By WAIRAGALA WAKABI
THE EASTAFRICAN , July 25 2005 - The disarmament and demobilisation of combatants in the area around eastern Congo, involving mainly Ugandan and Rwandan soldiers, has been identified by regional foreign ministers and security experts as an initial action that could help minimise conflicts in the region.
The African Union is expected to embark on a disarmament, demobilisation and resettlement (DDR) programme that, together with a joint initiative including 11 countries in the region, is being seen as a catalyst to ending the violence in the Great Lakes Region.
While it was estimated three years ago that 350,000 former fighters in Angola, Burundi, Central African Republic (CAR), DR Congo, Rwanda and Uganda would need to be demobilised, current figures show the number is actually 450,000, a United Nations meeting on the Great Lakes Region held in Lusaka was told last week.
Recent statistics regard-ing the number of ex-combatants already demobilised show 175,000, which is some 36 per cent of the caseload more than mid-way through the implementation period, an official of the World Bank-run Multi-Country Demobilisation and Re-integration Programme (MDRP) said last week.
According to the Office of the UN Secretary General's Special Representative to the Great Lakes Region, Angola has since 2002 managed to demobilise 84,618 of its 138,000 combatants lined up for retirement, Burundi 9,250 out of 55,000 over the past year-and-a half and the CAR 220 of its 7,500 combatants. DR Congo has 148,000, Republic of Congo 24,500, Rwanda 12,000 and Uganda 15,000.
The Dar es Salaam Declaration, signed last November by 11 heads of state, bound the region to implement the DDR programme, and "ensure regional co-ordination for repatriation and resettlement components, taking into account the special needs of former child soldiers and female ex-combatants". Angola, Burundi, the Central African Republic, the Republic of Congo, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Kenya, Rwanda, Sudan, Tanzania, Uganda and Zambia are signatories to the declaration.
The Lusaka meeting, which was attended by foreign ministers and other government officials, agreed that the DDR project would form part of the pact on security, stability and development (PSSD), which the presidents will sign in Nairobi in November this year during the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region (ICGLR).
Experts who are working on a set of protocols to be endorsed by regional heads of state in Nairobi have placed emphasis on a set of projects and plans of action to be discussed under the ICGLR. The conference is a peace and development initiative proposed by UN Secretary General Kofi Annan in the aftermath of Rwanda's 1994 genocide and the outbreak of war in Congo.
Canadian diplomat Anne Leahy told the Lusaka meeting that donors believe resolving problems directly linked to conflicts in the immediate Great Lakes region must be the conference's top concern. "The most pressing of these is the peaceful conclusion of the transition processes in DR Congo and Burundi," she said on behalf of 22 countries that fund the process.
She added that donors agreed with the decision in Nairobi last month by the 11 countries to place ending the war in the eastern Congo on top of the conference agenda. The area has an estimated 41,000 combatants, some belonging to the Interahamwe, a Rwandan Hutu militia group, and soldiers from Rwanda's former army, Ugandan rebels and Congolese militias.
Hamuli Tabaruka, head of Congo's delegation at the conference, said disarmament and demobilisation of fighters were among the key provisions of the Lusaka peace accord that helped end fighting and brought about the formation of a unity government in Congo. "This is the main issue remaining and we need to deal with these armed groups once and for all," he said.