Critics of Cameroon's rehabilitation centers for former rebels are calling for a restructuring after some former rebels complained about the centers' poor conditions. The former Anglophone rebels say the centers for Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration (DDR) offer them little support and are failing to reach the goal of social integration.
More than 150 ex-fighters are in a dispute over the DDR center in Bamenda, capital of Cameroon’s English-speaking northwest region.
Among them is a 27-year-old man who identified himself as Dzever, who said he is receiving training to be financially stable as soon as he is allowed to leave the center.
"Here in the center, we have some trades that we are practicing, like agriculture, we have poultry, then we do sports, computer studies, we have even religious studies," he said.
Dzever said he has been in the center for a year since he dropped his weapons and fled from a separatist camp in the English-speaking northwestern town of Ndop.
Within the past 10 days, English-speaking former rebels at the DDR centers in Bamenda and the English-speaking southwestern town of Buea have been protesting. They say their living conditions are appalling. The former fighters say the government has failed in its promise to socially reintegrate them.
The ex-fighters marched through the streets of Bamenda on Monday. They also went to the office of Deben Tchoffo, governor of the northwest region that includes Bamenda, to denounce what the former fighters say are poor living conditions at the DDR center.
'We give them shelter'
Sixtus Gabsa is director of the DDR center in Bamenda. He said he has forwarded the former rebels’ grievances to the governor and the central government in Yaounde. Gabsa said there are ongoing efforts to improve conditions at the center.
“Hierarchy is currently building a befitting DDR center very close to the airport on a surface area of 14 hectares,” he said. “As I speak, two dormitories of over a capacity of 300 [people] are ready. We have been able to reintegrate [some of] the ex-fighters. In the center, we provide enough security. We give them shelter, we give them three square meals a day, and we carry out training."
Monday’s protest comes a week after ex-combatants at the DDR Center in Buea staged a protest on the streets to denounce their poor living conditions. The ex-fighters said a delegation was sent from the capital, Yaounde, with financial support for the center.
Pan Africanist and peace activist Mwalimu George Ngwane is executive director of the civil society organization AFRICAphonie. He said Cameroon needs to restructure its DDR centers to stem the malaise among former rebels.
"Understand that the ex-fighters are not coming to take up permanent residence at the centers,” he said. “Some of them had skills before they got into conflict. Assess and take an inventory of their various skills and use these various skills to see how you can deploy them. For example, if you know some of them came in as tailors, as seamstresses, as carpenters, as mechanics, improve the skills that they lost while they were in the bush. Lastly there are some that were in schools. See a way of how you can get them back to school."
Samson Websi, instructor of conflict management at the Yaounde-based Higher Institute of Applied Technology and Management, ISTAG, said the government finds itself in a tight situation if it has to give jobs to youths who have taken up weapons against the nation, while those who have been loyal to the state are either unemployed or underemployed.
"If you treat those who first took up arms much better than the other youths who have been in civil life, those who have graduated from schools, they have not had jobs, those who have been searching for jobs without finding, you will find yourself in a tight situation because others will say, ‘For us, too, to be given that type of treatment, we also need to go and take up arms,’" he said.
Websi said some separatists prefer fighting to dropping their weapons because of poor conditions at DDR centers. He said the government should invite conflict resolution experts to examine how to restructure DDR centers as an essential part of the ongoing peace process.
Websi said the 30% unemployment rate in Cameroon is complicating the peace process for the government.
President Paul Biya in December 2018 created a National Committee for Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration of former Boko Haram fighters in the far north and former separatist fighters in northwest and southwest regions.
Cameroon says it has about 400 ex-separatist fighters at the DDR Centers in Buea and Bamenda. There are 260 former Boko Haram fighters at the DDR center in Mora on the northern border with Nigeria.
On Feb. 5, Cameroon said a recruitment drive for troops to fight separatists and terrorists had seen, for the first time, hundreds of former rebels step forward to join. The government said it would recruit some of those qualified ex-fighters, but it did not say how many of the 2,200 former fighters that would include.