Sierra Leone this week completed a five-year programme to disarm and rehabilitate more than 70,000 combatants who took part in the country's brutal civil war.
President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah wound up the process by officially disolving the National Committee for Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration (NCDDR) at a ceremony on Tuesday.
Reading his last report, Francis Kaikai, Executive Secretary of the NCDDR, said that after disarming 72,490 fighters and demobilizing 71,043, including 6,845 child soldiers, he was "no longer aware of any illegal armed groups posing a threat to the state of Sierra Leone."
As Sierra Leone leaves conflict behind to concentrate on reconstruction, neighbouring Liberia is about to begin its own disarmament process later this month. Cote d'Ivoire is expected to follow suit later this year, providing the United Nations agrees to deploy a peacekeeping force in the country.
More than 10,000 UN peacekeepers are still deployed in Sierra Leone, but all are due to leave by the end of this year.
However, Brigadier Simon Porter, the new head of Britain's military adviser group in Sierra Leone, suggested last week that this should be replaced by UN observer force to help maintain security along the borders with Liberia and Guinea, both of which remain volatile.
Sierra Leone's civil war started in March 1991 when former army corporal Foday Sankoh led a rebel force into the country from Liberia to begin an insurrection in the border town of Bomaru.
The conflict raged until 30 November 1996 when Sankoh signed a first peace agreement with President Kabbah in Abidjan.
However, subsequent attempts to disarm Sankoh's Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebel movement ended in failure.
On 25 May 1997, the army staged a coup and the military junta which emerged called on the RUF to join it in government. However the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC) led by Johnny Paul Koroma was toppled by a Nigerian-led West African intervention force in February 1998.
The AFRC/RUF coalition fled into the bush, but returned to briefly overun the capital Freetown on 6 January 1999, leaving a trail of gory killings, amputations and arson. This forced Kabbah, who had been restored to power by foreign military intervention to negotiate peace.
A new peace agreement was signed in Lome in July 1999 which led to the setting up of the NCDDR. However, fighting only came to a complete stop in 2001.
Altogether, 6,845 child soldiers and 56,700 other ex-combatants registered for reintegration. This left a shortfall of 8,945 known fighters.
According to Kaikai, these settled for "self reintegration." He explained that some "did not want the stigma of fighting for a rebel group" to be attached to them.
Others who belonged to the pro-Kabbah Civil Defence Force militia movement "were not interested in reintegration because they only fought to defend their villages," he added.
Kaikai said 28,901 former combatants - just over half - were placed in vocational training institutions to learn different trades.
They were given allowances of about US$25 a month for the duration of their training and were then sent back into civilian life with start-up tool kits to help them find work. Carpenters received hammers, saws and chisels, while construction workers were given masonry tools.
A further 12,182 ex-combatants opted for formal education and were placed in schools, colleges and even the local university. Their course fees were paid and they were given a living allowance for between one to three years, depending on when they registered with the programme.
The remaining ex-fighters were found jobs in farming and other activities.
The entire programme, according to the Executive Secretary, cost $36.5 million. Most of the money was provided by a dozen overseas donors.
World Bank representative Eileen Murray pointed out that officials from neighbouring countries and even the Great Lakes region were visiting Sierra Leone because it "is considered as the best practice example throughout the world of a successful disarmament demobilization reintegration programme."
Despite this praise, Alan Doss, the head of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in Sierra Leone, sounded a note of caution.
"The DDR is over, but reintegration and reconciliation must go on under a different banner," Doss said, warning that Sierra Leone still had to deal with the social and economic pressures of high unemployment.
"The ex-combatants have joined another, a larger army of young people who are seeking gainful employment," Doss said, stressing that "this is a real challenge for post-conflict Sierra Leone."
Kaikai said the period during which former fighters could claim special treatment and "privileged status" was now over.
"Ex-combatants must now compete with all other citizens for any assistance or support provided by the government," he said.
The NCDDR secretariat will close its doors on 31 March after an audit and the disposal of its remaining assets.
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions
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