UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs
DRC: Interview with Brig-Gen Mahboob, commander of MONUC's Ituri Brigade
BUNIA, 11 Jul 2006 (IRIN) - With general elections due in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), many people hope the voting process will mark a turning point for a country dogged by conflict, poverty and misrule. As commander of the Ituri Brigade of the UN Mission in the DRC, or MONUC, Brig-Gen Mohammad Mahboob of Bangladesh says ensuring the security of the electorate for the 30 July vote is challenging, especially in the northeastern district of Ituri, where various militia groups are still active and continue to attack MONUC, the Congolese army and rural villages as polling day draws nearer. Mahboob spoke to IRIN on 29 June about the security situation, preparations for the elections and the challenges both he and MONUC forces face in Ituri. Below are excerpts:
QUESTION: What is the security situation in Ituri?
ANSWER: The situation is improving greatly. When I first came here two months ago I saw very few people on the streets; now Bunia [the main town in Ituri] is bustling with commercial activity. There have been major operations, which have enabled us to be successful where previous attempts failed.
A recent example was MONUC's success at taking the militia stronghold position of Tche, a mountainous, rocky area where about 2,000 [militiamen] were holed up. The militias fought tooth and nail and a lot were killed. They now have a leadership crisis, which is why they are only operating in small groups just for survival. It has been our landmark achievement in the past six weeks. Also, the DDR [disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration] programme is successful. We had not expected so many people to surrender and outnumber our preparations, so these are all indications that the situation is improving and will be positive for the elections.
Q: What percentage of people in Ituri will be able to vote?
A: The feedback we are receiving from our military observers in the field indicates that 80 percent will participate in the elections if the security situation remains as it is at present. If it improves further, this figure will go up. The militias are also keen to take part and I do not think there will be too much opposition from them as they do not have any political motivation, only economic motivation; they are not as tough as politically motivated militias are supposed to be. They are not going to create any obstacles in the elections, except if there is some outside influence from neighbouring countries. But the will of the people here is so great, so powerful that I do not think those attempts will be successful.
Q: Do you see the influence of neighbouring countries within this area?
A: All these groups are being harboured and armed by outside countries, we are all aware of it, and they have their own economic interests. A lot of smuggling is carried out from here, but I am sure there is outside pressure at the moment from the United Nations, the European Union and the United States, trying to keep them away from the DRC elections, so I do not think they will be able to do much. We are very hopeful for the elections; they are going to take place and will be conducted properly.
Q: Do you see the elections as a form of exit strategy for MONUC and how long can you envisage being in Ituri?
A: I am sure MONUC is not very keen to stay long and none of the [troop] participant countries are keen to stay longer than necessary. We would like to see this country return to its own normal life and have its own government in place, which is not the case now. So, as soon as this takes place and the local levels [of the army] in the remote areas are effective on the ground, I think MONUC can be withdrawn. If it continues in the present context, it should not be more than one-and-a-half or two years.
Q: If, after the elections, some militias near the border continue to operate with foreign backing, what will happen as far is MONUC is concerned?
A: MONUC is bringing all the territories in Ituri district under our control; it is just a matter of time. It was only the dialogue to free the [recently abducted UN] Nepalese who were taken hostage [by militiamen] that is holding us up, otherwise by now we would have cleared out all the militias. We have, along with FARDC [the Congolese army], the capacity to liquidate any kind of resistance within Ituri. If we can clear militias from Tche, we can do it in any part of Ituri, it is not a problem.
Q: It is estimated that about 60 percent of deaths in eastern Congo are attributed to the AK-47 rifle and its easy availability. If there were tighter controls over selling these arms, would your job be easier?
A: Definitely. There is no control over the production and selling of small arms. If there were perhaps an international convention on such weapons, as is the case with anti-personnel mines, it would have controlled the proliferation of these types of militias, not just in Africa but all over the world.
Q: How is the relationship between MONUC and the Congolese army?
A: It is improving every day following the change of FARDC leadership. We now have a professional general in charge in General Mbuayama Nsiona, he is doing his best and the relationship is first class. We are discussing every day the complaints of FARDC activities here and there; and the following day he is telling us what action he is taking. FARDC discipline is improving, taking the background into consideration, such as not receiving their monthly pay, which is a very meagre amount. They used to get [US] $10 per month, now it is $25. They do not have ammunition, boots or clothing and they are not given their daily meal. If the troops do not have their daily meal guaranteed, then what options are available to him? But they are doing an excellent job, they love their motherland.
Q: Does the situation you have just mentioned, for example when the FARDC compares itself with MONUC, not cause conflict?
A: No, MONUC tries to help the FARDC by giving them food, fuel to move their troops and additional fire support. We help them in all spheres wherever we can so all objectives are obtained: MONUC and FARDC together.
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