Abidjan — Tens of thousands of combatants who fought in the 2010-2011 post-election conflict in Côte d'Ivoire - including members of militia groups who fought for former President Laurent Gbagbo and rebels who fought for Alassane Ouattara - remain armed and potentially dangerous, says the UN Operation in Côte d'Ivoire (UNOCI), which calls for a disarmament, demobilization and reintegration (DDR) programme to be urgently set up.
On 8 June a militia group allegedly crossed from Liberia to near the village of Tai in Côte d'Ivoire, a few kilometres from the border, where they ambushed and killed seven UN peacekeepers and 10 civilians. At least 48 people have been killed in cross-border attacks since the conflict was officially resolved in 2011, while banditry and criminality are rife in the west and north.
UNOCI's head of DDR, Sophie Da Camara ,estimates that 60,000-80,000 former fighters need to be disarmed, while Côte d'Ivoire's deputy defence minister, Paul Koffi Koffi, puts the number at around 30,000. The national army - Republican Forces of Côte d'Ivoire (FRCI) - was bloated by post-election recruitment drives by both former president Gbagbo and current president Alassane Ouattara, as well as by Ouattara's move to integrate former rebels and government soldiers into a single force when he took power.
Omitting militia groups would be the "biggest threat to DDR", and would be an "extremely dangerous risk", said Da Camara. "They need to find a way back into this society, this new regime, and this new country. And they have to be taken care of because those weapons are still there - they are just under everybody's beds."
The challenge is to identify the former combatants, as most have gone into hiding or are living in refugee camps. "You cannot be both - either you are a refugee or an ex-combatant," Da Camara said.
The government has not yet created a national DDR commission, the first step in the process, according to UNOCI. Progress has been "excruciatingly slow," said Da Camara. "It's extremely urgent that we have a national institution that would drive the process." The UN awaits the government's cue.
Unrelated to the DDR process, an existing commission, the National Commission for the Fight against the Proliferation of Light and Small Arms, led by Police General Desiré Adjoussou, has been working with UNOCI to collect some 3,000 weapons and hundreds of rounds of ammunition from ex-fighters. It does not pay them for surrendering their weapons, he told IRIN, as former soldiers often use the money to buy more weapons.
In late May the defence minister warned on national television that the government would give people illegally carrying weapons until June 31 to turn them in. "Every single operation we've been running in Abidjan [the biggest city in Côte d'Ivoire] has been very successful in numbers," Da Camara told IRIN.
But there have been "good reasons, political reasons" to move slowly, Da Camara conceded. "Until the legislative elections, the trust, confidence, and political environment were not sufficient for real DDR to start."
Experience has shown that DDR requires strong political backing and concurrent widespread reconciliation efforts if it is to work, but planned reconciliation activities have not yet been a priority for the government.
The political commitment is there this time said Matt Wells, West Africa researcher with Human Rights Watch. "The Ouattara government has repeatedly recognized the importance of DDR and of security sector reform more generally, but progress in actually disarming former fighters... is slow at best."
Demobilization usually leaves soldiers unemployed, which can become an additional security risk. "Somebody used to run around town in a uniform, with a political or social status and a lot of authority - all of that goes [away] when you're demobilized," Da Camara noted.
The UN is preparing for DDR by building "regroupment sites" where disarmament and demobilization can take place - nine are planned altogether - with the aim of putting 10,000 members of the FRCI through "classic DDR", which involves verifying the soldier's identity, a medical check-up, disarmament, counselling if needed, and then being accompanied back to their community.
UNOCI will not cover education or employment programmes Da Camara said, as that is up to the government and donors. Deputy defence minister Koffi Koffi said no money will be exchanged for weapons.
A crucial final stage of DDR - reintegration back into civilian society through education or job training, and reunification with their communities - is often overlooked by donors, national governments and peace support operations, so DDR exercises often fall short.
"State of terror"
Though security has improved across much of the country, people in the west are "living in a state of terror", as they hear constant rumours of more attacks, said acting spokeswoman of UNOCI, Sylvie van den Wildenberg. Many flee their villages on hearing of attacks, only to be attacked when they return, or come back to find their houses have been taken over.
UNOCI estimates that 3,000-4,000 young men who fought in pro-Gbagbo militia groups are living in neighbouring Liberia to the east or Ghana to the west. No one should "underestimate the danger [they]... represent," said Da Camara.
"These guys are being manipulated. They feel threatened. They crave revenge. They need to be offered an alternative to resorting to use of weapons."
UNOCI is continuing to reinforce its troops along the border.
Banditry and criminality is common, much of it allegedly carried out by former fighters. "Nobody can say it is safe on the roads, when going into the plantations, or at home - anybody can be attacked anywhere," said René Hokou Legre, president of the Ivoirian League of Human Rights (LIDHO).
Across the country, guns are often used to settle land rights, or ethnic and other scores. "Every day civilians [in Issia, a town in the central-west] are attacked, scaring off farm-hands," Atty Francis, the acting mayor of Issia, told IRIN.
The commandoes that wreaked destruction in several neighbourhoods in Abidjan during the conflict were largely disbanded in 2011, but armed robbery is on the rise, say residents. "Robbers use weapons of war [AK47 rifles], and they have a perfect mastery of them," said Falikou Sangare, a trader whose shop has been attacked by armed robbers twice in the past six months, and US$6,000 was stolen.
Many of the police still lack weapons, leaving the military to play a policing role in much of the country. Several ex-fighters have told the Light Weapons Commission [National Commission for the Fight against the Proliferation of Light and Small Arms] to come to their houses to collect their arms - they do not want to be seen doing so in public because they are afraid of becoming a target.
DDR failed in 2004 and 2007 in Côte d'Ivoire, partly because of inadequate political support, lack of know-how, or relapses into violence. "There was an endless, unfortunate list of reasons," Da Camara said.
"If DDR fails, usually the country relapses into conflict," she noted. "But on the other hand, if the political process fails, the reconciliation and transition fails, then no matter how successful your DDR process was, unfortunately, they will go back to weapons - whatever alternative you've offered."
[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations ]