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Congo pins hopes on hi-tech ID cards to tame army

27 September 2007

Congo hopes a new biometric identity card scheme backed by the European Union can help overhaul its undisciplined armed forces, branded by campaigners as the central African state's worst rights abuser.

After decades as a tool of repression under former leader Mobutu Sese Seko and a devastating 1998-2003 war, Democratic Republic of Congo's army is bloated, unmanageable and corrupt.

U.N. officials and activists such as Human Rights Watch accuse the military of rape, looting and extra-judicial killings, particularly in Congo's violence-torn east where rebels still operate near the border with Rwanda and Uganda.

The identity card scheme, relaunched last week after running into problems earlier this year, should allow President Joseph Kabila's government to determine the exact size and whereabouts of its armed forces, a first step towards protecting civilians.

"The only sure way of reducing and eventually stopping these abuses of power is to put the soldiers in barracks, to make them lead a normal military life," Congo's top military commander General Dieudonne Kayembe told Reuters.

"With the improvements that will result from this biometric control, we'll be able to envisage building barracks."

Experts say the faltering attempts to reform the army pose the main risk to stability after elections last year, the former Belgian colony's first democratic polls in more than four decades.

Army morale is poor. Salaries are low and are rarely paid on time, with senior officers often skimming off money or pocketing the wages of phantom soldiers. Estimates put the size of the military at between 100,000 and 160,000 soldiers.

"We are suffering," one soldier told Reuters, asking not to be identified from fear of reprisals. "We make 14,500 Congolese francs ($29 a month). You can't live on that. We have children. And we're still waiting to get paid this month."

EU ADVISERS

Brought in to help turn Congo's army around, military advisers from the European Union faced a daunting task.

"We were told to come up with a way to pay the soldiers," said General Pierre-Michel Joana, head of the EU's security sector assistance programme (EUSEC). "But we quickly realised the entire administration needed to be completely reformed."

With that in mind, Congo launched an ambitious census of its armed forces this year with EU assistance.

Each soldier will be issued with an identity card with a microchip containing a digital fingerprint and information including rank, age, marital status and number of children.

"We don't even have this in the French army," Joana said.

The goals are to establish the size of the army, identify soldiers and locate them so they can be regularly paid.

Not everyone is convinced. Many question whether the army will be able to maintain the identity card readers in working order in far-flung barracks and whether soldiers will lose their cards. Campaigners say deeper reforms are needed to overhaul one of Africa's most brutal armed forces.

"The tradition of the army as a force of internal repression, as it was under Mobutu, has survived," said Francois Grignon, Africa director for the think-tank International Crisis Group. "When you put on a uniform, it gives you a right to do whatever you want ... You need to end this impunity."

For hundreds of soldiers waiting to hand in census forms at an air base in Congo's sprawling capital, Kinshasa, there were more immediate concerns. "We know that with this census we will be paid better. That's why we are here," said one.

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