Implementing a viable and effective national strategy on disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration, or DDR, of ex-combatants of armed groups in eastern Congo is an urgent issue in the regional peace process for the Democratic Republic of Congo. The government of Congo has finalized its national DDR plan, and the United Nations and U.S. Special Envoys to the Great Lakes, Mary Robinson and Russ Feingold, prioritize DDR as a focus of the peace agenda. However, Congo and international partners have not yet agreed on how to implement and fund the DDR plan. Without an effective program, demobilizing combatants in eastern Congo may not see the benefits of defecting and may choose to remain armed. The March 5-6 meeting in the Netherlands of the International Contact Group on Congo provides an excellent opportunity to address this urgent issue. Robinson, Feingold, and other leaders and donors should prioritize efforts to resolve outstanding differences with Congo on DDR and move forward.
New opportunities to advance peace in eastern Congo emerged following the signing of the Nairobi Declarations in December 2013, which established political agreements among Congo, the M23 rebel group, the Southern African Development Community, or SADC, and the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region, or ICGLR. Greater numbers of combatants from the spectrum of armed groups in eastern Congo are willing to disarm and engage in demobilization programs following the military defeat of M23. The speed and efficacy with which the government of Congo and its international partners implement a viable national DDR strategy and reintegrate former combatants will to a great extent determine the future of peace and stability in the region. The process and sequencing within the U.N. Peace, Security and Cooperation Framework for Congo and the Region, or PSC Framework, will determine the success of DDR efforts by Congo and its regional and international interlocutors.
The regional security landscape has recently changed in dramatic ways that have created new opportunities for the Congolese government and U.N. forces to establish peace and stability in eastern Congo. The U.N. Intervention Brigade, a 3,069-troop brigade composed of forces from South Africa, Tanzania, and Malawi, assisted the Congolese national army, or FARDC, in efforts to militarily defeat M23. The brigade has a mandate to take offensive military action against the threat of armed groups in eastern Congo. The deployment of new unmanned aerial vehicles,or UAVs, now also provides surveillance and reconnaissance for the intervention brigade to take military action against armed rebel groups.
The addition of more robust forces, mandates, and technology has altered the strengths and incentives of rebel groups. A swift effort by the joint FARDC/Intervention Brigade force resulted in the military defeat of M23 forces in North Kivu province late last year, and other armed groups took note. Defections have soared, with approximately 8,000 total combatants surrendering since the official defeat of M23. At the transit camp of Bweremana, in Masisi, North Kivu province, 2,674 combatants—accompanied by 3,084 dependents—from a range of armed groups have voluntarily surrendered in that time frame. However, the ex-combatants currently at the camp do not yet receive clear communication about DDR plans and live in poor sanitary conditions that could affect their incentives to remain.
As defections from rebel groups grow, so too does the need for an effective DDR program. The number of combatants in eastern Congo is difficult to determine, and the capacity of the government and U.N. to assist those who wish to disarm is currently in question. National DDR programs in the past have failed due to the lack of resources and political will, duration of program implementation time, failure to effectively sensitize armed groups and communities, and failures to properly reintegrate ex-combatants into the military or provide alternative livelihoods. Renewed efforts on DDR must apply lessons learned from past experiences—both failures and successes.