2023
As part of its services, the Algemira man Bazin also tries to broker the purchase of more helicopters for Congo. In November, this resulted in the purchase of two Mi-8 cargo helicopters. But for now, the firm has not yet managed to find the much-needed Mi-24s and Su-25s. Bazin is scouring the African market. He had his eye on aircraft sold by Chad’s army because they consider them too damaged, but for now without much result.
What followed made the situation in eastern Congo even less clear. Just before Christmas Day, a chartered plane dropped off a few dozen men. Their leader, a fifty-something, eagerly allowed himself to be photographed somewhere north of Goma, in civilian clothes but carrying an AK-47. This was Horatiu Potra, who was born in Transylvania and joined the French Foreign Legion in the 1990s.
Since the turn of the century, he has worked mostly in Africa, including the Central African Republic and Chad. He runs the Romanian mercenary company Associata RALF, which is mostly made up of foreign legion veterans. The company trains bodyguards to protect VIPs, and protects sensitive areas such as mines and trains troops.
Associata appeared to be tasked with protecting Goma airport, where technicians from Algemira maintain Congo’s air fleet. They must prevent this extremely important site from falling into the hands of M23 — which already had happened once in 2012.
And just when all that seemed to have become clear, pictures started circulating of a white man allegedly killed at the front. Was it a fighting mercenary after all? Of course, Rwandans said, there are even more of them. Sources affiliated with M23 reported to me that some of them were surrounded along with Congolese army and FDLR militia soldiers near Nyiragongo volcano.
Are mercenaries fighting in Kivu or not? That question keeps attention away from the root causes of the conflicts.
Rwanda seemed intent on arresting those people in the most mediagenic way possible by handing them over to their respective embassies in front of the press — but they were never arrested. We are not even sure if they were ever there.
A few days later, a video suddenly surfaced portraying Congolese people arresting whites as mercenaries who would take actions against the government in Lubumbashi. My sources at M23 subsequently said that these were probably mercenaries deployed by Congo who wanted to desert and leave the country.
Bidding up fake news
The bidding up of disinformation is dizzying. Different parties send it out into the world purposefully and very strategically: misinformation, manipulated photos, magnified rumours, distorted figures. For military purposes, but also as an essential part of diplomatic jousting. Or as a way of directing the psychological climate in, say, a city like Goma.
One of the pernicious consequences of this fake news strategy is that it reduces complex reality to one-liners. Are mercenaries fighting in Kivu or not? That question keeps attention away from the root causes of the conflicts. The extreme focus on M23 makes us lose sight of the fact that other armed groups are becoming increasingly active.
Off-screen, the situation in Ituri province is escalating heavily, and in Beni, two bomb attacks were carried out in quick succession with a total of about 40 deaths. The massive use of fake news is not bringing peace, truth and justice one centimetre closer for the people of eastern Congo.
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