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COMOROS: Missing guns delay demobilization process

MUTSAMUDU, 31 January 2011 (IRIN) - Hundreds of weapons used in a revolt on Anjouan, one of three islands in the Comoros archipelago, remain unaccounted for, causing the government to change its strategy for disarmament, demobilization and reintegration.

Some of the more than 300 small arms - from pistols to assault rifles - issued by the state to Anjouan's Forces De Gendarmerie d'Anjouan (FGA), part of the national army, were turned against the Comorian national government by Mohamed Bacar when he refused to step down as President of Anjouan in June 2007 after disputed elections.

A seaborne landing by African Union (AU) troops in March 2008 ended his illegal nine-month tenure.

Each island has a semi-autonomous government, a separate parliament and its own president as well as many other prerogatives, with rotating presidency in the over-arching Union government. Replicating the system on each island can cost up to 80 percent of the central government's annual budget.

The system was designed to end the instability that had caused more than 20 coups and secession attempts since independence from France in 1975, earning Comoros the title of the "coup-coup islands", but island presidents have since been downgraded to governors, and legislatures to councils, to contain costs.

Economic benefits

The National Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration Programme (PNDDR), implemented by the government with the support of the UN Development Programme (UNDP) and funded by the UN Peacebuilding Fund, estimated there were about 400 small arms on the island, some belonging to the state military and others thought to have entered the island illegally.

By the close of 2010, six months after the PNDDR began in June 2010, "Three weapons have been received: an assault rifle, a pistol and a hand grenade," and it was unclear whether these weapons had been used by Bacar's forces to enforce their illegal rule, said Celestin Sikuli, head of PNDDR field operations in Anjouan. It was not the role of DDR to "investigate" where the missing weapons were.

''Three weapons have been received: an assault rifle, a pistol and a hand grenade''
The programme was viewed as a direct path from disarmament to reintegration, but the missing weapons have stalled the process, leaving ex-combatants unable to enter reskilling programmes and derive the economic benefits.

One Anjouan resident, who declined to be named, said this was causing "increasing anger" among soldiers who had sided with Bacar, while at the same time the government is committed to recovering the missing weapons.

Demobilization and the transition to civilian status is acknowledged in a joint certificate issued by the government and UNDP, allowing ex-fighters to enrol in reintegration projects such as agriculture, carpentry, welding, mechanics and computer training.

The PNDDR would also provide economic reintegration support to victims of the crisis, to avoid the perception that perpetrators were being rewarded and victims forgotten.

DDR was a "voluntary process". So far about 350 people had registered, including members of the FGA, Sikuli told IRIN, and 155 victims, who had cited a variety of abuses from beatings to the destruction of property.

Weapons recovery not essential

"The condition of DDR [imposed by the Comoros army] is that you can't begin reintegration until arms are surrendered,” said Anliyat Mze Ahmed Abdallah, UNDP's DDR programme officer based in Moroni, capital of Grand Comore, the largest island in the archipelago.

“It is up to government to decide whether there can be disarmament without submitting a weapon... It's a complex situation," she told IRIN.

In a change of policy, Comoros minister of state and director of cabinet to the president, Ahmed Ben Said Jaffar told IRIN in a statement that "the disarmament and demobilization programme in Anjouan should be carried out simultaneously. So far, the disarmament process has not been fully successful, but there is no intention to forego the process."

"There is an increasing recognition that only a few weapons are actually recovered during the initial disarmament phase," said Glaucia Boyer, a DDR specialist at the UNDP's Crisis Prevention and Recovery Unit, based in Geneva, Switzerland, and one of the architects of the Anjouan process along with Comorian national stakeholders.

DDR processes did not always follow a straight line. "It is only when confidence is built [that] ex-combatants are sustainably reintegrated, and [then] have no reason to go back to war, that weapons recovery programmes succeed," she told IRIN.


Photo: Guy Oliver/IRIN
The Fatima Biuti Ankili mosque, built in 1610, in Mutsamudu, the capital of Anjouan, in the Comoros
The 400 weapons on Anjouan was an estimate, increased by possible illegal weapons entering the island during the crisis - the actual number determined by the military was 324, Boyer said.

"It is difficult to … [determine] what could be considered a successful disarmament - perhaps the recovery of 200 weapons [of the estimated 400] - as I also heard testimonies of many weapons having ended up in the sea when Bacar's soldiers did not want to leave evidence behind [of their revolt]."

AU scattered rebels

AU troops landed on Anjouan on 28 March 2008. Bacar's forces fired a few shots, but a former FGA member told IRIN this was to facilitate his escape to Mayotte, a neighbouring French island.

Bacar's estimated force of about 900, composed of the FGA and local recruits, were scattered by the AU's military action. He and about 20 of his entourage found refuge in Benin, West Africa, while as many as 200 rebels fled to French-controlled Mayotte. The rest are thought to be on Anjouan and the two other Comorian islands, Moheli and Grand Comore.

Outgoing Union President Ahmed Abdallah Sambi, whose home island is Anjouan, has said he would consider offering Bacar amnesty, subject to approval by the legislature, but this has yet to be proposed or discussed.

Lieutenant Missubahou Attoumane, 56, who joined the FGA in 1978, told IRIN that whoever had a weapon had surrendered it to the AU troops. He viewed the revolt as "a political misunderstanding between Bacar and Sambi."

"I have been accepted back into the community and I regularly play cards and dominoes on the streets," he said. "I do not believe that the 400 weapons are missing. We did not want to fight and me, as an officer, did not carry a weapon," he told IRIN.

Attoumane said he was arrested and jailed for four months after the AU troops landed. Most of the weapons had been stored at the "Pentagon" - a nickname for Bacar's military headquarters on Anjouan - and were "recovered by the AU", and that this had been overseen by Comorian soldiers who were part of the AU operation.

Fatima Maurice, 29, a mother of four and a former FGA detective who was incarcerated for a month, said Bacar had disarmed most of the men under his command ahead of the AU military action, and only a "trusted few" had kept their weapons.

"I understand why government won't accept disarmament without weapons, but we were imprisoned, and when we were released the government knows we did not have the weapons," she told IRIN.

Maurice and Attoumane both denied reports of human rights abuses during Bacar's illegal rule. "Like all police in Africa, they can become a bit rough at times. But systematic beatings and torture - I never saw that or participated in any such things. It is part of the political game to try and tarnish the image of opponents," Attoumane said.

Non-payment

They alleged that the missing weapons provided a convenient excuse for the Comorian government to withhold outstanding salaries and pensions for ex-FGA members.

Maurice said the government had not paid her for 29 months - since joining the FGA in 2003 and up until March 2008 - but the island had been in revolt for only nine of those months and she had been paid a wage at the beginning of the rebellion.

"The government does not pay anyway - they pay when they want to. I can accept demobilization, but I will continue to claim my salary. We don't have a choice. I am jobless and powerless." Maurice now works as an informal trader to support her children, aged two, six, eight and 16.

Attoumane, who has two wives and 12 children aged from five months to 19 years, said God and his relatives were providing, "But how long must we wait until there is a violent reaction?" He received no official document terminating his employment with the FGA, and is claiming 17 months' back-pay.

"I spent 30 years in the military and of course I am expecting a pension. I was on a salary of 300 euros (US$400) a month, and after 30 years service I expect between 75 and 100 percent of my salary [as a pension]."

Ahmed Ben Said Jaffar, the minister of state, told IRIN: "There are many problems, and we are trying to solve them, case by case."

He said about 50 former "militia" loyal to Bacar had been taken back into the military and "another 50 more will be reintegrated soon." Among those being reintegrated were those who had served since the 1970s in the armed forces. Issues surrounding pensions and salaries were also being addressed.

He said it was hoped "their reinsertion will encourage them to be fully cooperative in the disarmament process."

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Theme (s): Conflict, Governance,

[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]

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