NAIROBI, 11 March (IRIN) - Africa's Great Lakes region is awash with small arms and no place more so than northeastern DRC, where traffickers are doing brisk business to the detriment of millions of peoples, three Kinshasa-based researchers commissioned by the NGO Pax Christi/Netherlands say in a preliminary report.
The report titled "Proliferation and Illicit Traffic of Small Arms and Light Weapons in the Northeast of the DRC" was issued in January. It was presented to some 150 delegates from the DRC, Sudan and Uganda - countries sharing a common border - who met to discuss the issue in Arua, northwestern Uganda, from 17 to 21 February.
The research took the form of a questionnaire survey of people interviewed directly in Aru, Isiro, Bunia and Mahagi. The number of people interviewed was not mentioned in the report.
The researchers found internal and external factors which exacerbated conflicts in the region, and these, in turn, resulted "in the proliferation and massive sale" of small arms, the forcible recruitment of child soldiers and the propagation of HIV/AIDS.
Although the weapons enter the DRC via Rwanda, Sudan, the West, ex-Soviet Union countries and army deserters, researchers quoted respondents as saying that 90 percent were from Uganda. From there the arms flow from to the DRC towns of Mahagi, on the border, and Bunia, 110 km to the south. From southern Sudan, arms from Maridi, Yei and Yambio go to Dramba, Faradje, and Isiro in the DRC.
The researchers said 90 percent of the respondents indicated that the weapons were brought into the DRC clandestinely by night, on foot, by bicycle or vehicle. Stripped down, some were brought in coffee bags.
There are no large arms markets as such, just points of sale along the frontiers, such as at Nabiapai, and at Kakesa near Faradje.
"It is certain that there are other unidentified points of sale all along the frontiers as everything is done clandestinely and sometimes with the complicity of customs officers," the report said.
In Aru, Mahagi, Isiro, Dungu, Doruma, Faradje, Tadu, Bunia, Djegu, Ndrele and Igbokolo, the researchers found that "various factions" used these places as centres to levy "customs" dues in order to finance their wars.
"All the warlords and their allies are fighting for territories rich in, for example, gold, diamonds, coltan, wood, with the objective of enriching themselves and continuing to supply these areas with weapons and ammunition," the report said.
Weapons, the researchers found, were also acquired for personal and collective defence; for hunting and poaching; by rebels to intimidate non-combatants; by criminals who plundered ores; and by those concerned with inter-ethnic conflicts. The users are DRC nationals, foreign soldiers, hunters in game parks, refugees, rebels and their allies, and traders, businessmen and army deserters.
Sources of proliferation
Respondents had also said that foreign armies in the DRC were contributing to the proliferation and illicit sales of arms. Some had expressed fears that the channel for the flow of normal commercial goods between Dubai in the Gulf and the northeastern Great Lakes region might also come to accommodate the flow of illicit arms.
The influx of refugees into the DRC, report said, was another factor that "strongly caused the proliferation of light weapons". Northeastern DRC has been a sanctuary for people fleeing earlier or ongoing wars in Rwanda, Sudan and Uganda. "These refugees came into DRC with their [concealed] weapons and started to resell them so as to survive - and they launched out in this illicit traffic of light weapons either as salesmen, brokers or traders," it said.
In addition, the absence of government authority in the area has encouraged civilians to keep weapons for self-defence against marauding bands of criminals and rebel groups.
Factors contributing towards armed conflicts ranged from the unrestrained pursuit of wealth to the political immaturity of the DRC's political class, the researchers said. External factors accentuating the conflicts they attributed to foreign interference in choosing political actors who could satisfy the "covetousness of foreign political, economic and financial powers for the country's wealth".
Consequences of weapons and conflict
The consequence of the conflicts and the arms trade on individuals and communities, the report said, "has been traumatising, tragic and dramatic". Gross instability, the researchers quoted 75 percent of the respondents as saying, had spurred the multiplicity of armed gangs and the emergence of rebel movements. Evidence of this, they said, were the burgeoning numbers of people's self-defence organisations and ethnic militias in the area, for example those formed by the Lendu and Hema people, with Uganda and Rwanda backing opposing sides.
The impact of all these weapons was manifesting itself in massive insecurity, abuse of human rights, destruction of flora and fauna, and a seemingly unending rebellion, the report said.
Despite laws and other sanctions against the ownership and use of firearms, it had become impossible to stop their acquisition and use due to the impunity reigning in the northeast, illiteracy, military indiscipline, the lack of government presence in the northeast, and the "slowness of the United Nations in the application of the relevant resolutions", the report quoted interviewees as saying.
To reverse this, they had said, government would have to restore its authority and impose rigorous controls on firearms. Moreover, the researchers said, "the majority" of respondents believed that the restoration of traditional authorities, whose powers had been eroded and ridiculed, would also serve as a vital measure towards bringing the situation under control.
Other measures, the respondents had said, would be for the government to buy weapons held by civilians, disarm other illegal holders, beef up intelligence services at the borders and regulate the issuing of arms permits. They had noted, however, that such measures could only be effective if fighting were brought to an end; there would also have to be collaboration with the DRC's neighbours and joint patrols by their respective security forces along the borders.
The report quoted respondents as calling for UN involvement in curbing arms proliferation. It said they also believed that weapons could be more easily collected if fighters were demobilised, soldiers confined to barracks, and civilian districts demilitarised.
To improve the security of individuals and that of their communities, respondents had suggested that power be shared equitably, that communities be briefed on ways of ensuring collective security, that well trained troops be deployed, and that people violating the arms regulations be punished.
Other recommendations had included the teaching of conflict resolution in all schools, the establishment of a truth, peace and reconciliation commission, and the encouragement of inter-ethnic marriages as a way of consolidating peace between ethnic groups.
Such is the problem of small arms trade that Pax Christi, Justice Plus of Bunia, Ceford of Uganda, Larjour Consultancy of Sudan and the Fellowship of Christian Councils and Churches in the Great Lakes and the Horn of Africa organised the February conference in Arua.
The 150 delegates came from the DRC border regions of Mahagi, Bunia, Aru, Isiro, Dungu Doruma; the southwestern Sudan areas of Yambio, Yei, Kajo-Kaji, Maridi); and the northwestern Ugandan towns of Arua, Yumbe, Moyo and Nebbi.
Also present were representatives from rebel groups, these being the Union des patriotes congolais and the Rassemblement congolais pour la democratie-National from the DRC; the Sudan People's Liberation Movement/Army; and the Uganda National Rescue Front II. There were also representatives from the governments of the DRC and Uganda, the Ugandan army, the Protestant and Roman Catholic churches, Islamic communities and NGOS from all three countries.
The authors of the report - Shamba, Elela and Kasongo - presented their research findings to the participants, who adopted many of their recommendations.
"The meeting was very useful as it contributed to a better knowledge and understanding between delegates from Uganda and the DRC," Joost Van Puijenbroek, the African coordinator at Pax Christi/Netherlands, said. "Also, we succeeded in better networking different groups, especially the churches and the NGOs, in our aim at monitoring and preventing the small arms trafficking the region."
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