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June 12, 2012

UN: Disarmament a Priority for Ivory Coast Peace

by VOA News, Laura Burke

ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast - It has been one year since political violence formally ended in Ivory Coast, but at least 60,000 ex-combatants are still armed. The United Nations says it was a failure to disarm fighters from the 2002 -2003 civil war which helped fuel last year's conflict and the country cannot afford to make the same mistake again. 

Chief of the U.N.’s DDR operation (disarmament, demobilization and reintegration) in Ivory Coast, Sophie Da Camara, says taking a weapon away from a former fighter is a delicate process and can be a security risk.

"If you start a process that will shed out of the army a good half of the current people enrolled within the army and say to them, 'Now you go home and you’re demobilized,' you’re taking a very strong stance and you’re putting the government into a situation where you need answers to these young men because they have used weapons before. They know weaponry and they will be frustrated and they will be scared," she said. "Demobilization is to some extent unemployment."

Da Camara says governments often delay disarmament to maintain stability, even if that stability is fragile. And, that is the case in Ivory Coast - where the government has yet to launch the national DDR campaign, more than a year after political violence ended. 

In the meantime, the United Nations has collected, stored or destroyed more than 3,000 weapons and hundreds of thousands of rounds of ammunition.  Da Camara says former fighters have shown a willingness to hand in their weapons.

"We tell them we will be there on the site to collect weapon and ammunitions and register combatants, and they come," she said. "Every single operation we’ve been running in Abidjan has been very successful in numbers. People do come and we don’t offer them anything particular. There is no cash involved and people come and surrender their weapons."

Yet more needs to be done. The U.N. estimates 60 - 80,000 ex-combatants need to be demobilized. They fought in conflicts dating back to the civil war in 2002.

Da Camara says if DDR fails a country easily relapses into conflict, like Ivory Coast did in 2010, when at least 3,000 people were killed in post-election violence. Former president Laurent Gbagbo refused to concede defeat to Alassane Ouattara. Both sides handed more weapons to youth willing to fight adding to the thousands of illegal arms already in circulation.

In 2011, the new Ouattara government combined former soldiers and former rebels to form a new army, but there are too many soldiers. So the plan is to demobilize about 10,000 of them. Da Camera says, if disarmament is not a priority, another threat is in an increase in armed criminality.

"We have seen in Mozambique, Guatemala, unfortunately here in the sub-region, we can think of Guinea-Bissau, we have seen groups turn into criminal organizations... just because they have a weapon and they can use it for easy money to be made much simpler than going back to school and getting a job," she said.

The United Nations is building nine camps for the demobilization and positive reintegration of these soldiers. But Da Camara says the biggest challenge is reaching out to former pro-Gbagbo militia. Most deny having fought for him or have gone into hiding.

"The biggest threat of this new DDR campaign is to leave people out, certain groups out. … That I think would be an extremely dangerous risk to take because these youth need support," Da Camara said. "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 exist. They are just under everybody’s bed."

A proposal on how to organize a national commission on DDR has been submitted to President Alassane Ouattara and is pending approval.