Sunday, April 26, 2015

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Rumour Has It: The Importance of Gossip in the Battle for Goma

With fighting between the Congolese army and M23 heating up, the Goma rumour mill is causing trouble for the UN and President Kabila.
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Motorcyclists follow Colonel Mamadou yelling encouragement. Photograph by Joseph Kay.

Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo:

The conflict between the M23 rebel group and the Congolese army (FARDC) near Goma, the capital of North Kivu province in the country's troubled east, has intensified since 14 July. The struggle is being fought on two battlefields: with heavy weaponry around the deserted town of Kanyarucina, 14 km north of Goma, and in North Kivu's rumour mills. The heavy fire of the FARDC in the former is troubling the M23, whilst barbed words and unsubstantiated claims are putting the UN Stabilization Mission in Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO) in the firing line.

Yesterday, Thursday 18 July, protests in Goma against MONUSCO led police to use tear gas and fire warning shots. Foreign NGOs advised their staff to stay inside their compounds and MONUSCO's Pakistani contingent prepared to increase patrols or even intervene.

Rumour chasing

Colonel Ndala Mamadou, the operational commander of the FARDC’s latest campaign, paraded through Goma as a hero on Thursday morning. Passers-by and motorbike taxi drivers (so called motards) escorted his camouflaged Land Cruiser pick-up with mounted machine gun through the centre of the town. Crowds cheered Mamadou’s name as he inspected a lorry being filled with fuel for the troops at the front and visited the Command Centre of the 802nd Infantry Regiment in Goma.

Four days into the renewed fighting, in which over 100 rebels have reportedly been killed, Mamadou is clearly adored by the citizens of Goma. Friendly, with a big toothy smile, he is a likeable character and on Thursday he was elevated to quasi-sainthood in the popular imagination of this lava-covered city. His popularity was explained by a woman in the crowd making menacing throat cutting gestures. The Colonel, she thinks, is the man to cut the M23's throat.

Support for Mamadou only appears to be matched by deep hostility towards MONUSCO. When following the Colonel around town for an interview, this was made clear. First, outside a hospital, the aggression towards MONUSCO hit me on the leg in the form of a stone thrown by a soldier's wife. Then, my ears were buffeted with insults in Swahili and Lingala – two of DRC’s four national languages. My motorbike driver, in Swahili, and I, in poor Lingala, were forced to protest to an advancing mass of angry women and children that I was not from MONUSCO. Eventually, the woman who threw the stone smiled at me apologetically and the hatred was converted into a desire to help my reporting.

Radio trottoire

Back on the trail of the Colonel, following him out of town on the road to the airport, we discovered what the rumour of the day was: The colonel had been called to Kinshasa and was to be redeployed to Kisangani.

Rumours are rife in the DRC. In 2010, Kinshasa Chegues (street kids) proudly mocked my smartphone and explained that radio trottoire (the pavement radio that spreads gossip and rumour by word of mouth) was “faster than the internet”. In Goma, eager-eyed adolescents recounted Elvis-style rumours about Michael Jackson’s death, implicating the CIA and claiming that the King of Pop was living in Lubumbashi and about to release a new single. Recent rumours, however, have had more serious implications.

As this new rumour spread, chants of “don’t go!” and “he won’t go!” wafted through billowing clouds of dust as the Land Cruiser and its cavalcade sped along the unfinished road towards the airport...and then continued past it. Rumours are that easily disproven. Mamadou wasn't off to Kinshasa and that should have been the end of it.

But it wasn't. The very idea that the central government might block FARDC's victory under Mamadou was enough to sustain anger – one banner read “Mamadou reste et Kabila part. RIP Kabila” (Mamadou stays [in Goma] and Kabila leaves. RIP Kabila). The chanting continued and became a carnival protest as the motards could no longer follow Mamadou as he sped through police barriers towards the front line.

The atmosphere and language used by people in Goma is of battle and all out victory. For many, it is MONUSCO that stands in the way. One young man protesting told Think Africa Press that “If Colonel Mamdaou leaves, we will attack all MONUSCO property”. Other angry protesters insisted that their man could defeat the M23 but MONUSCO won't let him.

Fighting talk

The motard’s party at the barrier was broken up by the need to get back to earning a living and the calming words of National Police Commander of the District of Nyragonga, Jean-Marie Malosa. Having successfully cooled the motards off and shifted them from his patch, he said that he was pleased to see that “the population is behind the army”. An obvious lesson from this episode is precisely that: the population supports the army and morale is high. As I bumped around in the back of a military truck on its way to the front line through the eerily silent town of Kanyaruchina to meet the Colonel, the motards were busy on another patch.

News of the protests had reached the forward base where soldiers were taking a rest from front line duties and eating. The population’s reaction to the rumours seemed to flatter the Colonel. With a smile, he told Think Africa Press that they were not true. His mobile phone rang incessantly and between negotiating with the representatives of a private company in Goma to supply rations and water to troops, he gave orders to spread the word that he had not been called to Kinshasa.

Over-paid, over-sexed and over here

There are many frustrations with the UN in Goma. In November 2012, MONUSCO did not protect the city from the M23 who went on to hold it for ten days. Residents remember MONUSCO soldiers standing by as the M23 rolled into the provincial capital and then looted government offices and a hospital.

Not only do locals feel MONUSCO does not protect them, but there is a perception that members of MONUSCO are over-paid, over-sexed and over here. Whilst controversy in the past has led to tougher rules to reduce sex scandals, MONUSCO staff are still widely considered to be over-paid.

Speaking to motards over the last week, the perception is that Goma is awash with money. Not just from international humanitarian aid agencies, UN staff salaries and the service economy that springs up around these, but also in the supply of goods and services by local businesses to the charity sector. However, residents believe that this money fails to trickle down to them. “Expats are here to make money and take it back home”, said one street vendor.

The UN hopes this mistrust will decrease once the newly formed Intervention Brigade comes to full strength next month. Formed by South Africans, Malawians, and Tanzanians, the Brigade – which is explicitly mandated to use force in combating destabilising militia – is currently deployed in Sake in North Kivu. Logistics equipment arrived in Goma on Monday and proceeded to Sake overnight.

Winning the street round

Rumours spread like wildfire and Goma is a tinderbox. Once a rumour takes hold it is hard to shake it off. The dispersed motards, despite Colonel Mamadou heading towards the front and not to the airport, still clung to the idea that their saviour was being sent away. And somehow MONUSCO was to blame.

On Thursday afternoon, Mamadou together with Lambert Mende, the government’s spokesperson in Kinshasa, and Colonel Amuli, FARDC’s spokesperson in Goma, called for calm and a stop to the protests against the MONUSCO on Radio Okapi. All three claimed that the rumours are a tactic by the M23 to destabilise the city.

However, the battle to dominate the discourse is not only taking place through radio trottoire. There are constant skirmishes occurring online too. From twitter to blogs, information and misinformation is playing an important role in manipulating perceptions of the state of play in North Kivu. Blatant inventions on Twitter abound from the various accounts peddling false reports of the position of M23 fighters which have appeared every day since Monday alongside other rumours. With the situation so volatile and unreliable information so prevalent, perhaps it is a blessing that so few people have access to the internet in DRC.

Even when the Intervention Brigade arrive and alleviate some of the hatred towards MONUSCO, the motards will not be entirely satisfied. They will still have their own particular gripe because UN staff and aid workers are not allowed to use their service on security grounds. In the future, winning over the influential radio trottoire will remain as tough a challenge, as taking on the M23.

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Very interesting, but several key points that appear to be factually verifiable are missing.  Ban-Ki-Moon has threatened to withdraw support for some of the more successful army units, and the UN has a history of collaborating with imperial powers to crush nationalist movements in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which includes the assassination of Patrice Lumumba.