An arms pyre in Brazzaville, capital of Republic of Congo before it was set alight by UN Secretary-Gneral Kofi Annan and Republic of Congo President Dennis Sassou-Nguesso in March 2006.
Credit: Laudes Martial Mbon/IRIN
Illegal firearms still constitute a significant threat in the Republic of Congo (ROC), despite efforts by the government to reduce the number of arms in circulation following nearly a decade of civil war.
At the end of March, a senior official warned that the southern region of Pool might be excluded from legislative elections in 2007 due to the profusion of weapons in circulation. Small arms are a serious problem in the region, with humanitarian nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) reporting regular incidents of rape and robbery. While the situation in Pool is especially acute, the announcement by Marius Mouambenga, the head of the committee created to supervise the peace process in Pool, called attention to the widespread availability of illegal weapons elsewhere in the country. A report published by the NGO Small Arms International at the beginning of 2006 revealed that 34,000 arms are still being held illegally on Congolese soil.
Guns flooded the country during the years of conflict. Pool was one of the areas worst hit, with violent confrontations lasting from 1998 to 2002. Fighting was also particularly severe nationwide from June to October 1997, with 10,000 deaths in the capital city of Brazzaville alone. While hostilities are nominally over - and a shaky peace agreement between the government and the leader of the Ninja rebel movement, Frederic Bitsangou, also known as Pastor Ntoumi, was signed in Pool in March 2003 - the climate of insecurity has increased the circulation of arms in the country and encouraged civilians to procure arms to defend themselves.
A drive to address the problem and destroy the arsenal available in ROC was launched by the government in January 2001. Several hundred firearms of different types were incinerated in a massive weapons pyre in Brazzaville. A second pyre was constructed on 15 September 2005, also in the capital. Arms were collected from ex-combatants in the Pool region, as part of the demobilisation, disarmament and reintegration (DDR) process. Among the 507 firearms destroyed were 104 Kalashnikovs; 3,682 pieces of ammunition also went up in flames.
These weapons had been handed over to the authorities voluntarily by 450 former soldiers who were once loyal to Pastor Ntoumi. In return, the ex-combatants received medical and psychological care; instruction in civics and moral education; and accelerated vocational training, designed to help them establish successful income-generating microfinance projects.
Kofi Annan, Secretary-General of the United Nations, lit a third pyre of weapons on 20 March 2006, when passing through Brazzaville. The arsenal consisted of 80,000 pieces of ammunition, 500 weapons and 800 grenades. Authorities had collected the weapons from 800 civilians and former soldiers between December 2005 and March 2006 as part of a programme to exchange guns for development aid. The European Union (EU) and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) provided the necessary technical and financial assistance for the operation.
“Peace, security and stability are the necessary conditions if there is to be long-term development that benefits everyone. […] Let peace spring from the ashes of these weapons,” Annan said before setting light to the pyre.