Rejuvenating efforts to silence the guns

September 2022 marks the fifth year since the African Union (AU) launch of Africa Amnesty Month for the surrender and collection of illegally owned weapons. This anniversary comes as the continent is still marred by human security challenges, chief among them armed conflicts, with no end in sight.

It is, therefore, a moment for the AU’s Peace and Security Council (PSC) – charged with the prevention, management and resolution of conflicts – to reflect on what has and hasn’t worked. It must also set the agenda for the next steps to tackle insecurity on the continent.

Africa Amnesty Month was launched in September 2017 at the AU headquarters, giving the event continental importance. If civilians are persuaded to voluntarily surrender illegal weapons without prosecution, the guns could indeed fall silent to allow peace and development to thrive. This will contribute immensely to the other steps recommended in the 2016 African Union Master Roadmap of Practical Steps to Silence the Guns in Africa by 2020 (Lusaka Master Roadmap 2016).

Africa Amnesty Month was a key, but ambitious, aspect of the silencing the guns initiative. However, achieving this by 2020 was an unrealistic target for a continent notorious for its illicit flow of arms and ammunition, most of which are diverted from government stocks.

Missing the 2020 deadline prompted the AU to reschedule the vision to 2030 (Vision 2030 on Silencing the Guns). Although this new timeframe allows the PSC to reset its goals, this has to be done urgently if the next seven years are to be used well. The council should prioritise three aspects en route to Vision 2030, namely lessons that facilitate better plans, detailed planning and implementation of decisions.

Taking stock

The PSC should first take stock of its own performance in the five years of Africa Amnesty Month. How effective has it been in tackling the nefarious effects of the illicit circulation of arms and ammunition on the continent?

This will enable the AU to explain why illegal arms are still big enablers of incessant armed conflict, organised crime, violent extremism and terrorism in Africa. The reflection will assist in outlining the strengths and weaknesses of the process thus far. Most importantly, it will consolidate, document and demonstrate the achievements of the PSC and AU member states.

The PSC must urgently reset its goals for eliminating weapons if the next seven years are to be used well

If recent events are anything to go by, the AU is starting to be retrospective. The PSC decision to hold this year’s event in Togo rather than at the AU headquarters as usual was a good move, as it helped to publicise the event across the continent. Hence, the attendance by Ambassador Bankole Adeoye, the AU Commissioner of Peace and Security.

This inculcates a sense of ownership of the process in member states and encourages direct involvement of survivors and those affected by illicit arms, thereby offering an opportunity for psychosocial therapy. The Togo event allowed the PSC to relaunch Africa Amnesty Month, giving it new momentum. These two actions symbolise the willingness to eschew previous mistakes.

Actionable steps and success indicators

Events such as those in Togo should be followed by a (re)formulation of actionable steps for the next seven years. The AU, with the Institute of Security Studies, has already undertaken the much-needed development of a monitoring and evaluation framework for the master roadmap.

This tool is essential in documenting progress, setting goals and monitoring their implementation for the next seven years. For instance, one of the indicators of AU member states’ responsiveness in implementing global, continental, regional and national instruments of arms control is how the countries have responded to some instruments.

Africa has been at the forefront of the global debate on arms control. An example is the Bamako Declaration on an African Common Position on the Illicit Proliferation, Circulation and Trafficking of Small Arms and Light Weapons of 2000 (Bamako Declaration). It was lauded as a precursor of the United Nations (UN) Programme of Action on Small Arms and Light Weapons of 2001.

Despite most countries establishing structures for collecting arms, most remain non-functional

As part of implementing this plan of action, governments agreed to improve their small arms laws, import/export controls and stockpile management. Most African countries set up national focal points or commissions to handle small arms control issues such as safe storage of weapons and ammunition, record keeping, voluntary weapons collection and destruction. The establishment of these national structures for collecting arms and ammunition is symbolic of countries’ readiness to implement arms control initiatives, not least the objectives of Africa Amnesty Month. Despite this, most remain non-functional.

In 2005, the UN General Assembly adopted the international tracing instrument on marking and tracing of small arms and light weapons. If fully implemented, the instrument will enable countries to identify and trace illicit arms timeously and reliably. Once the monitoring and evaluation framework becomes operational, it will document the instrument’s implementation.

Without the framework, it is difficult to tell how countries have fared. It is however evident that the security and management of national stockpiles of arms and ammunition still pose a major challenge in East Africa, West Africa and the Sahel; Southern Africa and Central Africa.

Documenting progress

The PSC should transform challenges and lessons drawn from the retrospective review into opportunities and planning for the next seven years. The AU is defining the objectives, benchmarks and key performance indicators through the monitoring framework with which it will measure progress in silencing the guns. The PSC should, therefore, define the seven-year agenda and systematically document achievements made by every member state towards Vision 2030.

Several countries have progressed this year, especially in arms destruction. For instance, destructions took place in Madagascar on 29 April, Uganda on 30 April and Niger on 16 March. These activities should be packaged and disseminated as success stories.

The AU has already undertaken the much-needed development of a monitoring and evaluation framework

The PSC collaborates with, among others, regional economic communities and regional mechanisms in conflict prevention, management and resolution. These bodies already host subregional arms control instruments such as the SADC Firearms Protocol (Southern Africa), Nairobi Protocol (East Africa), ECOWAS Convention (West Africa) and Kinshasa Convention (Central Africa). These regional bodies are adept at arms control and should disseminate their performance indicators and benchmarks for achieving Vision 2030.

All these efforts coalesce towards the AU Agenda 2063: The Africa We Want. By implementing Vision 2030, Africa will also be fulfilling the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development Goals requirements, particularly Target 16.4. This calls on countries to significantly reduce illicit financial and arms flows, strengthen the recovery and return of stolen assets and combat all forms of organised crime.

Finally, as the PSC relaunches its silencing the guns vision, it should not be deterred by the challenges of its first attempt. As Nelson Mandela said: ‘Do not judge me by my successes, judge me by how many times I fell down and got back up again.’ The PSC should keep rising whenever it stumbles. All commitments, big or small, to retrieving guns and ammunition from civilian possession need to be lauded, documented and encouraged, as they equal lives saved.

Image: © UN Photo/Martine Perret

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