Friday, March 23, 2012

D.R. Congo: A Blast From the Past - Mpila Military Munitions Depot Explosion in the Republic of Congo

Source: ISS

A Blast From the Past: Mpila Military Munitions Depot Explosion in the Republic of Congo

Lauren Tracey, Research Consultant, Transnational Threats and International Crime, ISS Pretoria

On the 4th of March 2012 a series of blasts at the Mpila military munitions depot sent shock waves through the capital city of the Republic of Congo, Brazzaville. The disaster took place at three sites: the first, where the munitions depot was located, includes the tank area, which was destroyed at 98 percent; the second area was destroyed at 90 percent and the third area suffered extensive damage. The explosion resulted in the killing of more than 200 people and injured more than 2300, many more are left homeless. The cause of the explosion is suspected to have been an electrical short circuit. Investigations are however still on going.

Brazzaville is a city with approximately 1.3 million inhabitants, and has a number of arms and ammunition depots surrounding it. The Mpila military munitions depot is just one of these depots located in close proximity to the heavily populated area, and resulted in the large number of casualties and widespread destruction of infrastructure, as highlighted above. While the government planned to have the military camp relocated to a place outside of the city, the recent explosion demonstrates that it was simply too little too late. Hospitals battle to treat the large numbers of injured victims, and a mass burial for over 200 deceased victims of the blast was conducted by the government of the Republic of Congo, and the families of the victims. Homes, churches, businesses and government buildings were all flattened during the explosion and the shock waves that followed.

Following a request for assistance from the army and in an attempt to prevent any further explosions of unexploded ordnance (UXO) that were kicked out by the blast and scattered around the area, the Mines Advisory Group (MAG) have responded to the emergency in Brazzaville. MAG is a British non-governmental organization that specialises in the clearance of landmines and other unexploded ordinance. For MAG, speed is of the essence to prevent any further loss of life. Along with the full support of the Congo government, MAG is ensuring that people are made aware of the dangers UXO present if tampered with, and are removing and destroying the deadly items. The rapid assistance and response to the tragedy by MAG is just one example of how various organizations, the international community, and other affected states can help one another prevent explosions like this from occurring.

The suffering and damage caused by these explosions do not only impact on the community socially, but economically as well. The need for countries to realise that it is far easier to avoid disasters like this from occurring, rather than to deal with the extremely high financial costs associated with them afterwards, is paramount to preventing them in future. The technically challenging clean-up costs of UXO that end up littering the streets long after such an explosion, the medical costs of the injured victims coupled with the financial burden of having to rebuild homes and other infrastructure, are all costs many countries cannot afford. In a bid to assist the government of the Republic of Congo, a number of countries and international organisations have come to its aid providing assistance in over-stretched medical facilities, emergency and medical aid and donating food supplies to the victims of the blast.

Since the 2008 follow-up meetings concerning the United Nations Programme of Action to Prevent, Combat and Eradicate the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons in All Its Aspects (UNPoA), countries have been urged to adequately manage their arms and ammunition stockpiles, and dispose of any surplus stock. The recent Brazzaville explosions however, illustrates that there is still more work to be done in the area of stockpile management. African countries like the Republic of Congo continue to face numerous challenges, both financially and technically, in managing their weapons stockpiles. In its 2010 national report on the implementation of the UNPoA, the Congo government identified “capacity-building in stockpile management and weapons destruction” as a priority area for the future. The large number of deaths and injured victims in the recent Brazzaville explosion could have been prevented had the identified priority area been rapidly addressed.

The Brazzaville explosion is unlikely to be an anomaly in Africa, as there are many more inappropriately managed arms and ammunition stockpiles in most African regions. These stockpiles will continue to present major risks to civilian communities if the problems associated with them are not urgently addressed.