By Golooba Mutebi
“When war is declared, truth is the first casualty.” So said British aristocrat Baron Arthur Ponsonby in his study of the uses of propaganda during the First World War.
In war, propaganda plays the crucially important role of spreading disinformation for purposes of whipping up popular support for violent conflict and fomenting hatred of the enemy side.
For anyone interested in propaganda and its uses, the conflict between the government of the Democratic Republic of Congo and insurgents of the M23 group, is an excellent case study in how information can be used to create desired realities or withheld to hide inconvenient truths.
People who were not watching developments in the Democratic Republic of Congo around the time M23 and DRC government forces started fighting could be forgiven for thinking the conflict came from nowhere, without warning.
However, seasoned watchers would have smelt it in the wind.
Much has been said about how unpaid salaries, discrimination and general mistreatment drove a section of the Congolese army to desert, form M23, and turn their guns on the government. That, however, is only part of the story.
The other part is that internal politics in Congo, of which anti-Rwandophone rhetoric is an important feature, forced President Joseph Kabila to turn his back on people who, up until early in 2012, were among his key political allies.
The story of their friendship goes back to the 1990s when as a younger man he took part, alongside them, in the war that toppled Mobutu Sese Seko and brought his own father to power.
While it did sour along the way, it blossomed again after the 2009 agreement his government signed with some of the people who now constitute the M23.
It allowed the Kivu region to enjoy a period of relative peace and facilitated a significant degradation of the military potency of the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) through joint DRC-Rwanda overt and covert action.
So much did relations improve that during Kabila’s campaign for re-election in 2011, current partisans of M23 played critical roles in securing his controversial victory.
According to local sources, in South Kivu, Sultani Makenga, now military chief of M23, was a key mobiliser for Kabila, while in North Kivu, Bosco Ntaganda, now wanted by the International Criminal Court and its promoters in the international community, did the same.
Indeed, many in the Kivu region contend that without help from these two and their supporters and allies, Kabila would have struggled to win in the Kivus.
These are not secrets. Possibly because it would challenge conventional wisdom about M23, this account of the relationship between the two sides remains largely untold.
Now let’s look at what has been said about them. International media and human-rights groups have painted the group as rampaging killers of children and women, rapists, and looters.
The accusations became particularly loud after they seized Goma, the capital of North Kivu.
One Western newspaper, Britain’s Guardian, even accused them of robbing the local branch of the central bank, claims the bank’s local director later refuted.
However, in response, the UN and Western governments have slapped sanctions on the group’s leaders.
While outsiders condemn them, however, locals and some expatriates contest the accusations. They insist the group restored a sense of security.
Locals and commuters from neighbouring Rubavu in Rwanda report that while M23 were in town, even traffic policemen had stopped taking bribes from motorists, which resumed after they withdrew.
Another refreshing exception to the dominant anti-M23 chorus has been the French newspaper,Liberation, whose reporter, Maria Malargadis, visited Goma after the town fell to the rebels.
She has exposed the extent to which information about the conflict has been distorted, and even accused a Goma-based researcher for Human Rights Watch of paying local women for testimonies, thereby enticing them to fabricate stories to fit established narratives.
Indeed, she quotes one woman describing the researcher’s approach: “He is looking for testimonies against M23.”
And now, as the talks in Kampala between the DRC government and the insurgents enter a critical stage, back in Congo, residents of Goma and those of neighbouring Rubavu are reporting an ominous development.
Apparently, in addition to units of the Congolese army, groups of FDLR fighters are massing within 30 kilometres of the DRC-Rwanda border. To add to the mix, M23 units are also reported to be on the outskirts of Goma.
There is nothing surprising in the DRC army and M23 being within easy reach of North Kivu’s capital. If the Kampala peace talks were to fail, it would be coveted territory for both sides.
The question, though, is how FDLR units that were previously not as close as they are now, managed to get there given the presence of the DRC army and UN peacekeepers, both of which deny colluding with them.
Speculation is rife that the FDLR intend to attack Rwanda. There are also reports that they are forcing Congolese Tutsi to flee to Rwanda. The deafening silence from international media, rights groups, and the UN is quite telling.
Frederick Golooba-Mutebi is a Kampala- and Kigali-based researcher and writer on politics and public affairs. E-mail: email@example.com