Reality check: Africa’s bid to silence the guns

If Africa really wants to end violence, states will need to take their own peace project more seriously.

Both the value and the flaw of the African Union’s (AU) Master Roadmap of Practical Steps to Silence the Guns in Africa by the Year 2020 is the breadth of its vision. In offering practical steps for realising the AU’s ambitious plan to end conflict – adopted in 2013 as a flagship project of its wider developmental blueprint Agenda 2063 – the Master Roadmap identifies just about all of Africa’s familiar ills as causes of its endemic violence.

Inequality, poverty, undemocratic behaviour, gross violations of human rights, proliferation of illegal arms, fragility of states, government corruption, illicit financial flows from the continent, uncontrolled exploitation of natural resources, climate change, lack of implementation by AU member states of the many treaties and decisions on these and other issues, the United Nations’ failure to fund more of the AU’s own peacekeeping efforts … etc.

The self-criticism is often sharp and unsparing, including the observation that one of the causes of African conflicts is ‘the failure of liberation movements to transform themselves into dynamic governing political parties able to operate in pluralistic democratic societies’.

The roadmap also berates many member states and the AU itself for persistently ignoring the often glaringly obvious early warning signs of brewing conflict and violence. These usually come in the form of those same violations of democracy and human rights.

The roadmap’s main obstacle is its assumption that conditions for silencing the guns exist in Africa

The roadmap is often pertinent and even radical in the solutions it proposes. Not least it suggests stiffer sanctions against AU members that perpetrate the undemocratic behaviours that provoke violence. But, as Oxfam’s Désiré Assogbavi pointed out in 2017 after the roadmap was adopted by the AU, it was always too generic to be achieved in the three years that remained then.

He proposed that the AU focus on the worst conflicts, setting benchmarks and time frames. It should also identify and address the most volatile potential conflicts. Assogbavi suggested that the AU more formally institutionalise its mechanisms for tougher sanctions against member states for unconstitutional behaviour.

More than two years later, these observations are just as pertinent, while the recommendations remain just as unimplemented. For example, the continuing tolerance of undemocratic behaviour.

It does seem something of an anomaly that it was Equatorial Guinea that introduced a resolution at the UN Security Council in February this year for greater cooperation between the UN and AU in silencing the guns. This is after all a very repressive country – one that perpetrates many of the underlying causes of violence identified in the roadmap. 

The AU is of course only as strong as its member states and since many of them are deeply undemocratic, they are unlikely to reprimand or sanction others for the same flaws. But then it must be acknowledged that that is going to be a major obstacle to silencing the guns.

Many AU states are deeply undemocratic and are unlikely to sanction other states for the same flaws

After just six years of the whole initiative and barely three of the roadmap, it’s no surprise that Africa remains far from silencing all or even most of the guns. Some successes in peace efforts have been registered, such as the Ethiopia-Eritrea peace accord, the Sudan peace deal, the revitalised South Sudan peace deal, the mediations in Madagascar and Central African Republic – although many remain tentative.

However the Uppsala Conflict Data Program, the most comprehensive global monitor of conflicts, shows that despite some fluctuations either way, the 2018 death toll from organised violence in Africa barely changed from that of 2013. It was 15 455  in 2013, jumped steeply to 24 264 in 2014, dropped to 20 515 in 2015, dropped again to 17 416 in 2016, rose to 18 308 in 2017, then dropped to 15 003 in 2018.

Now, as the Institute for Security Studies’ Peace and Security Council Report notes, the AU has just adopted as its 2020 theme ‘Silencing the guns: creating conducive conditions for Africa’s development’.

This seems like a last push to, if not silence, at least lower the decibel levels of the guns by 31 December 2020. (Even if the key phrase ‘by 2020’ has been quietly dropped from the title.) This seems to be a tacit acknowledgement of failure, or perhaps just reality – that the guns will not go quiet next year.

The AU must enforce its own stated values as a start to nipping future conflicts in the bud

The PSC Report believes the project ‘was ambitious from the outset’ and that the roadmap was bound to struggle given its tight deadline. It does conjecture though, that adopting ‘silencing the guns’ as a theme will ‘galvanise stakeholders to take stock of achievements and challenges in implementing the roadmap.’ Also that the AU Peace and Security Council will consider these lessons when developing a more robust action plan for achieving peace – but only beyond 2020.

The report says the roadmap faced operational and institutional obstacles, mainly stemming from its assumption that conditions for silencing the guns now existed in Africa.

Instead, it says, ‘The activities of violent extremists and other insurgent groups in the Sahel and the Lake Chad Basin, violence related to political transitions and the unprecedented level of climate change and natural disaster-induced displacement all pose a threat to states’ ability to keep their citizens safe.’ Indeed the Uppsala data shows the Nigeria-Sahel axis has the highest death rates.

Like Assogbavi, the PSC Report notes member states’ lack of political will to implement AU decisions as a major source of conflict. It also finds the roadmap to be unrealistic in its expectations of AU institutions that aren’t yet fully functional. Equally unrealistic is its proposal that member states and regional economic communities as well as the AU and its organs themselves fund all the ambitious recommendations.

But the report also notes that the AU Peace Fund has secured more funding from member states than ever before. This raises hopes that it can finance the implementation of more peace and security activities. Appointing former AU peace and security commissioner and former Algerian foreign minister Ramtane Lamamra as AU High Representative for Silencing the Guns in Africa has also raised hopes.

In the above-mentioned February UN Security Council debate, African contributors tended to emphasise what outsiders could and should do to help silence the guns. For example, the need for more Security Council support for AU peacekeeping, and noting that the small arms flooding the continent were almost all manufactured abroad.

True enough. But the one thing the AU and its member states have in both their power and their budgets to do, is to enforce the AU’s own stated values of democracy, human rights, respect for the rule of law and good governance. That would be a good place to start in order at least to nip future conflicts in the bud.

Peter Fabricius, ISS Consultant

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