Refugees International Focus: Disarmament, demobilization and reintegration in Sierra Leone

from Refugees International
Published on 08 Aug 2001

Since the Abuja ceasefire agreement was negotiated in November 2000, the Sierra Leonean government and the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) have been taking steps towards peace. The government has been extending its presence in former RUF strongholds as the RUF has started to relinquish its control over areas in the interior of Sierra Leone. Humanitarian and political actors agree that to prevent the reoccurrence of conflict in Sierra Leone, the government must extend the rule of law throughout the country and ensure that citizens have access to adequate social services and economic opportunities. The first step in this long process is the Disarmament, Demobilization, and Reintegration (DDR) program. The success of the DDR program is a necessary precondition for peace in Sierra Leone and the program deserves greater support and commitment. It is only when combatants, including child combatants, are fully disarmed, demobilized, and reintegrated that Sierra Leone can make the transition to sustainable peace and begin the process of rebuilding itself after a decade of war.
The DDR program targets about 45,000 combatants, including members of the RUF and pro-government militias, the Civil Defense Forces. The government agency responsible for the DDR program is the National Committee for Disarmament, Demobilization, and Reintegration (NCDDR), primarily funded through the World Bank's Multi-Donor Trust Fund (MDTF). NCDDR has numerous partners who implement the program activities. The UN peacekeeping force (UNAMSIL) is responsible for the disarmament phase of the program, and various local and international NGOs implement the bulk of the reintegration programs.

Disarmament and demobilization are rapidly moving ahead. During disarmament, combatants must hand over a weapon to UNAMSIL, such as an AK-47 or a pistol, which military observers destroy. After disarming, ex-combatants then enter a demobilization camp for a period of time ranging from a few hours to two weeks. In the demobilization camp, disarmed combatants participate in orientation sessions to inform them of their rights and responsibilities as civilians. When they are discharged from the center, they are given demobilization cards and transportation money for the journey home. To boost incentives to disarm and demobilize, the World Bank and NCDDR want payments to increase. Upon discharge, ex-combatants would receive a Transitional Safety Net Allowance (TSA)- $15 for transport and an in-kind payment of two bags of rice, worth about $50. The second phase of the payment would be disbursed by NCDDR once the ex-combatants reach their villages. They would receive a cash payment of $90 and would receive an in-kind payment of clothes and medicine worth $30 and basic building materials worth $30. Including cash and in-kind payments, the total TSA would be worth $215, a large amount in a country whose per capita income is $500. However, the World Bank does not have the funds for this Transitional Safety Net Allowance.

Reintegration is the most challenging component of the DDR program. The focus in Sierra Leone has been predominantly on disarmament and demobilization, and there has not been a parallel push for reintegration. As a result, NGOs are finding that they lack the funds and capacity to meet the reintegration needs of the increased numbers of former combatants. Furthermore, donors seem to be waiting for guarantees that the peace process will move ahead before they heavily invest in reintegration activities. Reintegration is a long-term commitment that requires donors and humanitarian agencies to invest in the peace process from the very beginning. For DDR to work, donors must be less reticent to support reintegration programs.

Reintegration aims to assist ex-combatants as they return to their communities and resume their lives as civilians. NGOs and international organizations have built on experiences from DDR programs in other countries and have adopted a community-based approach to reintegration so that communities, as well as ex-combatants, benefit from reintegration assistance. This includes sensitizing communities about the need to accept combatants back into communities as well as providing in-kind assistance to support school rehabilitation and infrastructure. As a result, NGOs have reported that most communities have accepted former combatants.

Ex-combatants participate in vocational training programs or apprenticeships. Mentors of apprentices will receive support, such as tools, in exchange for training the former combatants. Often, reintegration programs aim to build on skills that ex-combatants already possess, but some programs provide skills to ex-combatants who may have had little or no education or work experience. All training programs include a small stipend to assist participants in covering their basic living expenses. This stipend is one of the reasons why these programs are essential - they offer a small window that allows former combatants time to be supported while they readjust to civilian life.

Reintegration for demobilized children focuses on education. After going through a similar demobilization process, children are either reunited with their families or put into foster care. Fortunately, over 50 percent of the demobilized children are reunified with their families. NGOs then help the children enroll in schools and the older youth enroll in apprenticeships. For children who have had their education interrupted by the war, they can attend transitional education programs that will prepare them to enter into the formal school system. Schools that enroll child ex-combatants have the choice of receiving either educational, teacher, or recreational materials. NGOs still need a great deal of support to increase educational opportunities for all children in Sierra Leone. This includes the rehabilitation of infrastructure, more cooperation with the government of Sierra Leone to get more teachers into the schools and more programs geared toward children, particularly former child combatants, whose schooling was interrupted by the war.

Since its inception in 1998, the DDR program has been interrupted twice by the resumption of fighting. NCDDR opened the first demobilization camp for 3,000 ex-combatants in 1998. DDR was suspended when Freetown was attacked in January 1999. After the signing of the Lome Peace Agreement in July 1999, five demobilization camps opened, and 22,500 ex-combatants were disarmed over the period of a year. DDR was halted again when fighting resumed in May 2000 and the RUF kidnapped 500 UN peacekeepers.

Actual and Potential Problems with the DDR Program

The resumption of fighting in 1999 and 2000 is not necessarily indicative of a failure of the DDR program but rather reflects larger social issues that DDR could not even begin to address. Sierra Leone has not had an effective government or a functioning economy, and the government could only implement DDR programs in the areas that it controlled, roughly 50 percent of the country. In addition, perhaps the combatants never had any real intention to end the war. Small arms are rampant in Sierra Leone, and many of the combatants had been fighting for years. The fundamental problem in Sierra Leone is that life with a gun may be an easier option than finding ways to survive as a civilian. Combatants can extort money and food from civilians and can therefore survive without having to work. In such an unstable environment, ex-combatants in Sierra Leone were easily rearmed and remobilized. DDR struggled for the first few years to initiate programs, but again, it is unclear whether the recidivism of demobilized combatants was a result of weaknesses in the DDR program or the challenges of enabling long-term combatants to return to civilian life.

Furthermore, many CDF and RUF combatants are unable to go through the official demobilization process because they do not actually have a weapon to turn in. This is particularly true of CDF. According to various people involved in the DDR program, in some cases, up to four members of the CDF share one weapon. All will have engaged in combat but at different times. If these combatants cannot turn in a gun, they cannot be officially demobilized and therefore will not receive a demobilization card. This will preclude them from benefiting from reintegration support.

Another short-coming of demobilization is the lack of adequate HIV/AIDS education in the camps. There is usually a high rate of HIV/AIDS within armed groups. For example, according to UNAIDS, in 1995 in Zimbabwe, the infection rate of military personnel was three to four times higher than the civilian population. Sierra Leone has been slow to rise to the challenge of educating its population about the transmission of HIV/AIDS, and education and prevention have not been a priority. NCDDR should take advantage of the encampment of former combatants in demobilization camps and provide HIV/AIDS education, condom distribution, and voluntary testing. Reintegration activities should also include an HIV/AIDS component. NGOs should also provide the families and communities of returned combatants with HIV/AIDS education.

A special need is reintegration assistance for people affiliated with fighting forces. Non-combatant members of the fighting forces (sex slaves, cooks, porters) are unable to participate in the DDR program and will therefore not have access to reintegration activities. Some of these individuals are the dependents of ex-combatants who are living in the bush or in communities surrounding the demobilization centers. Dependents may have no other opportunity but to rely on the former combatants for food and economic support. In many cases, these non-combatants were forced to join the fighting forces against their will. They will face the same difficulties as the former combatants when they return to communities but will not have access to any sort of support. These non-combatants will be in a vulnerable situation if reintegration assistance is not extended to them.

The economy in Sierra Leone has been decimated by ten years of fighting. Poverty is endemic. According to the latest Human Development Index, Sierra Leone ranks last, 162nd out of 162 countries. These economic problems will be a potential threat to the long-term stability of Sierra Leone.

In Sierra Leone, NGOs estimate that only ten percent of ex-combatants will find employment upon the completion of their vocational training. For the first six months to a year after disarming, ex-combatants in Sierra Leone may be involved in vocational training or apprenticeships, which have tended to focus on masonry, small engine repair, carpentry and the like. During that time, they may grow accustomed to a civilian life - building homes, starting families, beginning to farm. This may increase the chance that they will not take up arms. However, at the conclusion of these programs the ex-combatants will want and need jobs. Unemployment is estimated to be a staggering 80 percent. The economy does not have the capacity to absorb these newly trained ex-combatants. The only large-scale opportunity at the present time is agriculture. While agriculture may not be enticing for all combatants, land is plentiful in Sierra Leone and most combatants will realistically return to a life of subsistence farming. Outside of agricultural jobs, there are few job opportunities in Sierra Leone. As one US government official stated, "Employment generation is probably the most important component of the peace process in Sierra Leone."

Long-term observers of Sierra Leone concur that one of the root causes of the conflict is government corruption and poor governance - problems that persist. The Sierra Leonean government is highly centralized and has little capacity at the local level. In addition, ministries often act as autonomous units, and Ministers often act without the consent of the President. Areas under rebel control have been leveled, and almost all social and institutional structures have been decimated. The government does not have the capacity to expand the rule of law into all areas of the country, and the break down of government and societal institutions poses great challenges to the peace process.

Sierra Leone now has its best chance for peace since the war began ten years ago. According to observers of the peace process, the RUF appear to be committed to disarming. What distinguishes the current situation from previous attempts at disarmament is the fact that the RUF is surrounded by opposing forces: Guinean forces in the north; UNAMSIL, the British troops, and the Sierra Leonean Army in the west and south; and Liberian dissidents and CDF cooperating with Guinean troops in the east. In addition, their major funder and biggest supporter, President Charles Taylor of Liberia, is struggling with UN sanctions and trying to defend his own country from dissidents in northern Liberia. Consequently, he is reportedly severing his ties with the RUF. Also, supply lines from Liberia are cut off because of the fighting in northern Liberia and a heavy CDF and Guinean military presence in southern Guinea. In addition to having no choice but to disarm, RUF commitment to disarming also stems from a political incentive they are poised to participate in the elections that are tentatively scheduled for February 2002. By ordering their troops to disarm, RUF commanders believe that they can gain some sort of political legitimacy and will have a chance at winning the elections.

While all the economic, political, and social problems in Sierra Leone may not presently have solutions, the international community must consider what needs to be done for long-term stability. For example, the election scheduled for next year will need the full-scale support of the international community. "The litmus test to see how the peace process will go is the election. Elections will need international backing, much more than what was received in 1996, in order to have a free and fair election, and to keep the RUF from restarting the war," explained a journalist in Sierra Leone. RUF commanders are confident that they will win an election in Sierra Leone - they claim that if the election is free and fair, they will win the support of Sierra Leoneans. If the RUF Party loses elections, and the fighting units are not convinced that elections were free and fair, then there is great chance that they will remobilize.

Role of the International Community

Funding for DDR in 1999 came from the British government aid agency, DFID, which ran the camps, and the World Bank, which financed the operating costs. After May 2000, direct bilateral funding decreased, as all funding for DDR went through the Multi-Donor Trust Fund (MDTF). The World Bank is now responsible for securing contributions for the MDTF from the donor governments.

Donor countries have committed about $12 million for the MDTF, but without new contributions, and if disarmament continues at its current rate, it is expected that these funds will be exhausted by August 2001. At the latest donors meeting in Paris, no additional contributions were secured for the DDR program. Instead, donors such as the UK and the US have opted to give the bulk of their assistance bilaterally. The World Bank estimates that "an additional US $30 million will be required to finance the cost of the program for the remainder of calendar year 2001, and that a further US $30-33 million would be required for 2002, primarily for reintegration support." The actual cost will be determined by the speed at which combatants disarm, and the extent to which donor governments fund programs bilaterally.

The US is reluctant to give money to the MDTF for two reasons. In many cases, the US government prefers to fund programs bilaterally because they then have more control over how the money is disbursed. US officials have stated that they believe that NCDDR is too slow and it is more efficient to give money bilaterally. One US government official stated, "The Sierra Leonean government should stick to coordinating rather than implementing." In addition, under the Foreign Assistance Act, Congress has mandated that no US foreign assistance funds can be spent to support combatants. According to US government officials, the US legally cannot contribute money to the MDTF because funding for disarmament and demobilization targets combatants. However, once combatants are in possession of a demobilization card, then US funds can be used for reintegration activities. The US has expressed interest in funding the MDTF if they can earmark money for reintegration activities, but the World Bank has not yet agreed. The World Bank is concerned that accepting earmarked money for the MDTF would mean that all donors could then earmark money and parts of the DDR program could suffer financially. If the US cannot specify how the funds will used under MDTF, then the US will continue to give only bilateral assistance.

The US has already contributed to reintegration programs in Sierra Leone through several US Agency for International Development (USAID) offices—Office of Transition Initiatives (OTI), Food for Peace (FFP) and Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA)—and the US plans to increase its funding of reintegration activities through USAID's Bureau for Sub-Saharan Africa. According to the mission statement of OTI, the office can only be open in a country for two years to assist countries make the transition to stability. OTI began its work in Sierra Leone in 1998 and will leave in February 2002. OTI's operating budget in Sierra Leone for FY 2001 is about $6 million, of which about $2 million is targeted solely at ex-combatants. After OTI leaves, USAID will take over many of its activities. RI has received indications that USAID will have a budget of $15 million over the next three years to be spent primarily on reintegration activities. In addition, the US government contributed roughly $200 million in FY 2001to UNAMSIL, and a small portion of this money will be used by UNAMSIL to fund DDR activities.

Conclusion and Recommendations

Placing all hopes for peace in Sierra Leone on the success of the DDR program is short-sighted. Considering the weak government and economy in Sierra Leone, the peace process depends on much more than the disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration of ex-combatants. Although a successful DDR cannot guarantee peace, it is the first critical step in the transition to peace.

Refugees International, therefore, recommends:

  • The international community should increase funding for reintegration programs, including programs for those who cannot receive demobilization cards.
  • NGOs and UN agencies should increase efforts to include people affiliated with the fighting forces and dependents of ex-combatants in reintegration programs. .
  • The international community, working through the NCDDR and UNAMSIL, should support the US government's proposal to separate commanders from their troops during the demobilization phase to weaken the link between commanders and their troops. .
  • Reintegration activities should include an HIV/AIDS component. NGOs should also provide the families and communities of returned combatants with HIV/AIDS education. .
  • Donors should fund the Transitional Safety Net Allowance to assist ex-combatants in returning to their communities and beginning life as a civilian.
  • Donors, UN agencies and NGOs must increase reconstruction efforts throughout the country. Humanitarian agencies should employ ex-combatants, dependents of ex-combatants, and people affiliated with the fighting forces in reconstruction programs.
  • The international community should support endeavors to increase the capacity and credibility of the government of Sierra Leone, including support for free and fair elections next year.
  • The international community must recognize that Sierra Leone will need long-term assistance until the economy begins to generate jobs.

RI Field Representatives, Michelle Brown and Sayre Nyce, have been on mission in Sierra Leone four times in the last nine months.

Contact: Michelle Brown or Sayre Nyce <>

Refugees International