Citing what they termed is a "leaked" memo from the U.N. Stabilization Mission in the Congo (MONUSCO), last week the BBC and the New York Times claimed that Rwanda is secretly supporting the M23 rebel movement in eastern Congo. Both media organizations reported that 11 deserters from the M23 showed up at a U.N. base claiming they had been recruited and trained in Rwanda. Neither publication produced an actual memo, nor did they quote sources. The memo was cited around the world as "fact," with no supporting documentation. The result was a vehement denial by Rwanda's Foreign Minister Louise Mushikiwabo, who said claims that Rwandans were transferred to eastern Congo to fight for the rebels are "categorically false and dangerous."
Eastern Kivu 2009 Photo by G. Nienaber
Google "M23 Congo" and it is obvious that accounts of the leaked report have gone viral. But is it correct? Does the report exist? What, exactly, does it say?
The latest comment from the U.N. says the BBC got it wrong.
U.N. spokesman Penangnini Toure told Voice of America (VOA) that the U.N. report resulted from a "routine interrogation of the 11 men who had presented themselves to the U.N. and asked to be repatriated to Rwanda."
"That's all we reported and that's where it stops. The U.N. did not produce a report saying that Rwanda is directly involved in what is happening in eastern Congo," Toure said.
SAPA also reported that there was no evidence Rwanda recruited the "mutineers":
The United Nations on Wednesday confirmed 11 Rwandans had been recruited to join army mutineers in the neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo, but said there was no evidence the Rwandan government played any role.
International media has not reported the U.N. denial of reportage of U.N. statements by the BBC and the New York Times.
Is the phantom "leaked memo" simply dangerous gamesmanship promoted by the international press? Remember it was the BBC that erroneously reported the arrest of CNDP General Laurent Nkunda a week prior to his detention in Rwanda in 2009. As a result, the BBC effectively aided and abetted a coup facilitating the installation of wanted warlord Bosco (Terminator) Ntaganda as a General in the Congolese army.
As the reports of the leaked memo spread exponentially via the Internet and social media, an already strained relationship between The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Rwanda has been tested and tensions have spilled over into Congo's Parliament. Opposition lawmakers want any discussion of relations with Rwanda to be debated in public, to avoid the appearance of any "secret deals."
"The call for an open debate comes after an escalation of violence in eastern Congo over the past two months. Some Congolese politicians say that Rwanda is backing a rebel group, the M23, made up of mutineers from the Congolese army," VOA reported.
On Wednesday, May 30, the president of the assembly ruled that debate would require a closed session. A number of opposition MPs walked out.
On the same day as the walk-out, Radio Okapi (U.N.) reported that MONUSCO refused to confirm or refute the involvement of Rwanda in the conflict in eastern DRC.
The "leaked memo" is beginning to look more and more like a propaganda trial balloon that has sprung a leak. It may have been MONUSCO's attempt to cover its failures in eastern Congo by blaming Rwanda for the latest insurgencies. Or it may have been a low-level staffer trying to curry favor with the international press.
A more likely scenario has the Congolese government trying to rev up international outrage against Rwanda as Congo sees control of the east deteriorating through defections within its own army (FARDC), and increased rebel and militia presences in the Kivus.
In a May 22 press conference, Roger Meece, the Secretary-General's Special Representative for the Democratic Republic of the Congo, continued to claim that MONUSCO was protecting civilians. He repeated this claim in a video conference to reporters.
But civilian displacement and casualties have escalated despite MONUSCO's mandate as peacekeepers.
In a press release, The United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) expressed concern about civilians targeted in fighting between the rebels and government forces that has displaced more than 100,000 people in eastern Congo since April.
Rwanda's Minister Mushikiwabo accused MONUSCO of failure to implement its mandate and suggests that the "leaked memo" is an attempt to shift blame and justify MONUSCO's "bloated budgets":
This billion-dollar-a-year operation makes up one quarter of the UN's entire peacekeeping budget, and yet it has been a failure from day one. Instead of pursuing its mandate to eradicate the FDLR menace and help stabilise the region, MONUSCO has become a destabilising influence, primarily concerned with keeping hold of its bloated budgets and justifying its ongoing existence. Rwanda has received several refugees who are severely wounded and traumatised as a result of the UN's failure to protect civilians in eastern DRC.
More subtle backtracking by the UN is evident in an interview conducted by Radio France International with Hiroute Guebre Selassie, MONUSCO's bureau chief in North Kivu. Answering a question about the 11 supposed "defectors" from M23 Selassie was vague. (Audio link is here.)
The eleven military does not seem to know those who have recruited. They had thought they would be recruited to the Rwandan army and that later they found themselves transferred to Congo. They have deserted because they wanted to go home.
A source close to M23 told us in an email that the persons presenting themselves as "deserters" and "defectors" from M23 "did not come from the front lines." Instead it is more likely that individuals were bribed by Congolese commanders to go to MONUSCO and say they were defecting, the contact said.
I think that is what happened. You know when you have all the media for you something white can be black. That is what they do every time when it is the Tutsi who are fighting. Yesterday they said in a local radio that we are planning to do a mass killing of Tutsi in a village. It means that they are preparing the world so if some thing happen it will be the M23, very clever I say.
Eastern Congo Photo by G. Nienaber
This source has a valid point. Media accounts of the wars in eastern Congo have consistently blamed the CNDP/M23 for atrocities later found to be committed by others. But retractions are never issued. A good case in point is the Kiwanja massacre that was blamed on CNDP General Laurent Nkunda, but which Human Rights Watch later claimed was due to the actions of Bosco Ntaganda.
Bottom line on this story?
According to VOA, the United Nations has said categorically that it "did not produce a report saying that Rwanda is directly involved in what is happening in eastern Congo."
Let's hope this denial also goes viral. My guess is it won't, since the news cycle has moved on from the reports of new hostilities in Congo to the ubiquitous fog of war. Lesson six of R.S. McNamara's 11 lessons of war is "get the data."
Follow Georgianne Nienaber on Twitter: www.twitter.com/nienaber