Peace in an age of terrorism: can the AU achieve Vision 2020?

A Solemn Declaration at the 50th anniversary of the African Union (AU) in 2013 outlined the vision to 'end all wars in Africa by 2020'. However, prospects for 'silencing the guns’ are fast eroding. With only five years remaining, no significant progress has been made.

The success of Vision 2020 is also crucial for achieving Agenda 2063 – the AU’s ambitious development plan that seeks to transform Africa into a prosperous, integrated, well-governed and peaceful continent by 2063.

Achieving Vision 2020 depends on Africa’s ability to successfully tackle the root causes of conflicts, putting an end to impunity and eradicating piracy, and also whether it manages to combat extremism, armed rebellions, terrorism, transnational organised crime and cybercrime. The AU is yet to roll out a comprehensive plan with targeted deadlines on how to eliminate these issues at various levels. This raises concerns about how serious the organisation is about accomplishing what many would see as an impossible task.

Terrorism has replaced conventional armed conflict as a major threat to the continent

The recent escalation of terrorist attacks in Africa represents perhaps the most significant impediment to the goal of achieving a conflict-free continent by 2020. Statistics in the past five years show that terrorism is arguably Africa’s most deadly problem, accounting for more fatalities and humanitarian issues than any other type of conflict.

Ongoing ISS research, which involves gathering data on all reported terrorist attacks in Africa between 2010 and 2015, indicates that approximately 30 000 Africans have perished in about 2 000 terrorist acts in 33 African countries during the past five years. Last year saw more than 900 attacks in which approximately 10 000 people died and several thousands were injured, making it the deadliest year of terrorism in Africa’s recent history. Africa’s progress toward achieving the Millennium Development Goals has also suffered a serious setback thanks to terrorism. In areas such as north-eastern Nigeria, Somalia, northern Cameroon, Libya, Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, northern Mali and Garissa in Kenya, regular education for young girls and boys is almost an illusion. At the same time, hunger, malnutrition and poverty continue to rise at alarming rates.

For the past 50 years, continental efforts to promote peace and security have mostly focused on addressing conventional armed conflicts. While this was justified between the 1960s and 1990s, its relevance in an era dominated by terrorism is debatable. That most of the current AU peacekeeping missions are battling various forms of terrorism, proves that terrorism has replaced conventional armed conflict as a major threat to the continent, which requires the pan-African organisation to pay more attention.

The fight against terrorism represents a litmus test for Vision 2020

Previous negligence of the issue, along with the increasing global interconnectedness of criminal and jihadist organisations, have spurred an unprecedented expansion in terrorist networks and their capacity to wage terror against civilians in Africa. Some of these groups – such as Boko Haram, al-Shabaab, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and several Islamic State-affiliated groups in north Africa – have amassed sophisticated weapons and fighting capabilities that sometimes match or exceed those of states. As a result, terrorist groups now control vast territories, which provide sanctuaries and criminal corridors in Africa. In addition, the growing influence of the Islamic State in Africa poses a great challenge to the continent’s ability to stem the current trends in terrorism.

As the security landscape in Africa transitions from conventional armed conflicts to transnational threats, policies must also be adapted. Terrorist groups are constantly evolving, taking full advantage of the latest technology and expanding their networks. The convergence of terrorism and other transnational threats – such as piracy, drug and human trafficking, arms smuggling, and cybercrime – demonstrates how versatile and resilient terrorism has become. Indeed, the fight against terrorism represents a litmus test for Vision 2020.

The AU was never conceived as a counter-terrorism agency. Even in the series of meetings held between 1999 and 2000, where the strategic pillars of the new African Union were defined, counter-terrorism was not high on the agenda. Nonetheless, the continental body has adopted a robust counter-terrorism architecture, with a normative framework. The challenge, however, is that states, regional economic communities and sometimes the AU Commission do not show adequate political will or the resolve to implement this architecture and tackle the underlying political, socio-economic and security drivers of terrorism.

It is the deficit in governance that drives violence in Africa

Last September, the AU Peace and Security Council (PSC) met for the first time at the level of Heads of State and Government, on the issue of terrorism in Africa. The summit, which took place in Nairobi, Kenya, signalled a departure from the usual low profile and casual treatment of the issue. It adopted far-reaching measures that sought to reverse the trends of terrorism and emphasise the imperative of practical implementation.

But 10 months have passed, and there has been little to no progress; nor has there been concrete follow-up from the AU on implementing the PSC’s 10-point recommendations. A series of Vision 2020 workshops and retreats organised by the AU in the past two years have produced innovative and important recommendations for silencing the guns by 2020. Implementing these recommendations, however, remains a major problem. At this pace, it is unlikely that Vision 2020 could be achieved.

The fight against terrorism must be made a priority if Vision 2020 is to be realised. Recent counter-terrorism measures taken by the AU, particularly the authorisation of peacekeeping missions in Mali and Nigeria seem, however, to show an increasing reliance on the use of force in response to terrorism. This approach has had many drawbacks, and counter-terrorism experts such as Anton du Plessis, Managing Director of the Institute for Security Studies, warn that, ‘we won’t silence extremists’ guns by rolling out bigger guns of our own.’ Indeed, as Du Plessis contends, it is the deficit in governance that drives violence in Africa.  

Whether the AU can achieve in seven years what the continent has not been able to achieve in half a century remains a question. The AU should play an important and catalytic role in coordinating and monitoring how states enforce their obligations. It could also champion the cause of the international criminal justice response to terrorism to reduce the current heavy military focus.

Vision 2020 requires an acceleration of counter-terrorism actions instead of rhetoric. In this context, the AU should develop a roadmap or a specific strategy with timelines of tasks that must be accomplished to eliminate terrorism prior to the 2020 deadline.

Martin Ewi, Senior Researcher, Transnational Threats and International Crime Division, ISS Pretoria