Reforming the Congo’s security forces

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Flag of the Democratic Republic of the Congo
Flag of the Democratic Republic of the Congo

Five years after its war officially ended, insecurity and rights violations remain widespread in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Part of the problem lies with the army and police, which are undergoing major reform. In this article, Africa Renewal’s Ernest Harsch examines the overhaul of both the police and army institutions.

A pickup truck marked “Delta Protection” zooms around a corner on a main avenue in the heart of the Congolese capital, with two uniformed men in the cab and another standing on the back, swinging a mounted heavy machine gun back and forth. They wear sunglasses, though it is night. On another street, a minivan labeled “African Defence System” bounces along with more than a half-dozen armed personnel.

Such private security outfits are common in the main cities of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), hired mostly by foreign and local businesses to protect their property and keep crime at bay. They can be brutal. In front of one of Kinshasa’s main banks, a uniformed guard clubs a woman trying to sell bread on the sidewalk.

The government is working to strengthen its regular police forces. But they are not yet able to guarantee public safety. All too often, undisciplined police and soldiers themselves commit abuses.

For the United Nations Organization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUC), overcoming weaknesses in state authority and capacity is essential for preserving the country’s hard-won peace. In addition to their peacekeeping duties, many of MONUC’s 18,000 military and police personnel and 2,000 civilian staff are now engaged in helping Congolese build institutions that can manage the country’s affairs over the long term, without reverting to crisis and chaos.

Although peace agreements in 2002 ended much of the fighting that devastated the eastern half of this country for nearly a decade, a number of armed groups continue to operate there, perpetuating insecurity, causing major population displacements and threatening to reignite a wider war. In late June, civil society organizations and professional associations marched through the town of Beni, in the highly insecure province of North Kivu, to protest banditry, killings by rebels, rape and extortion. They demanded that the authorities do more to reestablish order.

The government of President Joseph Kabila, elected in 2006, has pledged to promote good governance, democracy and respect for human rights. But in a country that experienced four decades of dictatorship and war and where the army and police had a history of brutalizing the population, that is a major challenge. Most immediately, ensuring public order and safeguarding rights will require overhauling both the army and police, among many other state institutions. According to a report in February 2007 by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and MONUC’s Human Rights Division, fully 88 per cent of all politically motivated or organized murders, rapes, beatings and other human rights violations recorded in the DRC in the second half of 2006 were committed by the government’s own repressive bodies.

The report found some modest improvement on the part of the army, which saw its share of recorded abuses decline from 53 per cent in the first half of 2006 to 40 per cent in the second.

But the army still is experiencing great difficulties, in large part as a legacy of the political transition. The Sun City peace agreement of 2002 provided for building a new army, basically as an amalgamation of officers and troops from the various armed factions. “It was a really good idea,” notes Lieutenant-General Babacar Gaye, MONUC’s force commander, since the arrangement helped end most of the fighting. “But unfortunately, it didn’t produce a good military,” he adds, emphasizing the difficulties of getting troops of different allegiances and unequal levels of training to work together effectively.

For example, in North Kivu, General Gaye told Africa Renewal, one of the new “integrated brigades” disintegrated in 2006 as a result of political and ethnic tensions. Therefore, MONUC’s goal “is to avoid this disintegration, first of all, and then to help the Congolese design their future military. But it is a huge task. It’s a long-term process.”

The Congolese army, which has sent thousands of troops against the forces of dissident General Laurent Nkunda in North Kivu, still has difficulty capturing and holding terrain.

In addition to providing tactical support on the ground, MONUC — along with the European Union and some donor agencies — is helping the army professionalize and become a better-integrated and more coherent organization. A military census conducted with South African assistance helped weed out nonexistent “ghost” soldiers whose names were on the payroll. Their removal enabled the government to increase the basic pay of ordinary soldiers.

Improving soldiers’ economic and social conditions is essential, to keep them from extorting food and money from civilians, Ross Mountain, deputy special representative of the UN Secretary-General, told Africa Renewal. All those working on humanitarian issues in the DRC now agree that security sector reform “has to be top of the hit parade.”

Army abuses, while still widespread, appear to be declining, in part because of better training, stronger command, improved living conditions and the prosecution of officers and troops who carry out atrocities.

However, abuses by the national police rose dramatically between the first and second halves of 2006, from 24 to 39 per cent of total abuses. Serious violations by the police continued well into 2007, according to a report to the UN General Assembly in August by an independent expert, Titinga Frédéric Pacéré, an eminent jurist from Burkina Faso. Mr. Pacéré cited a long list of crimes by national police officers, including brutalization of prisoners, rapes of women and young girls and killings of villagers.

Historically, the police have been severely underfunded, ill-trained and inefficient. Today there are just over 100,000 police in the country. About half have received training by MONUC in various tasks, including ensuring order during elections. The European Union is financing police reforms, while the UN Development Programme manages a fund to help equip the police.

The Congo’s national prosecutor has vowed to crack down on police who impose arbitrary fines or otherwise extort money. In September, Interior Minister Denis Kalume warned police officers: “All actions of the Congolese police, as guardians of the law, must be guided by the law, national interest and legality.”

By Ernest Harsch, United Nations Africa Renewal, in Kinshasa

Africa Renewal  Africa Renewal magazine, published by the United Nations, examines Africa's development, achievements and challenges. It provides expert analysis and on-the-spot reporting to show how policies affect Africa's people.
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