Doubts plague Congo’s latest demobilisation programme

A major new attempt to return thousands of rebel fighters to civilian life in the Democratic Republic of Congo has been beset by delays and is still threatened by funding constraints and continuing insecurity, according to analysts, who also point to broader governance problems.

Congo has yet to recover from major civil wars that claimed millions of lives between 1996 and 2008. Dozens of armed groups remain active in the east of the country.

Almost 5,000 former combatants – out of a targeted 12,000 – are enrolled in a third programme of disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration, or DDRIII, and are now in two demobilisation centres. Many of them surrendered to government forces back in 2013, well before the programme began, because they feared a major army offensive in the east of the country. It was only in May of this year that the initial phases of DDRIII got off the ground. Participants have already received training in literacy and civic education, as well as psychosocial support.

DDRIII was designed to avoid the pitfalls of Congo’s failed 2004 and 2009 DDR initiatives, specifically by paying more attention and devoting more resources to what should now come next: the skills training and reintegration phase. Making local communities aware of the benefits of the programme is another new priority. Previous efforts had led to widespread perceptions that participants were being rewarded for having taken up arms.

Another new aspect is that former combatants will have more choice about the skills training they undertake and the location into which they integrate.

Alexis Wasekayo, a coordinator at SOPREDU, an organisation that has previously carried out reintegration projects, says this approach increases the chances of ex-combatants becoming economically independent. By setting up businesses of their own choosing that contribute to the local economy, demobilised combatants can be more easily absorbed into host communities and are not simply reintegrated back into poverty.

In May 2015, the World Bank committed $15 million to “support the social and economic reintegration of demobilised ex-combatants in Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), to help rebuild communities and families and to support the ongoing peace consolidation process.” 

But it is unclear how much, if any, of these funds have been disbursed, as the transfer to Reintegration Preparation Centres, where the bulk of the skills training is to be held, has yet to take place because of construction delays.

Earlier DDR programmes have shown that without long-term employment or suitable opportunities to engage with their host communities, combatants often return to the bush to rejoin armed groups.

The government body in charge of DDRIII, known by its initials UEPNDDR, has disclosed little information about how much other donors have contributed to DDRIII.

“No government policy, however good, can succeed without appropriate, timely, well-managed funds,” noted Augustin Muhesi, who teaches political science at a university in Butembo, in eastern DRC’s North Kivu Province.

“So the partners of DDRIII should avoid delays in mobilising funds so as to avoid the mistakes of the past.”

Christophe Vogel, a researcher at the Institute of African Studies at the University of Zurich, noted that in the wake of earlier DDR efforts, donors “lost confidence in the national structures which played a prominent role in the diversion of funds allocated to DDR.”

“But donors must understand that these diversions also resulted from a lack of follow-up on their part,” he added.

Nelson Paluku Syayipuma, a former vice defence minister who teaches at Kinshasa University, where he conducts research on DDR, lamented the current programme’s dependence on external donors.

“As far as we know, the Congolese government has only unblocked $5 million [for DDRIII, whose overall cost is estimated at $85m]. It expects almost everything from donors. It should not be so. We should follow the example of Colombia, which financed 80 percent of its DDR programme,” said Syayipuma, who is also an opposition MP.

Few takers

Since May, only 150 fighters have signed up for DDRIII. There are several plausible explanations for this. One is that the feared army operations against rebel groups in the east turned out to be less vigorous than expected. Another is that conditions in various regroupment centres were notoriously poor (In October 2014, Human Rights Watch reported that at least 42 demobilised fighters, five wives and 57 children died of starvation and disease in a military camp after officials failed to provide adequate food and healthcare). 

"Disarming people when fighting is still going on is the equivalent of trying to contain water with a sieve."

There is also a widespread sentiment that DDRIII is putting the cart before the horse in terms of security priorities.

“Disarming people when fighting is still going on is the equivalent of trying to contain water with a sieve,” one diplomat based in Congo told IRIN. “The electoral cycle [elections are due in 2016] will just create another round of warmongering,” he warned.

Syayipuma agreed, noting that “the security context on the ground [in eastern Congo], which continues to deteriorate, aggravates the range of uncertainties with regard to the gains of previous DDR programmes and above all with regard to the current programme’s chances of success.”

He pointed specifically to “Beni territory, where savagery and barbarism surpass the slightest humanity,” and to “the often forgotten conflicts between armed groups in Walikale, Masisi and Rutshuru, as well as their clashes with the regular army. These are the choke points of DDRIII.” Such a process, he said, should not be viewed as “an immediate alternative to conflict.”

Muhesi, the political scientist, stressed that “the more the state remains fragile, the greater the risk of failure for DDR programmes.

“So the state’s security forces must be reformed to provide the country with an army that is capable of protecting its territory. There must be a good justice system and proper management of the political space.”

For Aloys Tegera, research director at the Pole Institute in the eastern city of Goma, it is important “to envisage the recruitment of the new Congolese army from a new cohort of youths who are not soaked in repeated violence.”

This was a reference to previous DDR programmes that allowed many former insurgents, including those known to have committed human rights abuses, to join the ranks of the national army as an alternative to returning to civilian life. This often resulted in further violence as such contingents were allowed to keep their existing command structures and remain in their home territories, effectively enabling them to maintain control. It also led to the growth of self-defence militias, perpetuating the cycle of insecurity.

Muhesi urged the government to remember that the reason many Congolese took up arms was either to seek greater power or to demand better living conditions.

“As such, we need democracy, because it gives us an equal opportunity to gain power, and is based on respect of our political and socio-economic rights,” he said.

“Moves away from democracy, in the form of attempts to hold on to power, may cause discontent that could once again allow people to justify their return to the bush. And what will happen then – yet another DDR plan?”

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