Page last updated at 01:14 GMT, Wednesday, 19 November 2008

Taking Sandhurst to the DR Congo

By David Loyn
International Development Correspondent, BBC News

Soldier in training
The training is based on that for officer cadets in the British Army at Sandhurst

The Foreign Office Minister Lord Malloch Brown, who has special responsibility for Africa, has opened an officer training school for the local army in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

"Training g'Gardez! HUH!" The barked commands rang out across the cracked concrete of a military training ground close to the churning roar of the Congo River.

The orders were to call troops on parade for the ceremonial opening of an officer training school, designed to improve conditions in an army with a dreadful reputation for human rights abuses.

Lord Malloch Brown has come on a trip to the Democratic Republic of Congo at a time when there have been demands on Britain to send troops to the east of the country to quell the worsening violence.

Opening the school, he said that that building up the capacity of the local army was a better investment than sending British troops.

"It is what we have been trying to do in Afghanistan and Iraq. It is always the exit strategy of the international community from a failed state, that you need to make sure it can police and defend itself," he said.

'Right solution'

In talks later, President Joseph Kabila asked for more training for his forces, a tacit admission that in the past they have not performed up to international standards.

Lord Malloch Brown said: "The national Congolese army has basically been broken by the attacks of the rebel militias. The peace and security of this country depends on that most basic role of the state which is an adequate army and police system to defend the country and make sure its citizens are safe."

One of the officers in the first intake in the school, Major Placid Mokwamin, said: "It's very good to have training. It can help me to get at the right solution."

He has commanded battalions in the field, although not in the east, where fighting in recent months has displaced tens of thousands of people from their homes.

Soldiers in training
Training includes understanding human rights

Major Mokwamin was defensive about the allegations of human rights abuses attached to his army.

He said: "The media are saying many things about our army. Maybe the situation on the ground is not like that."

The training is based on the training for officer cadets in the British Army at Sandhurst.

One of the officers attached there from Sandhurst, Ian Stuart, said: "It is basically the same training, although it has had to be adapted for local circumstances."

War games

When Lord Malloch Brown went into the classroom, officers were playing war games - imagining responses to situations on the ground.

Another trainer, Ronnie McCourt, said the key to any leadership challenge was understanding human psychology and he was trying to persuade the officers to look at their own failings as they assessed the military scenarios they were given.

He said: "We think we act logically as people, but often in situations when we look back, we try to justify it, but we haven't acted in the way we thought we had. We are bringing the latest in applied psychology and letting people really understand themselves better."

This is heady stuff for an army which has lost a lot of ground to rebel militias in the east, amid claims that it has carried out rapes, and worked to help those who are corruptly stealing Congolese mineral wealth.

The training includes elements that have not been central to the work of the Congolese army recently - such as understanding human rights, respecting the rights of women and peacekeeping.

It even includes English lessons and soldiers in that classroom were confident that one day their army would even be considered for peacekeeping roles abroad.

But for now there is the matter of the conflict in the east to deal with.

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