Dignitaries from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the United States, the United Nations and the international community, recently gathered at Camp Base, a military base near Kisangani in north-central DRC, to participate in a ceremony marking the graduation of about 750 DRC soldiers trained by the U.S. and the activation of a light infantry battalion that is intended to be a model for future reforms within the Congolese armed forces.
Those trained included members of the newly designated 391st Commando Battalion, supporting medical and engineering personnel and trainers who can bring similar training to other units within the Armed Forces of the DRC (Forces Armées de la République Démocratique du Congo, widely known as FARDC).
The train-and-equip mission, part of a long-term, multi-lateral U.S.-DRC partnership to promote security sector reform in the country, will assist the DRC government in its ongoing efforts to transform the FRDC.
"The U.S. considers the light infantry battalion as an important part of our support for defense sector reform in the DRC," said Samuel C. Laeuchli, U.S. Chargé d'Affaires to the DRC. "As partners, we have supported this training as well as other programs and we will continue to support other efforts in pursuit of our common goals."
During the ceremony, DRC Minister of Defense Charles Mwando Nsimba explained the significance of the training for his country.
"The training of this first battalion has been a source of great pride for the Democratic Republic of Congo," he said. "Our country is exiting a decade of war that seriously challenged our territorial integrity. Thus few can better understand the necessity of a country to have a well-trained and a well-equipped military."
The training is intended to increase the ability of the Congolese army to conduct effective internal security operations as part of the FARDC's rapid reaction plan, help preserve the territorial integrity of the DRC, and develop an army that is accountable to the Congolese people explained DRC Brigadier General Jean-Claude Kifwa, commander of FARDC's 9th Region. This initiative also represents one aspect of a long-term, multiagency, international approach to promote a sustainable peace through the creation of a model unit in the FARDC.
Major John Peter Molengo, commander of the training center at Camp Base shared his perspective on the training program.
"In 2006 our president promised a transformation of the armed forces. I see this as an important step in this transformation."
For him, it was more than just the training of a single battalion though.
"In my mind, the most significant achievement was the training of about 200 trainers who will form the core of our future training initiative. This will ensure that the DRC can continue this program on its own and train other, similarly capable battalions in the years to come," he said.
This training was completed as part of Operation Olympic Chase, a program managed ad executed by U.S. Special Operations Command Africa, a sub-unified command of U.S. Africa Command (U.S. AFRICOM).
The operation began in December 2009 with a 12-week course to prepare commanders, officers, non-commissioned officers and a core group of instructors in the skills necessary to train, manage and lead a light infantry battalion.
Instruction at Camp Base began in February 2010 and included courses in small-unit tactics, communications, medical care and HIV/AIDS prevention and humanitarian de-mining.
For Lieutenant Djo Mahgalu Mukaso, the battalion's S-3 or operations officer, the training made a lot of sense.
"We learned individual tactics then how to work with a team mate, then at squad, platoon, company and finally battalion levels. We learned the proper role of officers and non-commissioned officers. This was completely different from anything we had ever done before. There was a lot of material and it was a challenge remembering everything we learned," he said.
However, for Mukaso, the best part of the training was the time they spent in the field.
"I enjoyed the field exercises at all the different levels. I also really appreciated the land navigation courses," he said. "I'd never really learned how to read a map or follow a compass."
In addition to traditional military training, the battalion received instruction on the respect of human rights, the prevention of sexual and gender-based violence, and the relationship between civilian and military authorities in a democratic society.
Brigadier General Kifwa, commander of FARDC's 9th Region, speaking at the ceremony, said this is indicative of the high expectations for this battalion.
"The Army we're building must obey the laws of the Republic, human rights and international law at all times and in all places," he said.
The training also included an innovative program, in conjunction with the Borlaug Institute, aimed at making the battalion food self-sufficient through the development of sustainable agriculture and aquaculture programs. Under this program soldiers in the battalion learned how to clear and prepare land for agricultural, plant and cultivate various food crops and to raise and care for livestock and fishponds.
Since February 2010, soldiers from the battalion have cleared and planted corn, cassava and vegetable gardens, built two fishponds stocked with more than 40,000 fish and planted native acacia and lucenia trees to be used as a food source for livestock. The goal is for the battalion to be food self-sufficient within two years.
Lieutenant Moussa Munzangu, the battalion's S-4 or logistics officer has seen the difference made by this initiative.
"Because of our farming and fishing, we have enough to eat," he said. "This is not the case with many units in our army."
In all, this training has produced a capable and professional light infantry battalion, supporting elements and trainers that can serve as a basis for larger transformation of the FRDC.
"The This magnificent battalion will set a new mark in this nation's continuing transformation of an army dedicated and committed to professionalism, accountability, sustainability, and meaningful security," said Brigadier General Christopher Haas, commander, U.S. Special Operations Command Africa (U.S. SOCAF).
This initiative is also indicative of the strong U.S. support for security sector development in the DRC according to Cynthia H. Akuetteh, director of the U.S. State Department's Office of Central African Affairs.
"This training represents a very strong cooperation between the DRC and the United States. There still rests a lot of work to be done but a professional military is very important towards stability in the region," she said. "The aspirations of the U.S. are the same as those of the DRC: A military that respects civilian control; a military that respects human rights; a military that protects civilian population; a military that is professional; a military that protects the nation's borders. That is the purpose and that is the agreement we have with the DRC."
In addition to senior DRC officials, and U.S. representatives from the State Department, Department of Defense, U.S. AFRICOM and U.S. SOCAF, guests at the ceremony included representatives from the United Nations Observer Mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo (MONUC), the European Communications Security and Evaluation Agency (EUSEC), and civil society leaders, including members of the religious communities, human rights groups, University of Kisangani authorities, and local and national press.